Transactional Analysis Part 1: An Introduction


Transactional Analysis is a psychological theory developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s. It looks at the dynamics in our relationships with other people and, more importantly, in our relationship with ourselves. More about these dynamics is set out in Berne’s excellent book Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis.The Basic Principles of Transactional AnalysisWe’ve all heard the voices in our heads. Sometimes there’s the angel on one shoulder and the pitchfork-waving demon on the other. At other times there’s a whole board meeting going on in there. Transactional analysis divides these voices into three roles: parent, adult and child.The basic principles of TA are:

  • Everyone is OK just as they are
  • Everyone has the capacity to think for themselves
  • We have the ability to decide on the path of our life, meaning that we can choose to change this course at any time

Sounds good.Let’s looks at the three parts more closely:ParentUnless you were raised by wolves (unlikely), you will have had a primary care giver. This is the person who took care of you as a child. It might have been your mother, father, an extended family member or someone biologically unrelated to you.Whoever they were, our primary care givers had a huge effect on our development and personalities. Even if we didn’t get along with them, we internalised some of the beliefs and behaviour patterns that they exposed us to as children, especially those we needed to in order to survive. As adults, this gives us the ‘parent voice’. Some of these messages, such as basic moral codes, are useful. Many are not.The parent voice can be highly critical of you and others around you. It’s the voice with all the ‘shoulds’. It’s the voice telling you that you need to do better, be faster, stronger and work harder because if you don’t, then that’s not good enough. It might also be a voice telling you not to do something, that you're likely to fail.When I was a teenager, my mother once said to me ‘I saw Joe Bloggs and Suzy Q talking outside school today. He seems to like her.’ She paused and then went on: ‘Suzy was wearing some really nice jeans. Maybe if you wore clothes like that, he’d like you too’. That, and other incidents, led me to internalise this message: ‘People aren’t going to like you for who you are. You don’t bring enough to the table as a person, so you’d better have something else that’s good to offer’.Of course, sometimes the inner parent can produce useful side-effects. That message motivated me to get good grades, work hard and be an independent, self-sufficient person (although I would have much rather done all that out of a sense of worth, rather than feeling like I had something to prove).This is why the parent voice can be so hard to dismiss: in its own twisted way, it is acting to protect you from rejection, failure and general crapness. Unfortunately, unless the adult part is good at controlling the parent, its extreme methods usually lead to all of the above anyway.ChildThe child part is as it sounds: the part that never grew up. TA works with the idea that parts of us remain stuck in particular times, like a record of our experiences. When faced with similar situations in the future, that tape gets replayed, meaning we might still be reacting to a situation when we’re 30 in the same way we did when we were seven.Let’s say a parent or primary care giver repeatedly expresses anger when you forget to finish your homework as a child. Thirty years later, you get an email from your boss asking about that project you were supposed to hand in yesterday.The one you’d completely forgotten about.Your heart starts racing, your hands shake, you envisage your boss getting angry, you imagine you’ll probably get fired for this gross transgression. When you finally pluck up the courage to talk to them, they shrug and say it’s not a big deal, just email it over as soon as possible. After the initial flood of relief, you wonder why you got so upset to begin with.There are positive and joyful aspects to the child voice as well, aspects it’s important not to lose. This is the part that laughs unreservedly, sings loudly and dances with no inhibitions:AdultThe adult part represents our ability to react to life based on the information we have at hand. This is the part that is rational, empathetic and responsible. As we grow older, the adult part takes precedence over the parent and child parts, and acts as a mediator between the two. As this website sums up very well:

  • Parent is our 'Taught' concept of life
  • Adult is our 'Thought' concept of life
  • Child is our 'Felt' concept of life

Which thought patterns, feelings or reactions can you attribute to each part?Coming up next: How TA appears in our interactions with others.

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