TENETS OF TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS. Like Freud, Berne acknowledged that the self is not fully rational and conscious. However, while fully recognizing the importance of developmental stages and the impact of caretakers’ messages during childhood, he was more concerned with a “here-and-now” practical approach to treating personality and communication problems than with establishing the historical origin of symptoms.
Berne saw that in addition to the Freudian id and super-ego, the conscious self, or ego, – that we each experience as “me” – is itself not one unit. Actually, we each operate with at least three co-existing systems, or “ego-states,” as he called them. He gave them the colloquial names of: “Parent”, “Adult”, and “Child”.
Berne (l972) defined ego states as “coherent systems of thought, feeling, manifested by corresponding patterns of behavior” (p.11). Actually I prefer to substitute the words “body language” for “behavior,” because the impulse for the corresponding behavior is not always evident, although it is experienced internally. The important issue about Berne’s discovery of ego states is that each ego state is a distinct system of interacting feelings, thoughts and potential behaviors that differ from those of the other ego states.
This idea represents a significant departure from other theories and therapeutic approaches, which may distinguish between feelings, thoughts and behaviors, but fail to recognize that there are at least three different actively operating systems within which different kinds of thoughts and feelings may combine to determine behaviors in at least three potentially different ways.
For instance, there are times when I can almost hear it when I say to myself: “You are an idiot to have done (or said) that!” or “You’re brilliant to have thought that”. This kind of dialogue may also take place non-verbally, for I may feel pangs in my stomach when a part of me feels scared of someone in authority, another part feels like lashing out against that person, and still another says “stop!” Then who is it that represents “me” in relation to others, and who is it who communicates with whom?
A transactional analyst will say that it was my Parent ego state who was addressing my Child ego state by criticizing her as an “idiot” or by praising her as “brilliant”. And then, perhaps, my Child wanted to lash out in anger, but my Adult suddenly said “Stop and think !” In so doing my Adult was asking me to check out reality rather than allow my Child to react against someone just because of anger at my Parent.
My Child ego state (the word Child is capitalized when referring to as an ego state, by contrast to a reference to a chronological child) represents all the children I used to be, pictures or whom you might see in a series of snapshots taken of me as I was growing up. These children thought, felt, and acted over the years and continue to exist within me, not only as memories, but, most significantly, as systems of thinking, feeling and acting in the “here-and-now”. Just as I did when I was little, my Child today may sometimes seek approval and adapt to what seems like an expectation of me, and at other times my Child may feel angry at an expectation and rebel.
My Parent ego state developed as I was growing up, taking on ideas, ways to behave, and values (including prejudices) from my different caretakers and the culture around me. This conglomerate often determines my values today, what I “should” be, or how I “should” act. Thus my Parent ego state may be supportive of my Child or that of others, or highly critical, according to values and ideas I have internalized. Lastly, in terms of development, my Adult grew out of experiences with “reality” and my increasing ability to reason and check assumptions with facts. (I put the word reality in quotes because some of reality is determined by the prevailing culture.) Ideally, this Adult can help me deal rationally with others so that I function well in the world. Theoretically, I could be “mature” all the time by using my Adult. (This is the assumption in psychoanalysis, where the goal is to reach total maturity.) In truth, however, it is not possible to achieve total maturity all the time; – nor is it desirable, for the world would be a dull place if peopled only by computer-like individuals. So, while it is important to learn how to call on one’s Adult, especially in times of crisis, for me it is equally important to use both my Child and Parent. In fact, it is mostly thanks to my Child that I developed the sense of self that connects me to my genetic roots and my potentials in life.