Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis, commonly known as 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 U.S. psychiatrist, Eric Berne, in the late 1950s.

As a theory of personality, TA describes how people are structured psychologically. It uses what is perhaps its best known model, the ego-state (Parent-Adult-Child) model, to do this. The same model helps explain how people function and express their personality in their behavior. It offers a theory for child development by explaining how adult patterns of life originated in childhood. This explanation is based on the idea of a ‘Life (or Childhood) Script’: the assumption that we continue to re-play childhood strategies, even when this results in pain or defeat. Thus it claims to offer a theory of psychopathology.

Freedom from historical maladaptations embedded in the childhood script is required in order to become free of inappropriate, inauthentic and displaced emotions which are not a fair and honest reflection of here-and-now life (such as echoes of childhood suffering, pity-me and other mind games, compulsive behavior, and repetitive dysfunctional life patterns). The aim of change under TA is to move toward autonomy (freedom from childhood script), spontaneity, intimacy, problem solving as opposed to avoidance or passivity, cure as an ideal rather than merely making progress and learning new choices.

TA is a neo-Freudian theory of personality. Berne’s ego states are heavily influenced by Freud’s id, ego and superego, although they do not precisely correspond with them. A primary difference between Berne and Freud is the former’s treatment of the observable transactions known as ‘games.’ A number of books popularized TA in the general public but did little to gain acceptance in the conventional psychoanalytic community. TA is considered by its adherents to be a more user-friendly and accessible model than the conventional psychoanalytic method. A number of modern-day TA practitioners emphasize the similarities with cognitive-behaviorist models.

TA is not only post-Freudian but, according to its founder’s wishes, consciously extra-Freudian. That is to say that, while it has its roots in psychoanalysis, since Berne was a psychoanalytically-trained psychiatrist, it was designed as a dissenting branch of psychoanalysis in that it put its emphasis on transactional, rather than ‘psycho-,’ analysis.

With its focus on transactions, TA shifted the attention from internal psychological dynamics to the dynamics contained in people’s interactions. Rather than believing that increasing awareness of the contents of unconsciously held ideas was the therapeutic path, TA concentrated on the content of people’s interactions with each other. Changing these interactions was TA’s path to solving emotional problems.

In addition, Berne believed in making a commitment to ‘curing’ his patients rather than just understanding them. To that end he introduced one of the most important aspects of TA: the contract—an agreement entered into by both client and therapist to pursue specific changes that the client desires.

Revising Freud’s concept of the human psyche as composed of the id, ego, and super-ego, Berne postulated in addition three ‘ego states’—the Parent, Adult, and Child states—which were largely shaped through childhood experiences. These three are all part of Freud’s ego (self); none represent the id (selfish desires) or the superego (selfless desires).

Unhealthy childhood experiences can lead to these being pathologically fixated in the Child and Parent ego states, bringing discomfort to an individual and/or others in a variety of forms, including many types of mental illness.

Berne considered how individuals interact with one another, and how the ego states affect each set of transactions. Unproductive or counterproductive transactions were considered to be signs of ego state problems. Analyzing these transactions according to the person’s individual developmental history would enable the person to ‘get better.’ Berne thought that virtually everyone has something problematic about their ego states and that negative behavior would not be addressed by ‘treating’ only the problematic individual.

Berne identified a typology of common counterproductive social interactions, identifying these as ‘games.’ Berne presented his theories in two popular books on transactional analysis: ‘Games People Play’ (1964) and ‘What Do You Say After You Say Hello?’ (1975). ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ (1969), written by Berne’s longtime friend Thomas Anthony Harris, is probably the most popular TA book.

By the 1970s, because of TA’s non-technical and non-threatening jargon and model of the human psyche, many of its terms and concepts were adopted by eclectic therapists as part of their individual approaches to psychotherapy. It also served well as a therapy model for groups of patients, or marital/family counselees, where interpersonal (rather than intrapersonal) disturbances were the focus of treatment.

Critics have charged that TA—especially as loosely interpreted by those outside the more formal TA community—is a pseudoscience, when it is in fact better understood as a philosophy.

At any given time, a person experiences and manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviors, 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 behaviour, feelings, and ways of thinking, that can be functional (beneficial or positive) or dysfunctional/counterproductive (negative).

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 behaviors 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.’

There are basically three kinds of transactions: Reciprocal/Complementary (the simplest), Crossed, and Duplex/Covert (the most complex). A simple, reciprocal transaction occurs when both partners are addressing the ego state the other is in. These are also called complementary transactions. Communication failures are typically caused by a ‘crossed transaction’ where partners address ego states other than that their partner is in. ‘Duplex’ or ‘covert’ transactions are where the explicit social conversation occurs in parallel with an implicit psychological transaction.

Each culture, country and people in the world has a Mythos, that is, a legend explaining its origins, core beliefs and purpose. According to TA, so do individual people. A person begins writing his/her own life story (script) at a young age, as he/she tries to make sense of the world and his place within it. Although it is revised throughout life, the core story is selected and decided upon typically by age 7. As adults it passes out of awareness. A life script might be ‘to be hurt many times, and suffer and make others feel bad when I die,’ and could result in a person indeed setting himself up for this, by adopting behaviors in childhood that produce exactly this effect. Though Berne identified several dozen common scripts, there are a practically infinite number of them.

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