Buckets, Dippers, and Games People Play



Part of my fun is synthesizing theories and ideas. Long ago, I wrote about the synthesis of Rational Emotive Therapy, by Albert Ellis and Transactional Analysis. My mind is always exploring the connectivity of opposites and I look always for how ideas meld together to bring us to a better place, a higher level of understanding. Today, I want to combine and coordinate Transactional Analysis and Strengths theories. This is fun to reach for some sort of synthesis, so I invite you to hang in and go on an exploratory journey of ideas.


Specifically, I refer to the book, How Full Is Your Bucket?, by Tom Rath and his grandfather, Donald O. Clifton.   I remember hearing Don Clifton tell about the dipper and the bucket many times. He said that every one of us has an invisible bucket that holds our positive emotions. He further said we all have an invisible dipper, which is used to “dip” from others buckets in an attempt to fill our own. Bucket dipping is criticism, blame, fault-finding, and other put-downs of self or others. Our positive emotions are like the fuel that runs a car. They are the energy (fuel) on which our whole being depends to move up the spiral of growth.


Before I synthesize HFIYB with TA, I want to mention Presencing and Theory U , two other books with theories that I find useful. I have noticed a positive outcome when my bucket is full. In that positive mood, I experience three qualities of Presence: 1) an Open Mind; 2) an Open Heart; and 3) an Open Will. I have deep appreciation of authors Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Katrin Kaufman, Joe Jawarski.   The Society for Organizational Learning is an organization I admire. Theory U introduces the power of emotions and “flow” to our decision-making and group interaction. My “bucket” fills faster and easier when I make myself ready to receive by opening my mind, heart, and will (choice making).



I have come to believe negative emotion is a signal that we are out of balance and just possibly in danger, mentally and/or physically. We are off the path of our Strengths development and the warning signal is the negative feeling. Don Clifton never really said where negative emotions were stored but I think they are stored in the cells of our body. The body is our carrier of negative emotion and just as positive emotion energizes us, so it is that negative emotions drain us. The negative emotion is telling us something is wrong and it is affecting our physical wellbeing. I call it our EGS, or Emotional Guidance System. Like a dashboard light, a negative emotion says “Watch Out!” “Pay Attention!” “Danger!” — just as a fever signals us that our body is out of balance.


Bucket dipping is done from negativity. Criticism, blame, fault-finding, cynicism, sarcasm, attack, and condemnation are forms of bucket dipping—all negative. When we are dipping from buckets—our own or others, we cannot reach Open Mind, Open Heart, or Open Will. We are more likely to fill someone’s bucket when we have an open thought system, when we have an aware open heart and when we make choices from a place of open will.


I suggest that all of our negative reactions are a sure sign that we are engaging in Psychological Game Playing. Whenever we experience negative emotions, the odds are that we are playing psychological games. Bucket dipping is an experience of Game playing, leaving the players in a state of negative emotion. There is no way we can be ourselves in our entelechy (our true Self) when we are bucket-dipping. When we get our dippers into someone else’s bucket (or our own), we are deeply engrossed in a psychological game. The outcome will be negative or stuck as it is in games people play.


There are three roles in this kind of bucket dipping or game playing. The roles are Rescuer, Persecutor, or Victim. This information is from a theory I used in my early days of becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. The Theory is Transactional Analysis, developed by Eric Berne, MD, who wrote the book, Games People Play.


Rescuers are Fixers. The well-meaning intention is to help someone but it is done from the neurotic and controlling Nurturing Parent Ego State. The result is Games, such as WDYYB (Why don’t you, Yes But), AAIDFY (After All I’ve done for You), IOTTHY (I’m Only Trying To Help You) and other games played by martyrs. My tongue-in-cheek organization, Rescuers Anonymous, might be just the thing if you are caught in these games. It is a pseudo 12-step program, designed to help those of us addicted to Rescuing.


Part of my growth as a therapist involved identifying my games. My favorite game role is capital R Rescuer. My stated intention is to be a “little h” helper, but I can get caught up in Rescuing, making me popular with Victims, who are hoping to be rescued. The criteria I use to know whether or not I am in a game are 1) Did they really ask me to do this or am I imposing my “good works” without an invitation; 2) Is the balance 50-50 in this relationship or is it out of balance with me doing most of the work: 3) Do I really want to do this or am I responding to old internal “oughts” or “shoulds”?   These are hard, soul-searching questions aimed at discovery of my unconscious intentions. If there is the slightest amount of score-keeping, then, for sure, I have played a game.


Persecutors are Critics. They really believe that it helps to tell people what they have done wrong, to scold, to punish, and to always be vigilant for mistakes and wrong-doing. Blemish, AIA (Ain’t It Awful?), IIWFY (If It Weren’t For You), NIGGYYSOB (Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch) are Persecutor games. Both Persecutors and Rescuers need Victims. Therefore, Victim is the desirable role since you can always find someone to put you down or someone to lift you up. Either way, you don’t have to be responsible for your own thoughts-feelings-behavior.


Victim games are played from helplessness or haplessness. Poor Me, Kick Me, Schlemiel (I’m such a klutz), Stupid, Wooden Leg (I have this flaw). Victims are irresponsible and they have many good reasons for not succeeding. The general notion is that they believe they will always be this way (depressed, failing, hapless, hopeless, helpless) and they argue for their limitations.


All three roles, R-P-V, are a style of bucket dipping. They take away good feelings and leave others with the dilemma of a) Rescuing-wanting to help but being made helpless; b) Persecuting-wanting to command but being made the Controller, and c) Victimizing-wanting power but fearful of claiming it.


We play games because we want to interact, to relate to others. We are actually meant to be in relationships with one another, but we cannot be open, trusting, honest, and self-revealing. These fears lead us down the path of trying to control (persecutor or rescuer); feeling we are being controlled and must comply (victim); or the alternative of quitting the relationship—giving up.


The path of healthy relationships is real, based in ownership of feelings by all parties. The rule of thumb to end the games is: Let the Feelings belong to the Feeler. We will have no need to persecute, rescue, or victimize when we declare “I and I alone, own my beliefs-thoughts-feelings-behavior.”   That is the good news.  It is also the bad news.   You cannot own someone else’s beliefs-thoughts-feelings-behavior. AND, you cannot blame or entrust your beliefs-thoughts-feelings-behavior to anyone else.


When we don’t play these games, we can reach out in friendships. We can trust, risk intimacy, and be authentic with each other. This is the height of learning to love one another!


In addition to my concoction of Rescuers’ Anonymous, I devised an understanding of us humans in a metaphor of bees with human qualities.


This a little bit like the Gallup version of Balconies and Basements, a splendid tool for understanding all 34 Strengths. I think the Basement version is a description of my Strength trying to show up and not knowing how to do that. E.g. my Maximizer Strength is one of my best talents—I am always moving things towards excellence. That is from the balcony, however, the basement of my Maximizer is likely to show up as a perfectionist. What gives me my best help is to realize when I get into perfectionism, I am trying to find a path to excellence and that is actually possible without the strain of having to be perfect. In other words, I can make mistakes and still be on the balcony.


So these 4 types of Bees are my metaphor for generally understanding people when they are operating from the basement. They can learn more skills and knowledge and shift into a balcony viewpoint and action from the true self, which is the Strengths Self. Basement functions are fear-based. Balcony functions are love-in-action.


One more theory from Transactional Analysis. Thomas A. Harris wrote the book, I’m OK, You’re OK. He gave us the “OK Corral” with four quadrants. In the upper right quadrant was the I’m OK-You’re OK group. Upper left were the depressed people, I’m Not OK-You’re OK. Lower left was I’m Not OK-You’re Not OK; and lower right was I’m OK, You’re Not OK group. I created the bees from that. Later, I realized that my version of the I’m OK-You’re OK quadrant was actually my style of work till you burn out, therefore it was also a neurotic group. So I took away anything positive from the OK corral and came up with 4 quadrants of Not OK people. That meant I had two distinct Victim quadrants. And one each for Rescuer and Persecutor.




























FEAR-Based Psychological Game Players


  1. Worker Bees: “Let me help you.”

Martyr, long-suffering




Edgy, grim

Rescuer                                 Game Role: Rescuer


2.   Drone Bees: “I need help.”

Depressed, Discouraged, Despairing, Doubtful


Whining, Worried


Sad                                        Game Role: Victim


3. Bumble Bees: “I am so confused, you can’t help me.”




Zoned Out


Sulks                                     Game Role: Victim


4. Killer Bees: “You are all wrong.”

Stinging, critical


Angry, judgmental

Nags, blames, shames

Kills, hostile

Suspicious                             Game Role: Persecutor



­­­­­­­­­­ LOVE-Based—no games


  1. Authentic helpers (like the Scarecrow—has a brain)








II. Action Takers  (like “Toto”— unconditionally loving )






III. Creators (not reactors, like the Tin Man—has a heart)






IV.   Selfless Servants (like the cowardly Lion—finds courage)













One thought on “Buckets, Dippers, and Games People Play

  1. nancy schwartz says:

    Marj, how uplifting to read this! Miss you– would love to catch up sometime.
    Be well- love, nancy

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