Eric Berne:
Awareness, Spontaneity & Intimacy


Berne proposes that many of our social transactions are what he terms ‘games’: ‘social action based on ulterior transactions’. Games are often used as ways to maintain the status quo – a way of doing something or going somewhere without really doing anything, or going anywhere: motion masking stasis. In this sense, part of their use is as a way to structure time.43

We can see an example of this in a game Berne calls ‘If It Weren’t For You’. This is a game played between spouses, in which a woman marries a domineering man so that he will restrict her activities and thus keep her from getting into situations which frighten her44. Ostensively she resents the restrictions he places upon her freedom, but unconsciously she fears this freedom and appreciates the familiar comfort of his parental prohibitions. The game may become a familiar dance-routine of arguments and conciliations, and can even give birth to secondary games such as ‘If It Weren’t For Him’, in which the woman voices her frustrations about her husband to her friends.

If we see ‘If It Weren’t For You’ as essentially about transcendence, then its remit needn’t be restricted to the husband-wife scenario. We play IWFY in order to prevent a phobic situation occurring – to prevent transcendence – whilst masking our fear of this situation, even to ourselves. Our reluctance to change is projected onto an outside object, which then becomes the stumbling block preventing our path to transcendence, keeping us imminent. Whilst masking our fears, the game has the added benefit of helping us to structure time; it facilitates a never-ending story in which the hero is forever adventuring, putting us rodent-like on a wheel that spins and goes nowhere.

Berne describes the point beyond games – an idealised point – as the attainment of ‘autonomy’ (again, we see similarities with ideas that we’ve already touched upon; in particular Fromm’s idea of maturity, as autonomy from the parents; and Winnicott’s creative living, the ability to create our own worlds) Autonomy is manifested by the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy.

Awareness is the ability to see the world in your own way, a seeing-through of second-hand categories; “the capacity to see a coffeepot and hear the birds sing in one’s own way, and not the way one was taught.” Like Fromm, Berne uses young children as exemplars of awareness: “A little boy sees and hears birds with delight. Then the ‘good’ father comes along and feels he should ‘share’ the experience and help his son ‘develop’. He says: ‘That’s a jay, and this is a sparrow.’ The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.”45

Spontaneity is described by Berne as the “liberation from the compulsion to play games and have only the feelings one was taught to have.” It arises from awareness, as a mindful expression of the true self. From awareness and spontaneity comes intimacy, the naked candidness of game-free communication. Intimacy is, for Berne, the most honest form of contact between individuals.

So whilst games may be unavoidable, it is preferable to not be caught within them, to be able to abandon them at will. To be stuck within our games is to abdicate autonomy, to be guided by unconscious motivations and forces.

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