Home/Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Recognizing Symbiotic Patterns In Later Life – Part 2 of 2

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Recognizing Symbiotic Patterns In Later Life – Part 2 of 2

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I’m the director of two businesses. One is called the Intact Academy where I train coaches and consultants from absolute beginners to supervisor level. The other business is Team Agility where I help businesses innovate their business more quickly than their products. 

Now what we’re talking about here is transactional analysis and transactional analysis is a tool I use very often to help leaders grow and to help coach and consultants learn their craft. 

We talked about contracting, ego states, transactions, the five ways people keep their own story going so they don’t solve problems in reality. I already explained a little bit about what symbiosis is, now we’re going to talk about two levels of symbiosis and types of symbiosis. This is important to know and to recognize because depending on the type of symbiosis, you have a different way of dealing with it. 


  • First Order Symbiosis


Symbiosis is when we have one person who’s acting like a Parent or Adult and the other person is taking on the Child ego state. As a whole, these two people who have three ego states each, actually pretend they have three ego states between them. They’re bound together because they’re propping each other up. One person is keeping the boundaries and the values of Parent ego state and the thinking of the Adult ego state. And the other person is translating and holds all the needs and emotions in that relationship. That can be functional, as I said before, but it can also be dysfunctional if it’s based on a discount of your own capacity or the other person’s capacity. 

We call that a first order symbiosis.


  • Second Order Symbiosis


In a second order symbiosis you see the scenario above, but underneath what’s actually going on is that the person connected with the Child ego state on the surface, is actually also propping up the other person. 

I saw a documentary on one hundred years of Barbie Doll, showing little girls taking care of their Barbie doll in a really childlike “parenting”, very exaggerated way. They take care of that Barbie doll as if it was a second order symbiosis. Of course, boys do it, too. 

In second order symbiosis you see this dependency at the surface, but usually that’s propped up with a symbiosis at a psychological level. The person who seems dependent takes care of the other person’s needs. A  lot of marriages and relationships are based on that. That’s OK for a little while when the other person is really in need, but when you do that all the time, you’re stopping each other and the relationship from developing. 


  • Later life symbiotic relationships


Later in life you might repeat this first experience of dependency, if you haven’t resolved what you missed or aren’t ready to take responsibility for your own needs completely. We recognize three types of symbiotic relationships in later life. 

    1. Basic symbiosis. Where you see the Parent or Adult in one person and the Child in the other complement each other. 

  1. Parent competitive symbiosis. Both bicker all the time, and tries to get the other person to adapt., Both are discounting needs or feelings. And both are competitive : “I know better than you.”

  1. Child competitive symbiosis. For instance, in relationships : “I’m sick.” “No, I’m sicker.” Where they both need the chicken soup at the same time. As soon as one of them expresses the need to be taken care of, the other person goes says they’re incapacitated too.


Symbiosis is easy to recognize in relationships, but it also happens in organizations between leaders and employees. The basic form of symbiosis is when a leader takes on the thinking and strategizing for their team and they push their employees into a position of being the ones who are dependent. In an Adult to Adult leadership- employee relationship you see much more problem solving that’s shared. Hierarchically, in the structure of the organization, you may be in a higher position, but at a human level in the relationship, you do not have to be the one who solves problems all the time. 


Published On: December 4th, 2019By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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