So what is TA, or Transactional Analysis?
The theory of Transactional Analysis was developed by Eric Berne, who wanted it to be accessible to everyone (unlike the traditional Freudian psychoanalysis). He chose to use simple words to describe very complex ideas and concepts.
The philosophical assumptions of TA are:
What does this mean?
People are OK: Sometimes I might not accept what you do, but I always accept who you are. Your behaviour might be not OK at all, but it does not mean that you are not OK as a person.
Everyone has the capacity to think: All of us, unless we are severely brain damaged, can think. Therefore we can decide what do we want from life. Then we have to live with the consequences of what we decide.
People decide their own destiny: When we are very little, we decide upon certain strategies that we then follow in our life. We needed these strategies in order to survive in the world of “grown-ups”, which sometimes seemed dangerous and hostile.
As we grow up, we still pursue the same strategies, even if the results we get are unproductive and painful. We do that just because it is familiar and comfortable to do so.
It was our decision to adopt these strategies and it can be our decision to decide to abandon them now. We cannot be made to feel or behave in a certain way by other people, it is always our decision to do so. People can change, but first, they have to make a decision to change.
EXAMPLE: Kevin comes to see a psychotherapist. If it was his decision to enter therapy, it means that he understands that his problems are not somebody else’s fault, but come from within himself and he can solve them. If, instead, he is forced into therapy by his wife, school teacher, employer etc. etc., therapy is not likely to produce any results. He will keep blaming everyone else for his misfortunes and continue to follow his old strategies.
The most basic concept of TA is the Ego-state model. An ego-state is the set of related behaviours, thoughts and feelings. It is a way we manifest a part of our personality at a given time.
If I am behaving, thinking and feeling in response to what is going on around me here and now, using my resources as a grown-up person, I am said to be in my Adult Ego-state.
At times, I may behave, think and feel in ways which are a copy of one of my parents or parent figures. On this occasion, I am said to be in my Parent Ego-state.
Sometimes, I may return to ways of behaving, thinking and feeling which I used when I was a child. It might indicate that I am in my Child Ego-state.
Let’s see how all this works for Kevin.
Kevin is at work. His boss comes up to him and asks: “Kevin, can you get this report done for me, please?” To which Kevin replies: “Yes, I can get it to you in half an hour”, which he then does. Here Kevin is in his Adult ego-state – he accessed the information available to him at the time and acted upon it.
Kevin is meeting a girl at the bar. He knows that the girl likes him, but as she is walking towards him across the busy restaurant, he suddenly remembers how his older sister used to say that he was stupid. His heart is beginning to race, he starts mumbling and talking nonsense and the girl does indeed begin to suspect that Kevin is not very smart. In this situation, Kevin was in his Child.
Kevin is driving a car. Another car with a woman behind the weel overtakes him. Kevin swears and says to his mate: “Woman behind the weel is a potential killer!” This is exactly what Kevin’s dad used to say.
We, therefore, can conclude that Kevin was in his Parent.
How does learning about Ego-states helps us in communicating with each other?
When I am interacting with you, I can choose to address you from any one of my three ego-states. You, in turn, can reply from any of your three ego-states. This unit of social interaction is called a Transaction.
There are different types of transactions.
A Complementary Transaction is one in which the transactional vectors are parallel and the ego-state addressed is the one which responds.
For example: Kevin elbows his friend and giggles, his friend elbows Kevin back, also in a friendly way. Both of them are in their Child Ego-states.
Or: Kevin’s girlfriend, Marianna, tells her friend: “Kevin never called me back. All men are pigs!” Her friend replies: “Yes, all of them!” Both girls are in their Parent ego-states, as they replicate ideas and behaviours that were modelled to them by their mothers.
A Crossed Transaction is one in which the transactional vectors are crossing and the Ego-state addressed is not the one which responds.
For example: Kevin asks his mother: “What time is it?” To which she starts shouting at him: “How dare you! You were meant to be home at 9!” Kevin addressed his mother from his Adult but got a reply from a Parent ego-state.
Or: Kevin’s boss comes up to him and sais: “Kevin, could you please prepare this report for me?” Kevin rolls his eyes and sais in a whiny tone: “Why always me? Can’t somebody else do it?” Here the boss addressed Kevin from his Adult but got a reply from Kevin’s Child.
Learning about Transactions helps us understand the Three rules of communication.
Rule 1: So long as transactions remain complementary, communication can continue indefinitely.
For instance: Marianna and her friend continue talking about men.
Marianna: You can never trust a man! How stupid I was.
Friend: Yeah, they are all the same…
Marianna: They are all such losers.
Friend: Yes, you can never rely on them to do anything. Take my husband.. (etc. etc.)
Both friends are in their Parent ego-state and the conversation can continue indefinitely.
Rule 2: When a transaction is crossed, a break in communication results and one or both individuals will need to shift ego-states in order for communication to be re-established.
Kevin’s boss comes up to him and starts shouting: “I have asked you to bring that report to me two days ago! What is going on? How many times do I have to ask?” He is in his Parent ego-state and is inviting Kevin to get into his Child and start apologising. Instead, Kevin sits up straight, looks confidently at his boss and calmly replies: “I will get it to you in half an hour”, which he then does. Here Kevin has chosen to access his Adult ego-state and crossed the transaction. Communication stops.
To understand the Third rule of communication, we first need to learn about the Ulterior transaction.
In an Ulterior transaction, two messages are conveyed at the same time. One of these is overt social level message. The other – the covert psychological level message.
Kevin comes home late. His mother greets him at the door: “Do you know what time it is?” Overtly, it is a question from an Adult position. But covertly, mother has hooked Kevin’s Child. So he starts apologizing: “I lost my watch, I did not know what time it was…”.
Rule 3: The behavioural outcome of an ulterior transaction is determined at the psychological and not at the social level.
When you and I transact, I signal recognition of you and you return that recognition. In TA language, a unit of recognition is called a stroke.
People need strokes to maintain their physical and psychological well-being.
There are different kinds of strokes: Positive or negative, conditional or unconditional.
For example: Boss is praising Kevin for the job well done. This is a positive conditional stroke.
Marianna tells Kevin:“Kevin, I love you!” This is a positive unconditional stroke.
Marianna’s friend Tania tells her: “You look fat in this dress”.
This is a negative conditional stroke.
Kevin’s sister tells him: “I hate you!” This is a negative unconditional stroke.
Receiving negative strokes is better than not getting any strokes at all. We need recognition in order to survive. That is why children often misbehave in order to be shouted at – at least this way they are certain that they parents have noticed them! If we did not get enough positive strokes as children, we might have figured out ways of getting negative strokes instead. As grown-ups, we might repeat this strategy by unconsciously seeking out negative strokes.
For instance, Kevin can set himself up to be repeatedly fired from different jobs.
Before we talk about the concept of Games, we need to learn about Rackets.
As young children, we notice that in our family, certain feelings are encouraged while others are prohibited. For instance, in Kevin’s family, it was OK to get angry, shout or fight, but it was not OK to cry or express sadness in any other way.
To get our strokes, we might decide to feel only the permitted feelings. This decision is made without conscious awareness. In grown-up life, we keep substituting real feelings with the one feeling that was OK to experience. These substitute feelings are known as Racket feelings.
For example: Kevin is dumped by a girl. She tells him that she does not want to see him anymore. Kevin is really sad about being abandoned. But sadness was a forbidden feeling in Kevin’s family, so he feels angry instead. He swears and storms out of the door.
You can find out what is your own Racket feeling, by doing the following exercise: Imagine, you are in a supermarket. It is the last day before the public holiday and the shop is going to close in an hour. You need to buy groceries to last you for three days of a holiday period. 5 minutes before the closing time you come up to the till with the trolley full of groceries. You are about to pay when you discover your wallet is missing. What do you feel?
Every time we experience a Racket feeling we are said to be saving a Stamp.
I can “cash it in” straightaway, by, for example, having a fight or bursting into tears. Or I can store it, in which case I am “saving a stamp”.
For example: Kevin’s boss criticises him. Kevin feels angry but does not show it. Kevin’s mother asks him to drive her across the city after work to do some shopping. Kevin feels angry but is afraid to say no. Kevin is driving home and another car overtakes him, forcing Kevin to break sharply. The car is gone before Kevin could express his anger.
Kevin is having a drink after work. Somebody elbows him, pushing past him to the bar. Kevin gets really angry and pushes the man to the floor. He gets into a fight and ends up in a hospital. Kevin has «cashed in» his stamps.
In order to experience our Racket Feeling, we sometimes set up Games.
A Game is a repetitive sequence of transactions in which both parties end up experiencing Racket Feelings.
We play Games to confirm our view of the world and ignore the aspects of reality that do not fit in.
There is an infinite variety of Games that people set up. If you are interested in this concept, I would recommend you to read a great book by Eric Berne “Games People Play”.
Usually, we unconsciously look for people, who would be willing to play our particular type of Game. The game always includes a Switch – a moment, when players experience that something unexpected and uncomfortable has happened. People play Games outside awareness.
For example: Marianna’s and her friend Sarah’s favourite game is “Why don’t you? Yes, But…”
Marianna is complaining about her job. Her friend, Sarah, wants to be helpful.
Sarah: Why don’t you look for a better-paid job?
Marianna: I could, but I need to be better qualified to find something worth applying for.
Sarah: Why don’t you enrol in an Open University course?
Marianna: I guess, I could, but I am always so busy!
Sarah: Well, before you find time to do that, why don’t you start looking anyway?
Marianna: Yes, but now, with credit crunch happening, it is not really a good time to look for a job.
In the end, Sarah starts feeling irritated and gets angry at Marianna for rejecting her offers to help. Marianna, in turn, experiences her Racket feeling of being misunderstood.
Each of us, in childhood, writes our own life-story. This story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We write the basic plot before we are even able to talk and then add more details to the story later in childhood. Most of the story is complete by the age of 7.
As grown-ups, we are usually no longer aware of our life-story. Yet, unconsciously, we follow it meticulously. We set up our lives in a way, so we can move towards the final scene we decided upon as infants.
This life-story is known in TA as our Life-script.
When we are doing script-analysis, we use the concept of the life-script to understand how people may unawarely set up problems for themselves and how could we go about solving these problems.
For example, Kevin might come to therapy, complaining about relationship problems. We will then set up to explore a possible life-script, that Kevin might have written for himself. If we find out that Kevin has decided very early on in life, that he was unlovable and stupid, and in what circumstances this decision was made, we will then be able to work together with Kevin on changing these early decisions.
The child makes up a life-script because it is the best survival strategy at the time. In our Child Ego-state, we believe that any threat to our infant picture of the world is a treat to the satisfaction of our needs or even to our survival. In order to avoid that, we tend to distort reality to fit our script. When we do so, we are redefining.
To make sure that reality fits our script, we often ignore the information available to us. We unconsciously “don’t notice” the aspects of reality that contradict our script. This process is called discounting.
People discount at different levels: the existence of the problem, the significance of the problem, change possibilities, personal abilities.
For example: Kevin’s friend comes to see him and says:“Kevin, why don’t you have a girlfriend?” To which Kevin replies: “What girlfriend? What do you mean?” Here Kevin would be discounting the existence of a problem.
Kevin could also have said: “Yes, I know, but I don’t really care!” Then he would be discounting the significance of a problem.
If, instead, he would reply: “Yes, I am not happy about it myself. But it is hard to find a nice girl nowadays”. Here Kevin would be discounting the possible solutions of a problem.
Or, if Kevin would have responded: “Yes, I would like to meet someone. But I am just not the type that girls like”. Then Kevin would be discounting his own abilities to solve a problem.
As a part of maintaining our Script, we might sometimes replay our early relationships in the here and now. We do that in order to resolve very early conflicts and dilemmas that we encountered in life. But, most often than not, instead of resolving the conflict, we just repeat our familiar patterns and experience familiar feelings.
When we do that, we are said to be engaging in a Symbiotic relationship. We do this without being aware of it. One of the partners in a relationship plays the part of Parent and Adult, whilst another one is being a Child. Between them, they function as though they have only three instead of six Ego-states available.
It is quite normal for a mother and a baby to be in a Symbiosis, but not so for two grown-up individuals.
For example: Kevin is in a Symbiotic relationship with his mum.
Kevin’s mum earns a living, looks after the house, decides where Kevin is going on holiday to and which girlfriend he should go out with. Kevin usually complies with his mum’s decisions, although sometimes he sulks or rebels against his mum, just like a 3-4-year-old would do. Kevin is discounting his abilities to take his own decisions. Kevin’s mum sometimes complains about her son’s attitude and wishes he would «grow up», but does nothing to change the situation. She discounts her own needs to be looked after and to have fun.
So is there a life after Script? What is the ultimate goal of Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy?
To realize our full potential as grown-ups, we need to update the strategies for dealing with life which we decided upon as infants. If these strategies are no longer working for us, we should replace them with the new ones, that work. Our aim is to move out of Script and into Autonomy.
Autonomy implies the ability to solve problems using our full resources as a grown-up.
Autonomy comprises Awareness, Spontaneity and Intimacy.
Awareness is the capacity to see, hear, feel, taste and smell things as they really are, without filtering or interpreting them. It means being in contact with our own body and its sensations as well as with external stimuli.
For example, Kevin is at work. He is feeling unwell and suspects he might have a flu. His body tells him to stop and go home. But the Parent in his head urges him to continue working and ignore his illness. In his Child Kevin is scared that his boss will not be pleased if he takes a day off. But Kevin makes his choice, gets up and goes home. Here Kevin has displayed his capacity for Awareness.
Spontaneity means the capacity to choose from a full range of options and respond directly to the world, without discounting, interpreting or re-defining reality.
For example, Kevin is in a pub. A nice looking girl comes up to him and smiles. Kevin would like to offer to buy her a drink, but the Parent in his head immediately reminds him, that girls don’t fancy him. Kevin’s Child is scared of a rejection. But Kevin decides to take the situation as it is and buys a girl a drink. Here Kevin has chosen to act spontaneously.
Intimacy means an open sharing of feelings and wants between you and another person. The feelings expressed are authentic, so Intimacy excludes the possibility of racketeering or game-playing.
For example, Kevin would like to tell his new girlfriend that he loves her. Usually, he would play the game of being cool and indifferent, waiting for a girl to make the first step. It was a safe strategy, whether now he is risking of being rejected. But Kevin decides to be brave and expresses his feelings to Helena. To his surprise, Helena tells him she loves him too. Intimacy means taking a greater risk, but it also brings the greatest rewards.