What is Transactional Analysis?
One of the theories I use most in my coaching is transactional analysis. It was first developed in the 1950’s by Eric Berne, and is now extensively used in coaching, psychotherapy, education and organizational change.
Transactional analysis (TA) is a practical theory of personality, communication and systems. It provides us with concepts to understand who we are and how to change our patterns of behaviour. The goal of transactional analysis is to increase awareness, spontaneity and the capacity for relationship.
In coaching clients usually come because their patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour don’t work anymore in their current situation. The great thing about transactional analysis is that every concept represents a pattern.
The structure of personality: ego states
One of the key concepts I’d like to focus on today is ego states. An ego state is a set of related behaviours, thoughts and feelings. The structure of our personality consists of three ego states that are still active in us today: Parent, Adult and Child.
The Parent ego state contains thoughts, feelings and associated behaviour that are copied from your real parent figures. For instance the norms and values you have incorporated about how to greet a new person in a group, using the polite form of speech with everyone.
The Adult ego state contains the thoughts, feelings and associated behaviours that are fitting for your competencies in the here and now. For instance you may have learned from your parents that you should always say “thee ”, but today you choose to greet with “you”.
The Child ego state contains thoughts, feelings and associated behaviours that you have learned in early childhood. For instance you were the youngest in the family, so you learned that when new people were introduced you were always the last to greet them. This still influences you now outside of consciousness, because you always wait till everyone has greeted each other before you speak.
Why is knowing about ego states helpful?
Knowing about ego states is really helpful because you understand that when you are talking to someone, you are actually in conversation with three different ego states. This helps to explain why people aren’t always predictable.
The way it helps me as coach is that I understand that when people are stuck, it’s probably because they are overusing one of their archaic ego states, Parent or Child. To check I look closely at their behaviour.
Functional ego states describe our behaviour
Within TA we say we manifest our personality through five ego states: Nurturing Parent, Controlling or Critical Parent, Adult and Adapted or Rebellious Child and Free Child.
Showing positive ego states in our behaviour
You can think of the ego states as an archive cabinet, with three drawers. The top drawer contains the Parent patterns . You show positive Parent behaviour mostly through the ways you maintain boundaries, direct and through the ways you nurture.
The middle drawer is the Adult, which contains all your thinking, feeling and behaviour appropriate to your age. You show Adult behaviour mostly through your competence in dealing with here and now situations.
The bottom drawer contains all the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour you learned to survive your childhood. You show positive Child behaviours mostly through the ways you adapt, rebel or play when necessary. For instance you can adapt positively to looking left and right before you cross the road.
Getting stuck in negative ego state behaviours
If your drawers are stuck, you may start overusing behaviours from the negative functional Parent or Child ego states.
Even though each drawer contains millions of possible patterns, we tend to choose the patterns that were rewarded from an early age. You choose the same file folders in the drawers over and over again, as it were, even though they are not necessarily appropriate to the here and now situation
When you are overusing the negative Critical Parent you may find yourself giving direction to people who don’t need or haven’t asked for it. Or you may tell people constantly what they are doing wrong and forget to praise to praise them for what they’re doing right.
When you are overusing the negative Nurturing Parent, you may find yourself offering help people who are perfectly capable of doing things themselves. Or you may be overprotecting people who just need to be able to experiment and learn in a safe enough environment.
When you are overusing negative Adapted Child behaviours, you may find yourself saying yes to things you actually don’t agree with at all. The negative Rebellious Child does exactly the opposite and says NO to everything on principle, and starts getting vindictive if they think they don’t get enough attention.
Freeing yourself up
The Adult and Free Child are the ego states that can bring you back to positive behaviours.
The Free Child is the unspoilt Inner or Golden Child. It is the part of us which is free from negative Parent or negative Child influences. The Free Child will help you get in touch with your needs in a spontaneous way.
The Adult can help you get in touch with what’s really going on in the here and now. Once you realize that the situation now may be different from what you expected or perceived from your Parent or Child ego states, you have a choice.
A choice is always from a position of options. The Adult can help you choose the option which fits best, using the information from Free Child, and will get your needs met in a direct way.