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Understand yourself more through Transactional Analysis Therapy

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

By Kathryn Spence

Accredited BACP Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Accredited BABCP CBT Therapist, EMDR Therapist

InnerFocus Therapy

17 October 2022


I LOVE Transactional Analysis (TA), it is my favourite therapeutic approach. I started studying TA in 2006 and although I have subsequently trained in other approaches including CBT and EMDR, I continue to believe that TA gives us a real foundation to understand what makes us tick and what made us tick this way in the first place.


I’m writing this blog to help spread the word about the concepts of TA and so you might be able to start to understand yourself more, leading to growth and change if you feel that would be useful to you.


It's also incredibility helpful to think about if you're a parent and want to do things with more awareness and change some of the generational patterns we can get stuck in.



So, what is Transactional Analysis (TA)?


Eric Berne developed TA in the 1950s as a relational therapy. It is based on the theory that our childhood experiences impact the development of our personalities and the emotional issues we may have as an adult.


From these childhood experiences, we develop three Ego States:

  • Parent

  • Adult

  • Child

Unconsciously, our past experiences are played out in the present, internally in our own psychology, as well as externally within our relationships. Our defensive adult behaviours are the result of childhood survival decisions, which are no longer serving their intended purpose and causing us problems in the here-and-now.


One of the main constructs of TA is the Ego-State Model.


Ego State Model


The Ego State Model is a way to understand our personality and our internal world. It is made up of three states: Parent, Adult, Child.


Our Parent and Child states are based on our past, our Adult is based in the here-and-now.


An Ego State is a pattern of how we think, feel and act at any given time.

Transactional Analysis, Ego States
Ego State Model


Parent Ego State

Our Parent Ego State is a set of feelings, thinking and behaviours that we have copied from our parents and significant caregivers.


This includes:

  • Positive Controlling Parent – Providing helpful rules which keep us safe and help us fit into society

  • Negative Controlling Parent – Some rules can be too rigid or unhelpful, as well as critical and judgemental

  • Positive Nurturing Parent – A source of compassion towards ourselves and others

  • Negative Nurturing Parent – Being be over-protective and not allowing for independent growth and autonomy



Child Ego State

Our Child Ego State is a set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings which are replayed from our own childhood.

  • Our Adapted Child tries to adhere to the rules, which can help us fit in but also can cause feelings of anxiety or shame when we cannot meet the impossible or unhelpful rules.

  • Our Rebellious Child does the opposite of the rules, which can help us become independent and autonomous and learn to be an individual, but also lead to negative consequences if we rebel in detrimental ways.

  • Our Free Child is a source of play and creativity, but it is also capable of producing risky behaviours.


Adult Ego State

Our Adult Ego State is when we are thinking, feeling and behaving in relation to what is happening in the here and now. Responding in ways that are not unhealthily influenced by our past. We have the capacity for intimacy and we’re able to see people as they are, rather than what we project onto them. We are assertive and ask for information rather than making assumptions.


We can communicate and act from any of these Ego States at any one time in a series of Transactions.


Transactions


All communication can be broken down into a series of ‘transactions’. Berne labelled the opening form of communication as a Stimulus followed by a Response. Transactions are not just verbal, they include body language, gestures and tone of voice.


Parallel Transactions


The following communications are all called Parallel Transactions as the Ego State addressed Responds. But we can get into problems when we communicate from the historic unhelpful parts of our Ego-States. Such as:


Transactional Analysis Communication, Parallel Transaction, Ego States Parent to Child
Parallel Transaction - Parent to Child

Transactional Analysis Communication, Parallel Transaction, Ego States Parent to Parent
Parallel Transaction - Parent to Parent

Transactional Analysis Communication, Parallel Transaction, Ego States Adult to Adult
Parallel Transaction - Adult to Adult - Healthy Communication

Crossed Transactions


Crossed Transactions are when one person responds from an Ego State that was not expected or intended. This can be helpful to get out of a Game or historical pattern. Such as:



Transactional Analysis Communication, Crossed Transaction, Ego States Parent to Child, Adult to Adult
Crossed Parent to Child Transaction - Adult to Adult

Transactional Analysis Communication, Crossed Transaction, Ego States Child to Parent, Adult to Adult
Crossed Child to Parent Transaction - Adult to Adult

Injunctions and Permissions


Parental teaching is often unconscious and forms part of our internal world. When our caregivers approve of a behaviour we are given Permissions. When our caregivers feel frustrated, anxious or disappointed by our behaviours, we are given Injunctions, which we learn to live by. These are 'Don't...' messages and are held in our Child Ego State. Below is a list of Don’t messages, what may have led to them, how it’s affecting you as an adult, and how your Adult can update this and give you a new healthy permission.

Injunctions

Childhood Experiences

Possible Decisions

Adulthood

Updated Adult Permissions

Don’t feel

​Your parents felt uncomfortable with your emotions so tried to distract you or ignored you.

“I’ll put on a brave face.”

You may have learned to swallow your feelings or substitute your hurt with anger.

It’s OK to feel and share my feelings with others

Don’t think

Your parents may have discouraged you when you had a different opinion than them.

​“I won’t make my own decisions.”

​Get stuck at decision making, ask others for their solutions or reassurance.

It’s OK to make decisions

Don’t belong

​You may have moved around a lot as a child or were treated differently to others at home.

​“I’ll never fit in.”

Staying away from others for fear of not fitting in. Wearing a ‘mask’ around others so they like you.

It’s OK to be a part of a group / team / family

Don’t be well

​Your parents only paid attention to you when you were not well.

​“I’ll get sick, and then I’ll be included / looked after.”

​Play the sick role, develop health anxiety.

It’s OK to be well

Don’t be you

​Your parents wanted you to be more like them and less like you.

​“They’d love me only if I were a (different), so it’s impossible to get their love.”

​Deny your interests, try to be something else for others sake.

It’s OK to be yourself

Don’t succeed

​Your parents may have been jealous and did not want you to surpass them.

​“I’ll never do anything perfectly enough, so why try?”

​You start something, but don’t finish it, procrastinates, self-sabotages.

It’s OK to try, even if it doesn’t work out

Don’t grow up

​Often happens to the youngest child, where a parent doesn’t want you to leave them.

​“I’ll stay a child, so my parents continue to care for me.”

​You may have complied by being immature, acting out or delayed leaving home.

It’s OK to be independent and make your own life

Don’t be a child

​Often happens to the eldest child where you are given more responsibility to care for younger siblings and to be a ‘good example’.

​“I’ll take care of others and won’t ask for much myself.”

​Take on too much responsibility, stressed, don’t relax, take care of others.

It’s OK to have fun

Don’t be important

​Your needs or wants are not attended to, others are given more attention.

​“I should keep my needs to myself.”

​Sacrifice your needs for others.

It’s OK to do things for yourself

Don’t be close

​Your parents felt uncomfortable with intimacy. They did not show affection.

​“Because it’s scary to get close, I’ll keep myself distant.”

​Distrusting of others. Avoidant of relationships. Avoidant of affection.

It’s OK to be affectionate and close with people

Don’t be, or Don’t exist

​You may have been told you were an unwanted pregnancy or had messages like “If it weren’t for you…”

​“I’ll keep trying until I get you to love me.”

​Suicidal tendencies.

It’s OK to exist just as you are

Don’t (do anything)

​Your parents may have been over-protective or done everything for you.

​“I’m scared of making the wrong decision, so I simply won’t decide.”

​You seek reassurance, look for others to do things for you, don’t take any new opportunities.

It’s OK to take risks and see what happens

Drivers


Drivers are messages or rules held in our Parent Ego State ‘swallowed whole’ from our authority figures when we were growing up about how to be in the world and how to be accepted within the family and defend against our Injunctions. There are five Drivers; Be Perfect, Be Strong, Try Hard (But Don’t Succeed), Please Others, and Hurry Up. These are summarised below, along with Adult updates called Allowers to start to practice to increase your wellbeing.

Drivers

Examples

Updated ​Adult Allowers

Be Perfect

​We work very hard and achieve tasks but we set unreasonable expectations of ourselves and when we cannot live up to this we beat ourselves up for not being good enough.

It’s OK to be yourself

Be Strong

​We’re great in a crisis but we don’t express our feelings and act detached in distressing situations, we don’t want to appear silly or stupid.

It’s OK to express your feelings and take care of your needs

Try Hard (but don’t succeed)

​We love new projects and ideas but when we’re stressed we may start too many things at once. We are likely to start things but not finish because if we finished them then we wouldn’t be trying anymore, therefore procrastinate.

It’s OK to do it

Please Others

​We look after others, are caring and can calm down conflict. But we will do things for others even at our own detriment, we will have a tendency to Rescue others, allow others to make decisions for us, not express our needs, wants or opinions in fear of others not liking us, finding it difficult to say “No”.

It’s OK to take care of yourself

Hurry Up

​Can get a great deal done in a short amount of time, but we take on too much and can therefore make mistakes and get impatient with others.

It’s OK to take your time

Strokes


In TA, we call any recognition from one person to another a Stroke. The name comes from research that all babies require touching or strokes in order to survive and grow.

  • Strokes can be positive or negative

  • Strokes can be physical, verbal or nonverbal

  • Strokes can be conditional (based on something you do) or unconditional (who you are)


Negative Strokes are actually better than no Strokes at all, because at least we know we exist if we get any acknowledgement at all.


In certain cultures, such as the British stiff upper lip or old out-dated beliefs that ‘children shouldn’t be spoiled with love’ or ‘should be seen and not heard’ does not help with developing a positive sense of self.


Claude Steiner, suggested that as children, we are all indoctrinated by our parents with the following five restrictive rules about Stroking. When you read them, think about what you do with compliments and criticisms from others and how you speak to yourself:

  • Don't give Positive Strokes when we have them to give

  • Don't ask for Positive Strokes when we need them

  • Don't accept Positive Strokes if we want them

  • Don't reject Negative Strokes when we don't want them

  • Don't give ourselves Positive Strokes


Healthy Self Esteem is built on the following Stroke Economy

  • Strokes are limitless, we should therefore give Positive Strokes (compliments) when we can.

  • We are allowed to ask for Positive Strokes from other people.

  • If someone gives you a Positive Stroke, you can accept it.

  • If we don’t like the Negative Stroke (criticism) and it’s not deserved, we can reject it!

  • We are allowed to give ourselves Positive Strokes and feel good about it.


If you practice these new rules you will probably notice that your mood and self-esteem increases and it will reduce your social anxiety. But they need to be practiced daily for it to have an effect. Just notice if you feel good after you start, but it could be quite uncomfortable to start with.

Transactional Analysis, Communication, Life Positions, OK Corral
OK Corral Life Positions


Life Positions on the Okay Corral


When we’re under stress we tend to take on a life position which can cause a negative internal world or within relationships. When we’re aware of our life position, we can learn to take a healthier alternative (orange quadrant).



Transactional Analysis, Blame Model, Fault
Blame Model



Blame Model


When problems occur, we tend to take a blaming attitude which can cause further relational issues. Try practicing the Healthy Position when you’re next faced with a problem and see if it helps (green quadrant).






Games


We all talk about people ‘playing games’ or feeling like we’re stuck in a negative pattern asking ourselves ‘Why does this keep happening to me?’.

​An example is when we may have been trying to help someone but end up feeling bad:


Lucy - "Things are going so badly, no-one's there for me, I can't do anything..."

Emily - "Why don’t you do …?"

Lucy - "Yes, but…"

Emily - "What about...?"

Lucy - "Yes, but…"

Emily - ends up feeling frustrated and like she can't help Alice, snaps at her "Well don't take my advice then, I was only trying to help"

Lucy - continues to feel helpless and nothing changes "No-one can help me"


Both Emily and Lucy both end up feeling worse than when the communication started.

A game is a familiar pattern of behaviour with a predictable outcome. We are not playing Games to be manipulative, but they can come across this way to others, they are actually played unconsciously in an attempt to get our unmet needs met (but of course they don’t work!) or are replaying childhood experiences which feels familiar and reinforces our Injunctions or Drivers. In the example above, Lucy is trying to feel heard and feel better and Emily is trying to feel like she's OK for being helpful.


Drama Triangle


Dr Steven Karpman developed the Drama Triangle to help us understand the dynamics of the Games we unconsciously play.

Transactional Analysis, Communication, Drama Triangle, Karpman, Games, Persecutor, Victim, Rescuer
Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle feels good at first, which is why the Games become so habitual

  • Victims feel innocent;

  • Persecutors feel powerful;

  • Rescuers feel righteous.

However, in the end there is always a negative payoff and we get trapped in the cycle, feeling bad.



We can use the Drama Triangle to explore the example Game above:


Transactional Analysis, Communication, Winner's Triangle, Karpman, Games
Winner's Triangle

The Winner's Triangle


Alternatively, we can choose to take a position on the the Winner’s Triangle. These three Adult positions allow us to feel good and avoid the negative payoff:

  • Proactive (instead of Persecutor)

  • Responsible (instead of Rescuer)

  • Vulnerable (instead of Victim)



In the example I used above, either Emily or Lucy (or both) can choose to take a different attitude on the Winner's Triangle and therefore stay out of the :


Ways to stay out of Games


There are various ways to stop a game:

  1. Respond from a different Ego State – (see Crossed Transactions above) for example, if someone is being bossy (Parent) and we would normally say “yes” but then not do it (Child), we could respond from Adult and explain that they would appreciate it if they could ask us what they would like from us.

  2. Pick up the ulterior message – for example, when a person says "I can't do this, I'm useless" (Victim), instead of doing it for them (Rescuer) say, "It sounds like you have a problem, what do you need? (Responsible).

  3. Replace the Strokes we get from the Games we’re playing – we get a lot of strokes from games, even if they are negative. Give ourselves plenty of positive strokes in our daily lives for who we are and what we’ve done so we can feel better about ourselves and don’t need to take a negative position on the Drama Triangle.


Conclusion


I do hope you have enjoyed reading all about some of the key concepts in Transactional Analysis. Pick out what you notice about yourself, consider why these old patterns may have developed to protect or help you, but also how they now need updating now that you’re an adult and in different situations. Practice new ways of being in situations, remaining in Adult awareness and building healthier relationships, both in your internal world with your Inner Child and in your external relationships with those in your life.

 

Please follow me on Social Media for more information:

I am an accredited therapist and offer in-person therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) as well as online therapy within the UK. Please contact me to enquire about therapy:

 
References:

Berne, E. (1958). Transactional analysis: A new and effective method of group therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 12(4), 735-743.


Berne E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.


Karpman S. B. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin. 7(26), 39–43.


Steiner, C.M. (1971). The Stroke Economy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 1(3), 9-15.


Stewart, I. & Joined, V. (1987). TA Today: A New Introduction. Nottingham: Lifespace Publishing

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