Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks We Wear)

Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks We Wear) Image by: Eric Huybrechts

This article is one of a three-part series on Transactional Analysis. It is followed by the articles “Transactional Analysis – Part II (The Games we Play)” and Transactional Analysis - Part III (The Scripts we Follow).

Transactional Analysis (or TA as it is often called) is an interpersonal relations approach developed during the 1960s by Dr Eric Berne. It is underpinned by the philosophy that:

  • people can change;
  • we all have a right to be in the world and be accepted.

Transactional Analysis is based on two notions: That we have three sides or 'ego-states' to our 'personality (Parent, Adult and Child), and that these ego states converse with one another in 'transactions' both internally and externally with other people (hence the name).

According to TA, we are dominated alternately and to varying degrees by one of the three sides of our personality. By studying the Ego States, the behaviour they incite, the games they lead to, and the scenarios they cause, Transactional Analysis helps us understand how we relate to others and gives us useful tools for self-knowledge and personal development.

TA is a common model used in psychotherapy (personal, couple and family therapy), as well as in education and business (recruitment, skill assessments and understanding relationship dynamics).

What follows in this article (Part I) is an outline of two of the key concepts in Transactional Analysis – Ego States and Transactions.

Ego States

According to TA, we have three sides or 'ego-states' to our personality – the Parent, Adult and Child ego states.

An ego state is a way of us experiencing the world. It is an entire system of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours from which we interact with one another (and even with ourselves in our internal conversations). Our thinking, feeling and behaviour when we are in each ego state is consistent.

Please note that each ego state is given a capital letter to denote the difference between ego states and actual parents, adults and children.

The ego states are drawn in diagrammatical form as follows:

TA ego states diagram

The Parent Ego State

This is a set of feelings, thinking and behaviour that we have copied from our parents and significant others.

As we grow up we take in ideas, beliefs, feelings and behaviours from our parents and caretakers. (If we live in an extended family then there are more people to be influenced by and learn from). When we do this, it is called introjecting and it is just as if we take in the whole of the care giver. For example, we may notice that we are saying things just as our father, mother, grandmother may have done, even though, consciously, we don't want to. We do this because we have lived with this person for so long that we automatically reproduce certain things that were said to us, or treat others as we might have been treated by them. It’s as if someone has pressed 'play' on a recording and we play back what we saw and heard without question. The Parent ego state is rooted in the past.

There are two types of parent we can play:

The Nurturing Parent– This Parent type is caring and concerned and may often appear as a mother-figure (though men can play it too). They seek to keep the child contented, offering a safe haven and unconditional love to calm the Child's troubles.

The Controlling (or Critical) Parent – This Parent type tries to make the Child do as the Parent wants them to do, perhaps transferring values or beliefs or helping the Child to understand and live in society. They may also have negative intent, using the Child as a scapegoat.

The Adult Ego State

The Adult ego state is the 'grown up' rational person who talks reasonably and assertively, neither trying to control nor reacting aggressively towards others. The Adult is comfortable with him/herself and is, for many of us, our 'ideal self'.

The Adult ego state deals with the here and now reality. It is the processing centre and important because it is the only ego state that is not connected to the past. The Adult ego state is able to deal with current things in ways that are not unhealthily influenced by our past. If you were asked how to make a paper airplane you would probably reply from your Adult ego state.

The Adult ego state is about being spontaneous and aware, with a capacity for intimacy. The Adult is able to see people as they are, rather than what we project onto them. The Adult asks for information, rather than staying scared or making assumptions.

In the structural model, the Adult ego state circle is placed in the middle of the Parent and Child ego states to show how it needs to orchestrate between these two. For example, the Parent may criticise the Child, saying "You are no good, look at what you did wrong again, you are useless". The Child may then respond with "I am no good, look how useless I am, I never get anything right". (Most people don’t hear their internal dialogue as it goes on so much they just believe life is this way). An effective Adult can intervene by stating that this kind of parenting is not helpful and asking if it is prepared to learn another way. Alternatively, the Adult can just stop any negative dialogue and decide to develop another positive Parent ego state perhaps taken in from other people they have met over the years.

The Child Ego State

The Child ego state is rooted in the past and plays back thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we experienced as a child. For example, if the boss calls us into his or her office, we may immediately get a churning in our stomach and wonder what we have done wrong. If we explored the reason for this automatic thinking, we might remember the time the head teacher called us in to tell us off. In the same way, we might go into someone's house and smell a lovely smell and remember our grandmother's house when we were little, and all the same warm feelings we had as a six-year old may come flooding back.

There are three types of Child we can play:

The Natural Child – This child type is largely un-self-aware and is characterized by the non-speech noises they make (yippee, whoo-hoo etc.). They like playing and are open and vulnerable.

The Little Professor – This child type is the curious and exploring Child who is always trying out new stuff (often much to their Controlling Parent's annoyance). Together with the Natural Child they make up the Free Child.

The Adaptive Child – This child type reacts to the world around them, either changing themselves to fit in and so being very good, or rebelling against the forces they feel and so being naughty.

Both the Parent and Child ego states are constantly being updated. For example, we may meet someone who gives us the permission we needed (but did not get) as a child, to be fun and joyous. We then use that person in our imagination "I wonder what X would say now?" to counteract our old ways of thinking and give us new permissions. So instead of thinking that we must work longer and longer hours to keep up with everything, we relax and take some time out. Subsequently, rather than beating ourselves up for what we did or did not do, what tends to happen is we automatically start to give ourselves new permissions and take care of ourselves.

It is interesting to note that TA psychotherapy involves much work to update the Adult ego state with new information, and challenge the Child or Parent ego state ideas.

The diagram below shows the three ego states:

three ego states

Part of TA therapy also involves encouraging the client to grow their less developed ego states so that the three ego states are more in balance. 

To assess how well developed each of your ego states is, complete the "My Personal Ego States Chart" which you can find on my website under "Posters and Worksheets". This will enable you to see at a glance your ego state development.

Transactions (Communications)

Transactions refer to the communication exchanges between people. (Put in TA terms, a transaction is an exchange of strokes. I will explain strokes in the article ‘Transactional Analysis - Part II’)

At any one time, an individual will be transacting from one of his or her ego states - Parent (values), Adult (rationality) and Child (emotions & creativity). Communication works well, or is successful, when the activated ego states are complementary or sympathetic to each other. For example, to the question: "Have you seen my keys?" (Adult) the answer would be "Yes, they are on the table." (Adult).

On the other hand, communication is unsuccessful when the roles oppose each other and a “game” begins. So, to the question: "Have you seen my keys?" (Adult), the other person answers "Oh no, not again! You always lose everything, you're just like a child!" (Critical Parent). It is easy to see that such an exchange can degenerate very quickly.

Many of our problems come from transactions which are unsuccessful. Transactional analysts are trained to recognize which ego states people are transacting from and to follow the transactional sequences so they can intervene and improve the quality and effectiveness of communication.

According to Berne, there are three ways in which we transact or communicate with each other and each method has its own set of consequences. It is useful to understand what happens when we use each method, if we want to enjoy successful communication with others.

Complementary Transactions

A complementary transaction (also referred to as a reciprocal transaction) is one in which person A says something from one ego state that invites a response from person B from a complementary ego state. For example, if person A says “I think you need to go and wash your dirty face” from a Parent ego state they are inviting person B to respond from their Child ego state and comply with something like “OK.”

Equally, the conversation could be Adult to Adult:

         Person A: “It’s lovely weather for this time of year.”
         Person B: “Yes, isn’t it nice to see the sun.”

Or Child to Parent:

          Person A: “Ow! I’ve cut myself”
          Person B: “Oh dear, come here and let me clean it up for you”.

There are other combinations such as Child to Child and Parent to Parent etc. 

The important thing to understand is that whilst the transactions remain complimentary the conversation can go on indefinitely. Clearly it will stop at some stage, but this psychologically balanced exchange can continue for some time. (If you want to learn to do small talk, just respond from the ego state the person you are talking to is inviting you to come from and you can chat forever!)

Further Examples:

A: 'Have you written the report?' (Adult to Adult)
B: 'Yes - I'm about to email it to you.' (Adult to Adult)

A: 'Would you like to skip this meeting and go watch a film with me instead?' (Child to Child)
B: 'I'd love to - I don't want to work anymore. What should we go and see?' (Child to Child)

agent respondent

Agent                                   Respondent

Crossed Transactions

In a crossed transaction the response to the stimulus is from an ego state other than the one that has been invited. For example, when person A says “I think you need to go and wash your dirty face” person B responds with “Don’t be so rude!” Here person A is inviting a Child ego state response but receives a Parent ego state response. They are likely to be a bit confused as a result.

Communication failures are typically caused by a 'crossed transaction'.

Further Examples:

A: “Can you tell me what time it is?” (Adult)
B: “Why are you always rushing me?” (Adapted Child)

A: “Can you tell me what time it is?” (Adult)
B: “You are always late anyway. Why do you care?” (Critical Parent)

A: 'Have you written that report?' (Adult to Adult)
B: “Will you stop hassling me? I'll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)
           This is a crossed transaction likely to produce problems in the workplace. 'A' may respond with a
           Parent-to-Child transaction; for instance:
A: “If you don't change your attitude, you'll get fired.”

A: “Is your room tidy yet?” (Parent to Child)
B: “I'm just going to do it, actually.” (Adult to Adult)
          This is a more positive crossed transaction. There is, however, the risk that 'A' will feel that 'B' is
          acting responsibly and not playing their expected role, and the conversation will develop into:
A: “I can never trust you to do things!” (Parent to Child)
B: “Why don't you believe anything I say?” (Child to Parent)

This type of transaction can also continue indefinitely.

wash your face

       Agent                                   Respondent

Ulterior Transactions

Berne says that we can communicate on two levels.  There is the social message – what we say, and the
psychological message – what we mean.

In the case of an ulterior transaction the explicit social conversation occurs in parallel with an implicit
psychological transaction; for example:
A: “I need you to stay late at the office with me.” (Adult words), body language indicates sexual intent
(flirtatious Child)
B: “Of course.” (Adult response to Adult statement), winking or grinning (Child accepts the hidden motive).

Sometimes the social and psychological message do not match. Sarcasm is a great example of this. When
someone is sarcastic, what they say is the opposite of what they mean. The person who they are being
sarcastic to picks up the psychological message rather than the social message. When this happens the
transaction is said to be ulterior.

social message

      Agent                                    Respondent

Points to Note:

  • The ideal line of business (and similar) communication is the mature and rational Adult-Adult relationship.
  • When both people are at the same level - Parent talking to Parent etc. (Complimentary transactions) communication is easy because both are often thinking the same.
  • When each person is talking to a different level (Crossed transactions) communication problems occur. For example, when both people talk as a Parent to the other’s Child, their wires get crossed and conflict results. When this happens, first go to the state that the other person is in to talk at the same level. Then move yourself and the other person to the Adult level for rational conversation.
  • Being a Nurturing Parent or talking at the same level as the other person acts to create trust.
  • Parent ego states naturally speak to Child ego states (this is their role as a Parent). They can talk with other Parents and Adults, although the subject still may be about the children.
  • The Nurturing Parent naturally talks to the Natural Child and the Controlling Parent to the Adaptive Child. In fact, these parts of our personality are evoked by the opposite. If someone acts as an Adaptive Child, they will most likely evoke the Controlling Parent in the other person.
  • Being a Controlling Parent invites the other person into an Adaptive ‘good’ Child state where they may conform with your demands. There is also a risk that they will be an Adaptive 'naughty’ Child and rebel. They may also take opposing Parent or Adult states.

Want to Know More?

The article Transactional Analysis – Part II deals with Strokes and Games and Transactional Analysis – Part III deals with Life Scripts.