Transactional Analysis is the psychological assessment of communication and the ego states associated with the way someone communicates in each situation. It’s great to have basic understanding of these principles for a number of reasons.
With the use of TA and through understanding your behaviours, you can manipulate a conversation or discussion in your favour, by using the ego state corresponding to the one being used by the other or by using the ego state corresponding to your objective. You can understand your own behaviours and get yourself to the most opportune ego state for the situation. You can understand yourself and resolve your “favourite bad feeling”.
This theory by Eric Berne looks at “Parent”, “Child”, and “Adult” ego states (internal parts), which remain active in all humans regardless of age. Berne believed that through identifying which ego-state one uses in a given situation, and by then using another state you can change the course of an interaction.
Also, psychological problems can be indicative if one of the states are overly or unnecessarily used in normal conversation.
The three ego-states Berne’s describes are the Parent, the Adult, and the Child.
The Parent state refers to the unconsciously incorporated parental (or other authority-based) feelings and positions. The Parent state copies how you were parented or guided in childhood and often upholds the guidelines that were set then, with learned behaviours. This Parent state can be Critical or Nurturing.
The Adult state refers to here-and-now, the current reality with rational and logical thought processes. The Adult can be assertive and practical but is rarely aggressive. Steady speech, good verbalization and relaxed attitude will often indicate the presence of the Adult part.
The Child state is natural and sometimes adaptive or rebellious, exhibiting natural instinctual drives and basic needs, including extreme happiness or anger, feeling as if things are “unfair”, being in need of extra interaction to console, and exaggerated emotions in comparison to ‘normal’ adult behaviour.
The Child ego-state is considered to be what one “feels” naturally inclined to do or behave in the Natural or Free Child. If the Child ego state responds to Parent demands in a Compliant or Rebellious way, then we talk about the two forms of the Adaptive Child.
LEVELS OF PROBLEM SOLVING
When we feel stuck or stressed, we can get lost in problems. We call this problem oriented. Often you are so focused on the problem at hand, that it’s difficult to see your way out. You cannot see the forest for the trees. When you get yourself out of the limited focus into the here and now, into your Adult self, you move into a situation oriented problem solving so you can assess the different points of view and objectives. If you take an even wider point of view, you will see the underlying support structures and you can work on the “how”: you become solutions oriented. Next step up is the “what”: you start to work goal oriented.
If you’re an engineer who has to make a road from A to B, through a swamp, over a river and across a mountain pass, you know that each of these problems are simply challenges for which there are solutions. The goal of connecting A to B is clear, the rest is work. When you orient yourself to the bigger goal, problems become puzzles to resolve.
ANALYSIS OF TRANSACTIONS
When we use the ego states to analyse transactions – the interactions between two people – they can be mapped out like this:
Example: A friend shouts grumpily, “I’m hungry!” from their Child ego state and invites me to a Child-like reaction like: “Me too! Let’s quickly find some snacks!” or a Parent-like reaction like: “Come on now, don’t be childish, we can eat after this”.
Both reactions are called complimentary transactions.
If I decide to answer from my Adult ego state, I will cross their Child state and appeal to my friend’s Adult state instead: “Ok, so where would you like to go to get something to eat?” With this question I invite my hungry friend to decide what they want to do, putting them back in their autonomy and accountability for their own state. This is called a crossed transaction. When you answer from your Adult state, this often works great to get the other person back in their Adult state as well.
A crossed transaction in the opposite direction though may lead to a breakdown in communication, sometimes followed by conflict. For example, your spouse in their Adult state may appeal to your Adult, asking “Have you seen my coat?” But your Child ego state may instead respond to the Parent in your spouse by replying angrily: “You always blame me for everything!” Or your Parent state may respond to your spouse’s Child state by replying in a condescending tone: “How many times do I have to tell you to pay attention to where you leave your belongings?”
Just by knowing about ego states, you can change yourself. For example, if you notice that you are thinking and feeling like a child (anxious, helpless, sad, angry, etc.), you might opt for a new decision. For example with this question: “How would I react, if I had access to my Adult ego state?” You can then decide to act on this. This will bring you closer to the ultimate goal of Transactional Analysis: autonomy.
A script can be described as an unconscious life plan or as a life plan that you unconsciously created. If it remains unconscious, you may be aiming for a negative, neutral or positive final payoff. You can understand the term final payoff in the sense of how your life will run and what it will feel like when you do a recap.
The Transactional Analysis life script arises in the childhood of a human being. In that period we develop our basic views of the world and the foundation of our adult life. We make our earliest decisions when we can not even speak yet, solely on our experiences and associated feelings. We create our script at a young age as a survival strategy. We need it as a child to structure and deal with our experiences, time, space, relationships, and boundaries to survive in the environment we find ourselves in.
A person with a winning life script achieves his/her goal and feels good about it. A person wanting to become wealthy, has a winning script when they have a lot of money and can enjoy life. But a winner can also be a non-possessing traveller – as long as it feels like happiness to them. Winning in Transactional Analysis implies personal success to your own standards.
A person with a non-winning script neither makes much progress nor much of a loss. These people take no risks. Maybe such people ask themselves this question at the end of their lives: “Could I have done more with my life? Well … it was not that bad. “
Someone has a losing script when they don’t reach their goals. It does not necessarily depend on the performance, but on the comfort or attitude towards what has been reached throughout their life. If a person wanting to become rich stays poor, they feel they have failed. Or somebody who became rich but suffers from the wealth, maybe in the form of never having enough money despite all the millions, or at the cost of extreme loneliness and addictions.
As a child, each of us wrote our life script with a pencil. Most people do not know yet they have an eraser and that they still have the pen. Feel free to erase and rewrite your script. What should the third, fourth and last act look like?
The life positions in the script theory consist of “You” and “I” and of “OK” and “Not OK” which result in four (preferred) life positions, or – somewhat less extreme – four ego state positions.
Example: Mary arrives at a seminar. Some other attendees are already in the room. Her first thoughts may vary according to the four basic life positions she may have.
- “I’m curious about what this group will bring to the table.” (+/+)
- “Weird people sitting in the room.” (+/-)
- “They are all more qualified than I am.” (-/+)
- “This won’t turn out good for any of us.” (-/-) (a massive feeling of desperation will spread)
The first + or – stands for your own basic position, the second sign stands for the other person, or “the group”.
Our own basic position usually stems from the “Injunctions”, the unspoken pre-verbal beliefs based on parental and authority messages in our childhood. A – position can be: “I don’t matter”, “I am not good enough”, or “I can never win”, stemming from Injunctions like: “Don’t have needs”, “Don’t belong”, or “Don’t have success”.
Common Injunctions are:
- “Don’t exist” (our life would have been better without you),
- “Don’t be a child” (you are the oldest, grow up already),
- “Don’t be you” (or: your gender, preferences),
- “Don’t grow up” (remain our little baby girl/boy),
- “Don’t be successful” (better at sports, more intelligent, …),
- “Do nothing” (you will fail, cause or have an accident),
- “Don’t have needs” (our needs will always outweigh yours),
- “Do not be important” (your opinion doesn’t count, we’ll decide),
- “Don’t belong” (you are a different class, religion, these are not our people)
- “Don’t trust” (keep your distance, do not connect, or show affection)
- “Don’t feel” (or feel what I feel, not what you feel)
- “Don’t think” (or think what I think, not what you think)
- “Don’t be normal / healthy” (make sure you get (our) attention by being mentally or physically unstable)
Counter Injunctions are first the child’s, and, as adult, the internal Critical Parent’s attempt to cope with the destructive Injunctions.
They can be brought down to five core “Driver” messages which turn our feeling of “I am not OK” into an “I am OK if…”:
- “Be perfect” – only complete detailed perfection at work, at home, in appearance
- “Please others” – always keep others happy, even at your own expense
- “Hurry up” – grow up fast, skip steps, learn, move, work, talk fast
- “Try hard” – have a go, but get frustrated and give up, repeat but never complete
- “Be strong” – do not ask for help, tough it out, manage the crises without emotion
(Counter) Injunctions or Drivers are unconsciously transferred by the parents or other attachment figures to the child and will thus be passed on from generation to generation unless the person resolves their life script patterns. They are lived by example but also often transmitted in words once the child can understand them.
Example: Mum told you: “You are a good kid, [because] you worked so hard to get good grades at school”, which is an “You are OK, if…” message.
According to your personality and circumstances, you may translate this message in a “Try Hard” (the hours are more important than the results), a “Be perfect” (flawless results matter most), a “Be strong” (I did this all on my own), or a “Please others” (mummy is so happy if I do this) driver.
The Drivers keep you afloat when the Injunctions are trying to pull you down, as illustrated in the following picture.
Whenever you can’t live up to your Driver(s) you will experience negative feelings, self-doubt or unworthiness. We often attempt to recover from such feelings in transactions with others, by seeking out so-called “Strokes”. Strokes are positive or negative recognitions by others, in verbal, gestural or facial expressions.
Strokes can be unconditional and positive: “I love you, because you are you.”.
Or conditional and positive: “You are a great presenter!”.
A Stroke can be conditional and negative: “Wow, you are in a foul mood today!”.
Or unconditional and negative: “You are no good”.
We do not only receive Strokes, but we also give them.
What is your position in giving and receiving Strokes?
Do you give more positive than negative ones? More unconditional than conditional ones? Do you carefully consider your words when you give feedback or a compliment? Do you sometimes decide to refrain from giving negative feedback? Are you aware of (the impact of) your facial expression or gestures in interactions?
Do you accept positive Strokes (“Wow, thank you for that compliment!”)? Do you feel free to refuse negative Strokes (“Thanks for your opinion, but I love this shirt.”)? Are you able to ask for a Stroke when you need one (“Can I get a hug please?”)?
We all have healthy and unhealthy attitudes in our interactions; however, this is not necessarily aligned with what feels good and familiar to us. People who grew up on mostly positive Strokes have a heating system switched on that ensures they get into action to get more warmth whenever they grow a bit cold. Others received mostly negative Strokes in their childhood and are used to refrigerator temperatures. To them, warmth will feel like the food may go bad and they will not naturally accept positive Strokes. If you grew up in a fridge system, people with a heating system may seem too soft or arrogant or full of toxic positivity. And people who grew up in a hot tub, may feel that people with a cooling system are too harsh or demeaning themselves and others with toxic negativity. Awareness of the temperature in your system is the first step towards a more balanced Stroke system, where you can steer away from people pleasing or dismissing the hard feelings if you’re verging on toxic positivity and away from energy-draining critical commentary if you’re leaning towards toxic negativity.
CHANGING YOUR SCRIPT
If you feel your life script is not as helpful or positive as it might be, you can change it. Changing your script is a learning curve which starts with awareness.
Awareness will help you to hear and accept a different type of Strokes: take a moment to let compliments sink in, notice it when someone gives you a thumbs up and start using more, preferably unconditional, compliments or positive gestures yourself. If you tend to ignore hard feelings or dissatisfaction in yourself or others, start giving those feelings space in your life: we wouldn’t know there’s light without darkness. Not all difficult feedback is bad for you, it can help you grow.
Awareness will also help you to change your Drivers by changing your thoughts. Turning Drivers (Critical Parent) into Allowers (Nurturing Parent) starts by showing yourself empathy for the Child within you.
“I am also OK if I am not perfect. I know that I learn from my mistakes.”
“I am also OK if I can’t please everyone, I can please myself with self-care.”
“I am also OK if I don’t hurry through this, I can take my time and relax.”
“I am also OK if I don’t try this hard and only take on what I am able to finish.”
“I am also OK if I am not strong and show my feelings and my vulnerability.”
A second step is to move towards the Injunctions, allowing yourself to take new decisions around these pre-verbal messages.
If you feel your parents love you most if you “Don’t grow up”, reassess how much ownership you would like to take for your life decisions and try something new, a challenging Adult responsibility. See if you can feel safe joining a sports or hobby club with people with the same interests as you if you have a “Don’t belong” or a “Don’t”. Experiment with public speaking, for instance by joining Toastmasters, if you have a “Don’t be important”. Start writing “Morning Pages”, especially if you have a “Don’t feel” or “Don’t exist” or “Don’t think”, the stream of consciousness writing will give you confidence to be who you are and create magnificent changes in your life without you even putting much effort in. With a “Don’t have success”, it can be good to practice celebrating some small successes and achievements with friends and consciously experience the unfamiliar, often uncomfortable feelings that come with celebrating yourself, possibly for the first time ever.
PRIMARY & SECUNDARY FEELINGS
TA recognizes five big emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger and lust or longing. Other schools will add surprise, anticipation, trust, and disgust to this. Some of these are somewhat mixed feelings, like surprise is a mixture of joy and shock (fear). Disgust would belong to the bodily experiences, as an opposite of lust or longing.
Primary feelings are authentic, spontaneous, direct reactions to what is happening in the here and now. If a family member dies and you are sad, this is the reaction we expect. If someone attacks you with a knife and you get scared and run away, this is an adequate reaction to the situation. If you get angry in that situation because you feel the attacker is crossing your boundaries, this can also be an adequate reaction, provided you are able to defend yourself well. You can recognize primary feelings by the fact that they help resolve the problem, the pain, or the situation: you will feel lighter afterwards even if they are hard to experience in the moment.
Secondary or substitute feelings, however, are the feelings we show to the world because as a child we learned that the feeling we really feel is not acceptable. These feelings often come up in stressful situations but do nothing to resolve the problem and do not help you to feel lighter.
Example: Many boys got told “boys don’t cry” and rather than showing sadness, they learned to show anger. When they grow up and their wife tells them she wants a divorce, rather than feeling the sadness of having lost in love or the fear of losing custody over their children, these men will turn to anger, defending their boundaries being crossed, even though there’s nothing they can do about their wife’s decision.
Example: Many girls got told “anger makes you ugly” and rather than showing anger, they learned to show tears. When they grow up and their boundaries get crossed by other people, these women will not stand up for themselves, but rather start to cry as if they are helpless little girls. If their counterpart is sensitive to tears, this may work sometimes, but it is a rather manipulative way (see further below under GAMES).
Even if this may sound like we do this intentionally, that is normally not the case. We learned so well to hide our real feelings in our childhood, that we aren’t even aware that we put anger over fear, or sadness over anger. It is a survival mechanism we used because we needed the attention from our parents. The substitute emotion was getting us that, while our real emotion was clearly met with disapproval, disgust, or denial. For instance, with a curt “No, you are fine.” when we showed sadness, or a “You must be tired, let’s put you to bed.” when we were screaming with frustration and anger.
In other people, we usually know when they show us substitute feelings.
Your colleague who is shouting with rage while not much has happened and you find yourself shaking your head in surprise. That woman who is immediately crying at every little hiccup and you notice you feel no empathy for her but rather exasperation. The happy butterfly who pretends that everything is fine, even though she has just been diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease.
We immediately know something doesn’t add up, and the easiest way to validate if they are indeed showing you substitute emotions rather than their real feelings, is to see if you feel empathy. If you can honestly say: “Yes, I understand you are angry/sad/joyful/fearful because of what happened here”, then they are likely experiencing primary emotions, suitable to the situation. If you cannot feel empathy and they cannot quite explain to you why their emotion is right for the situation, then they probably experience substitute or secondary emotions, and they are hiding the real emotion from you.
THE DRAMA TRIANGLE
Now, why is this important? Because denying my real emotions causes me to identify with a role that is not suitable for the situation.
I can feel victimized, even though I could have set my boundaries had I allowed myself to become angry. As a Victim, I take on the role of “I am not OK”.
I can take on the role of Persecutor and get angry at someone, even if I could have admitted I was feeling sad because I lacked their support. My stance is “You are not OK, I don’t trust you”.
Or I can turn to a Rescuer role, and “Be Strong” while in fact I need help myself, which also states: “I am OK, you are not OK, let me save you”.
Whenever I go into one of these roles, I am no longer in my Adult ego position. My transactions have other, hidden motives: I do not want you to find out how I really feel, and I want to release some of the internal stress caused by my real emotions even though I would never acknowledge even to myself what I truly feel. In terms of Carl Jung: I don’t want anybody to see my Shadow Self, the unaccepted and unacceptable monster within.
If you look back at the “Transactions” picture above, in the last column you will find the mapping of transactions with an ulterior motive where the social interaction deviates from the psychological interaction. As mentioned, this happens when we are unable or unwilling to express our authentic feelings about a certain situation.
Usually, we invite a counterpart to play a Game, we invite someone else to an interaction that causes us to end up in our favourite bad feeling (racket feeling), one we have known all our lives. Thus, it confirms our familiar, comfortable world view.
When we play Games, we use an overt Transaction, that looks like an Adult to Adult conversation, while the hidden appeal on a psychological level is actually a Parent-Child transaction. Underneath the surface, we move through what Stephen Karpman calls the Drama triangle of Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim, switching roles along the way to get to our favourite bad feeling. The role switch is called the Payoff.
Games follow a standard pattern or process. Situations and participants change, but the pattern stays the same. They are played at an unconscious level, and end with a surprise switch and a payoff in which the participants experience negative feelings, their so-called racket or favourite bad feeling.
Fights about who is guilty, who started doing what or who is right, are almost always games. They do not resolve anything for the future and keep us feeling bad.
The rules of Games
- The hook is an attractive offer to an interaction, while disguising the trap (game invitation or laying out the bait);
- The gimmick, interest from other person (acceptance of the bait or hook);
- The response, harmless reactions, and exchange of courtesies;
- The switch, the Role reversal by the inviting party;
- Crossup, the moment of surprise or perplexity on the side of the other person;
- Payoff, bad feelings for both and a relationship crisis.
An example is a game called “Yes, but” (or, if it concerns uninvited advice started by the other party: “Why don’t you?”).
Someone asks for advice on how to handle a certain situation. You reply with what you would do if you were them. Your counterpart tells you that they unfortunately cannot do this, what should they do instead? You give another suggestion. They have a reason why this wouldn’t work. You find yourself giving yet another advice. They immediately tell you why this is no good. You are now squarely seated in the Rescuer position, while they have taken on the Victim role. This Game could go on for another few rounds till your Victim suddenly turns into a Persecutor and says: “I knew I shouldn’t have come to you for this, you never help me!” And you switch to feeling like a Victim, because why are you suddenly falsely accused?
A Victim Game that is often played is “If it weren’t for you (I would…)” or the Rescuer Game “I am only trying to help you”, both of which have the intention of making the other party feel guilty, while the instigator remains blameless or innocent. Typical Persecutor gaslighting Games like: “See what you made me do” or “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”, put the blame and flaws on the Victim/Rescuer role-player.
“Why does this always happen to me?” and “Kick me!” are two games that use self-fulfilling prophecies as basis: mess up in the preparation or execution and then enjoy being the Victim. The other party or the situation is invited into the role of Persecutor due to your own failing to set yourself up for success. Clumsy or unorganised people manage to get themselves a lot of help by acting this way.
In the Game “Harried” people load more and more work on themselves, as if no one else can do these jobs (Rescuer) and finally they explode in anger that no one helps them (Persecutor) or collapse in a burn-out (Victim).
It would lead too far to mention all possible Games, but from the rules and the fact that you end up feeling bad after an interaction, you will know a game has been played, unconsciously started by you yourself or your counterpart.
When you are aware someone is inviting you to a game, say, one you’ve played before and you realize both of you will end up feeling bad, you can intervene. Stay firmly in the here and now, in your Adult position and ask for instance: “What do you need from me?” Ensure your tone of voice is right. And ask yourself: “What do I want right now?” Ensure you stick to your own goals and communicate those. This could be: “I feel like we are both exhausted right now, how about a hug?”
In the next picture you’ll find some more suggestions for escape routes.
Healthy behaviour implies that we each take responsibility for own role in the relationships we have and that we also regard the other as an adult and treat them as such (even if they are in fact a child). Stay in the position of I am OK, you are OK.
Making the other feel small by rescuing or persecuting them or making ourselves feel small by victimization is an open invitation to an unhealthy and upsetting Game.
A joyful Child state is wonderful when you are out dancing at a party and the Parent state is very useful if you have kids at home that need to be nurtured; there’s a time and place for all ego states. Awareness of the state you are in and whether it is useful for the situation is key.
Your challenge is to become aware of your favourite position and your favourite bad feeling so you can stop the interaction before it goes too far. Keep your eye on the overall goal of staying in your rational, Adult ego state whenever you are invited to a game, so you do not let yourself be carried away into Drama Triangle interactions.