Mind Games

Mind Games

I was out to dinner with a friend the other night. The conversation was taking several pleasant rabbit trails, sushing through a myriad of topics professional, philosophical and personal. In the midst of the thises, thats and others, I heard something that really caught me off guard and I found slightly offensive.

“I actually enjoy mind-games.”

Sadly, the voice behind the statement was my own.

Why would I say such a thing? Did I just announce that I actually like to try and get inside people’s heads and see what I can make happen? Was this a confession that manipulation is a weapon I wield proudly and without apology?

Why would I say such a thing? Did I just announce that I actually like to try and get inside people’s heads and see what I can make happen? Was this a confession that manipulation is a weapon I wield proudly and without apology?

Case in point: I do “play mind games.” I’m convinced we all play them to some degree or another. I’ve even discovered I can be pretty good at them. The come in both defensive (protecting myself) and altruistic (helping others) varieties. I try and stay a step ahead of my detractors in churches, online and sometimes randomly in the community. I try to anticipate questions of people who are hurting so I can help them ask things they may not be comfortable asking themselves. Let’s not even go down the road of what we do as parents in the name of nurture, care, instruction and just – getting – one – more – moment – of – quiet.

The “games” have many shapes and forms. Some of the more notable: focus on an idea until a person believes it’s their own, start something and do it just poorly enough your perfectionist partner/friend/coworker will finally be motivated to take over, and, one I’ve had used against me ad nauseam, ask questions you already know the answer to – just to see what happens.

Not all forms of mind games are negative. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be summed up as a process of reshaping the destructive self-talk that those of us facing other mind-games like PTSD and major depression all too often allow to dominate our inner narrative. Even something as simple as a compliment could be considered “gamey”, though the outcome may be that the recipient walks away more confident and affirmed. (Note: not all compliments accomplish this or are even appropriate – those may be even more game-like than a genuine offering.)

Like so many personal skills and strengths, our ability to speak to the mind of a matter is only as good as our intent and actions. If we use these tactics and talents to “keep the upper hand” in a friendship, it’s likely we’ve crossed a dark line toward control and manipulation. Perhaps a good indicator we are on the wrong side of the line is when we see ourselves using our powers of observation and communication simply for our own gain or pleasure.  

Another tool to keep these wyles in check is to use them on ourselves.

Ask a simple question: is the equation of what is going on in our heads and what is emanating from us to other people fairly balanced? Not equal – that’s what our social filters are for – but also not at all contradictory.  Are the thoughts we share fully formed and ready to share. Are we being open and honest when asked for our thoughts, opinions, and feelings: even if that leaves us more vulnerable than we would like or involves sharing something we believe someone may not want to hear. This is authenticity in its raw form and in order to achieve it, we often have to play certain mind games with ourselves.

Each side of these has a polar objective. On the one hand, my aim might be to not allow someone I don’t trust to gain an advantage over me. On the other, I am seeking to lend my full advantage to someone I care about in some capacity. The first employs and is based on fear and manipulation while the second is more concerned with compassion, empathy, and encouragement.

What is the most masterful move for a mindgamer? Stop playing the games completely.

Ironically, my friends – people I choose to allow into my closest circles – are people that I neither need to protect myself from or people I need to aid, at least not on a consistent basis. What ideally makes our friendships immune to the mind games we might otherwise play is that they are not based on fear or manipulation and don’t rely solely on compassion or encouragement – experiences which can be here and gone in the flash of an eye. I would like to believe that friendships built on notions such as respect, trust, and unconditional love and acceptance will find less and less space or need for the games people play.

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