Understanding transactional analysis – how we shift ages in mere seconds

Have you ever had what appears to be a friendly, flowing conversation with someone, only for the atmosphere to shift rapidly to uncomfortable and awkward? I have… And I bet you have too.

When dynamics change and you aren’t sure why, it is very likely that ‘transactional analysis (TA)’ can explain it. I’d like to look at this more closely with you, because TA can help us to better understand our relationships as well as our inner selves.

What is TA?

TA was developed in the 1950s by psychiatrist Eric Berne. It seeks to explain human behaviour and has been summarised as:

“…a system of psychology for understanding human behaviour, changing human behaviour and predicting human behaviour.”

The basis of the theory is that when we interact with one another, we are doing so from an unconscious part of our personality, known as an ‘ego state’.  As this position is unconscious, it means we are never fully present within our interactions with others and are influenced by forces deep within us. Transactional analysis allows us to move into better awareness, giving us control over our inner and outer lives.

Let’s look more closely at this:

The ego states

The ego states identified by Berne explain the thoughts, feelings and behaviours exhibited by a person at any given time. They are as follows:

Parent: This ego state is crucial for survival an replicates the behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied by parental figures from childhood. These events are stored in the brains of children and mimicked in their own adulthood. A basic example is, always say please and thank you. This ego state often works on autopilot and can be seen in two forms, nurturing and caring, and also critical and controlling.

Child: This ego state is based on feelings from the past that are learned in childhood. For example, safety comes from physical touch. Loud noises are scary. The child state is reactive and more vulnerable. Much like the parent state, it can also show up in two forms: The wilful, excited Free Child or as the helpless Adapted Child.

Adult: An adult ego state comes from a child’s ability to gather and process information from different sources, and come to rational and logical decisions based on this. This state focuses on the here and now. When we are in our Adult ego state, we are calm, thoughtful and present.

In any relationship, we can be motivated by (and reactive to) any of these ego states. They are always at play, influencing our communications.

Let’s look at how this might play out in a relationship dynamic.

June and Ruth are developing a new friendship and getting to know each other. They meet for coffee every Wednesday and enjoy a civil, warm and mutually respectful relationship with much in common. On one afternoon, June makes a joke about a politician, who was recently publicly embarrassed on television. June does not respond to this joke well at all. In fact, she becomes cold, withdrawn and seems uncomfortable in Ruth’s presence. The atmosphere changes and Ruth isn’t sure why this joke wasn’t well received, especially as the whole world appeared to be laughing at this politician – everyone except June, that is. After this encounter, Ruth feels more wary about her friendship with June and begins to skip their Wednesday meetups out of fear that she’s doing something unknowingly wrong.

How could transactional analysis help to explain this?

It could well be that June ‘hit a nerve’ when making a joke about someone who has been publicly humiliated. Perhaps Ruth herself has been the butt of a joke, or experienced bulling or shaming behaviours in her childhood. It could be that Ruth’s adapted child ego state is reacting to the joke by becoming withdrawn and defensive – just as she would have done as a child when other people laughed at her.

You might now be asking yourself – why can’t it just be that Ruth didn’t find the joke funny? Well, because the adult ego state would process that differently, with Ruth merely failing to laugh or saying “come on June, that poor guy”! Instead, Ruth went cold, distant and actively changed the atmosphere in the room without explanation.

Had Ruth been more self aware, she might have had more control over her reaction to June’s joke and been able to save that friendship from confusion or interruption.

How TA and the Drama Triangle interact

Transactional analysis and The Drama Triangle go hand in hand. The Drama Triangle is model that was first identified by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968. It assists in explaining destructive and unresolvable conflicts we can find ourselves in. The theory suggests that in any relationship conflict, we play one of three roles – the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer. You can read much more about the Drama Triangle here.

Much like with TA, the roles we play within the Drama Triangle can shift in seconds depending on what’s showing up. Let’s apply this to Ruth and June for a moment.

Once the conflict arose (the joke about the politician), Ruth moved into her Adapted Child self. She also placed herself in the victim role, assigning June the role of persecutor for making (what she felt was) an inappropriate joke. June then had to slide into rescuer, by removing herself from the dynamic altogether to prevent future conflict, and also found herself in Victim mode too, where she felt fearful of Ruth’s ‘strange’ reaction to the joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? And yet, without consciousness of self, neither Ruth nor June would have understood the game they found themselves in.

Individual psychotherapy can help you avoid these sorts of dynamics by bringing awareness to your child, adult, parent states – and acknowledging how these play out in the context of the drama triangle.

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