Trigger warnings: exploring abuse.
Sometimes the goals just keep moving, always staying that bit ahead of you so that you can never make the grade. No matter how hard you try, how good you are, how well you do the things you were told to do, the goal shifts with you and you never reach it.
I think back to playground games, and the desperate, uncool kid I was, trying to be good enough. It doesn’t matter how often you’re useful in that context, how often you let them do the things they want to do, you never earn a place as a cool kid. There are plenty of adults still playing this game, in workplaces, in families, in social groups. Hurt yourself for our amusement and there may be a place for you. Now demean yourself for us. Now grovel.
At least with the moving goalpost game you can see the goal, and you can watch it move, and sooner or later you can spot this and recognise it for what it is. The unwinnable game is just that, the only way to win it is to quit, and that’s a simple enough lesson to learn. Anyone trapped into playing it stands a chance of getting themselves out again.
The invisible hoop game is much, much worse. I guess there’s nothing really wrong with situations that ask us to jump through hoops – that’s the school system in a nutshell. It’s part of how employment works. Do the things, get the rewards. Sticks and carrots all the way. However, the invisible hoop game doesn’t let you know what you have to do. There will be hoops, and you are expected to jump through them, but with no information as to where those hoops are or what they require.
Generally speaking, a person in an invisible hoop game will find out what the score is only when they have failed to jump through a hoop. They have failed to magically know what was wanted of them. They were not psychic, they did not predict the future. They will be punished for having failed to jump through the right hoop at the right moment.
This happens a lot in abusive relationships. Of course you were supposed to know that today they wanted to sleep in/get up an hour early/have breakfast bought to them in bed. It is your fault for not packing the thing they wanted, not ordering the thing they’d run out of, not mending the thing you did not know was broken. You are too noisy, too quiet, too sociable, too morose, too happy, too sad. You are making them feel something you weren’t supposed to make them feel. And now they are angry. For some people (more often than not, it happens to women) this is where the physical violence starts. You didn’t jump through the invisible hoop, and that makes it ok to hurt you. Or it may be that you are shouted at, told off, humiliated or ridiculed instead.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the physical consequences. The psychological consequences run much deeper. For some people, this will be a whole life issue as a consequence of childhood abuse. Some of us are trained to it later. If you have played the invisible hoop game, you can never entirely relax. You’ll always be looking for the invisible hoops. In all situations, with everyone, a part of your mind is watching out for clues that there’s a hoop with your name on it. A part of your mind is watching for the danger signs that you didn’t jump when you should have done. Underneath all of this, lingers the suspicion that any decent, normal person would be able to see these hoops and jump through them. You can’t, and you think that’s because you are crap, careless and not willing to try hard enough. Rather than running away, you blame yourself, and try harder.
Time in safe spaces can reduce the fear. It can get easier not to be looking for hoops all the time. I don’t know if it ever entirely goes away.