Are you an Adult, a Parent or a Child?



Transactional analysis (TA to its adherents), is an integrative approach to the theory of psychology and psychotherapy. It is described as integrative because it has elements of psychoanalytic, humanist and cognitive approaches. TA was first developed by Canadian-born US psychiatrist Eric Berne, starting in the late 1950s.

At any given time, a person experiences and manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Typically, according to TA, there are three ego-states that people consistently use:

  • Parent ("exteropsyche"): a state in which people behave, feel, and think in response to an unconscious mimicking of how their parents (or other parental figures) acted, or how they interpreted their parent's actions. For example, a person may shout at someone out of frustration because they learned from an influential figure in childhood the lesson that this seemed to be a way of relating that worked.
  • Adult ("neopsyche"): a state of the ego which is most like a computer processing information and making predictions absent of major emotions that could affect its operation. Learning to strengthen the Adult is a goal of TA. While a person is in the Adult ego state, he/she is directed towards an objective appraisal of reality.
  • Child ("archaeopsyche"): a state in which people behave, feel and think similarly to how they did in childhood. For example, a person who receives a poor evaluation at work may respond by looking at the floor, and crying or pouting, as they used to when scolded as a child. Conversely, a person who receives a good evaluation may respond with a broad smile and a joyful gesture of thanks. The Child is the source of emotions, creation, recreation, spontaneity and intimacy.

Berne differentiated his Parent, Adult, and Child ego states from actual adults, parents, and children, by using capital letters when describing them. These ego-states may or may not represent the relationships that they act out. For example, in the workplace, an adult supervisor may take on the Parent role, and scold an adult employee as though they were a Child. Or a child, using their Parent ego-state, could scold their actual parent as though the parent were a Child.

Within each of these ego states are subdivisions. Thus Parental figures are often either more nurturing (permission-giving, security-giving) or more criticizing (comparing to family traditions and ideals in generally negative ways); Childhood behaviors are either more natural (free) or more adapted to others. These subdivisions categorize individuals' patterns of behavior, feelings, and ways of thinking, that can be functional (beneficial or positive) or dysfunctional/counterproductive (negative)..

Berne states that there are four types of diagnosis of ego states. They are: "behavioral" diagnosis, "social" diagnosis, "historical" diagnosis, and "phenomenological" diagnosis. A complete diagnosis would include all four types. It has subsequently been demonstrated that there is a fifth type of diagnosis, namely "contextual", because the same behavior will be diagnosed differently according to the context of the behavior.

Ego-states do not correspond directly to Sigmund Freud's Ego, Superego and Id, although there are obvious parallels: Superego/Parent; Ego/Adult; Id/Child. Ego states are consistent for each person, and (argue TA practitioners) are more observable than the components of Freud's model. In other words, the ego state from which someone is communicating is evident in his or her behavior, manner and expression.

There is no "universal" ego-state. For example, each Child ego state is unique to the childhood experiences, mentality, intellect, and family of each individual; it is not a generalized childlike state.

One ego state can become contaminated from another ego state. For example, when a person mistakes Parental rules and slogans for here-and-now Adult reality (the Adult ego state has become contaminated with the Parent), and when beliefs are taken as facts (the Adult ego state has become contaminated with the Child). Or when a person "knows" that everyone is laughing at him because "they always laughed". This would be an example of a childhood contamination (a Child contamination of the Adult), insofar as here-and-now reality is being overlaid with memories of historic incidents in childhood.

Ego-state symbiosis is also possible according to Berne. In a symbiotic relationship, one participant borrows an ego state from the other participant and incorporates it into their personality. For instance, soldiers may absolve themselves of the question of the morality of their actions by deferring to their superiors. In this case, the soldier has incorporated their superior's Parent ego state into their persona (e.g. Banality of evil).

Although TA theory claims that Ego states do not correspond directly to thinking, feeling, and judging, as these processes are present in every ego state, this claim appears to be self-contradictory to the claim that the Adult is like a computer processing information, therefore not feeling unless it is contaminated by the Child. A deeper understanding of TA is necessary in order to resolve this paradox. For example Berne discusses how each ego state (Parent, Adult and Child) can be perceived to be a further division of Parent-Adult-Child within the ego state itself. Born to Win discusses how one of the goals of TA is to achieve integration of the other ego states into the Adult (an integrated Adult ego state) so that the awareness of the entire persona is elevated to the level the Adult's perception of reality.

Berne suspected that Parent, Adult, and Child ego states might be tied to specific areas of the human brain; an idea that has not been proved.

The three ego state model has been questioned by a TA group in Australia, who have devised a "two ego-state model" as a means of solving perceived theoretical problems:

"The two ego-state model says that there is a Child ego-state and a Parent ego-state, placing the Adult ego-state with the Parent ego-state. How we learn to speak, add up and learn how to think is all just copied from our teachers. Just as our morals and values are copied from our parents. There is no absolute truth where facts exist out side a person's own belief system. Berne mistakenly concluded that there was and thus mistakenly put the Adult ego-state as separate from the Parent ego-state." It is not clear if the concept of a learnt perception of reality is counterindicative to Berne's theory of identifiably separate modes of rational and moral thought, however.

Transactions and Strokes
Transactions are the flow of communication, and more specifically the unspoken psychological flow of communication that runs in parallel. Transactions occur simultaneously at both explicit and psychological levels. Example: sweet caring voice with sarcastic intent. To read the real communication requires both surface and non-verbal reading.

Strokes are the recognition, attention or responsiveness that one person gives another. Strokes can be positive (nicknamed "warm fuzzies") or negative ("cold pricklies"). A key idea is that people hunger for recognition, and that lacking positive strokes, will seek whatever kind they can, even if it is recognition of a negative kind. We test out as children what strategies and behaviours seem to get us strokes, of whatever kind we can get.

People often create pressure in (or experience pressure from) others to communicate in a way that matches their style, so that a boss who talks to his staff as a controlling parent will often engender self-abasement or other childlike responses. Those employees who resist may get removed or labeled as "trouble".

Transactions can be experienced as positive or negative depending on the nature of the strokes within them. However, a negative transaction is preferred to no transaction at all, because of a fundamental hunger for strokes.

Posted by CoParenting

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