Transactional Analysis (TA) is a psychological theory, developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s and 1960s, that focuses on communication and relationships. Although Transactional Analysis sounds more like a business or economy term, in fact it is about analysing our transactions with people.
Transaction is an interaction between two or more people. It takes place when I offer some kind of communication to you and you reply to me; Hi – hi back.
Sometimes these transactions are nice and smooth and make our communication effective and satisfactory, and sometimes they’re not, and as such may result in communication breakdowns.
Transactions along with ego states model is the foundation of TA theory.
Ego States; Parent, Adult & Child
Eric Berne came up with an idea that human personality is made up of three ego states, Parent, Adult and Child ego state. Each of the ego states is a system thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Parent ego state is a system of thoughts, feelings and behaviours copied from our parents or parent figure. How do you remember your parents behaviour when you were a child? What were their beliefs about the world, people, life etc. How did they expressed their feelings? How did they respond to stress?
Adult ego state is a system of thoughts, feelings and behaviours which are direct responses to the here-and-now. It is our ability to think and act based on what’s happening in the present moment; between you and I, or between you and the world.
Child ego state is a system of thoughts, feelings and behaviours replayed from childhood. What do you remember about your interactions as a child? What was the main theme; what did you feel, think, how did you act in response to certain interactions? Did you often feel criticized? Did you feel that you needed to prove yourself, or that you couldn’t ever get things right? Did you respond with anger or sadness, or did you shut down?
We can operate from either of these 3 ego states when communicating with others.
When in response to what is happening now, I am behaving, thinking and feeling as I did when I was a child, I am said to be in my Child ego state. When in response to the here and now, I am behaving, thinking and feeling in ways I copied from my Parents, I am said to be in my Parent ego state. And when I am thinking, feeling and behaving in ways which are a direct here-and-now response to what is happening, using all the abilities I have as an adult, I am said to be in my Adult ego state.
According to these concepts, communication breakdowns may happen when we’re not fully present in our conversations. In other words, we’re not in our Adult ego state.
Imagine now your partner says to you: Why do you always misplace the car keys??
Close your eyes and reflect on what you’ve just heard? What feelings have evoked for you as you’ve heard it? Do you feel furious, sad, confused? Do you feel criticized, belittled, patronized, judged? And now, as you sit with your feelings, think of what your response to your partner might be? Do you want to defend yourself? Do you want to rebel and show your partner your middle finger? Do you want to shout at him/her, or do you go quiet and sulk.
I believe, you may get ‘hooked’ and move into your Child ego state. In this case your respond might be; e.g. Darling, I’m really sorry for being always so confused, and misplacing the car keys. I’ll make sure it stops happening, or may angrily say Bugger off, will you?!
Or you may respond from your Parent ego state, and say e.g. Don’t you dare to speak to me this way!
Is it likely that you’re going to resolve the problem by telling your partner to bugger off? Possibly it will turn into a heated confrontation, and as a result you may end up feeling resentful towards your partner. On the other hand being overly remorseful, may leave you feel ashamed or punished, or resentful towards yourself.
However rather than responding in a way that you copy from your parents or relay from your childhood, you may choose to stay present and respond from your Adult ego state. An example of such response might be I don’t like the way you speak to me. I’m not sure where I have left them; let’s have a look together.
What feelings do you imagine you would be left with if you spoke to your partner in such a manner?
If we’re used to responding from our Parent, or Child ego state, in fact at first we may feel quite uncomfortable experimenting with something new. However as we practice, and learn to recognise our ego states and transactions we invite, we can increase our ability to communicate clearly and avoid unproductive ‘pay offs’ (e.g. conflict or negative internal self-talk). As we learn to sustain healthy boundaries (e.g. by expressing our needs or feeling, e.g.: I don’t like the way you speak to me), our conversation may become more emotionally satisfying. By paying attention to different ego states and transactions we can increase our ability to communicate in straightforward and more effective way.