Transactional Analysis And Ego States

Transactional Analysis is first and foremost a therapeutic tool for positive change and growth. It can be used either in therapy for the individual concerned or on a more surface level for problem solving in everyday life.

TA is basically the study of how people take on certain behaviors, either by accident or from their early caretakers or authority figures and then continue to play them out in their adult lives. It is a model for people to use to work towards ‘autonomy’, a place from where they can choose to live the way they want to and not to be still acting as if they are controlled by past events or messages.

Transactional Analysis then is a modern psychotherapy model, which has; it’s own particular language and theory of personality. It states that the person transacts with a person in certain ways, structures their time between life and death in a particular way, plays their own particular games and lives out their own unique script.

An understanding of Transactional Analysis can give hope for the person in that they can change their script and choose the way they want to re-write their own life plan, without hanging on to inappropriate behaviors of the past.

The creator of Transactional Analysis Was Eric Berne, a Psychiatrist and a man who was largely influenced by Freud,though by the time of his death in 1970,he had become a,in some ways, a critic of Freud. Transactional Analysis though does have its roots in Psycho dynamic theory.

The personality for Transactional Analysis, for Berne, is based on the recognition of three quite different ego states, called specifically the Parent, Adult and Child.

An ego state for Berne is:

‘a system of feelings accompanied by related set of behaviour patterns.’

For example, spontaneous feelings, compliance and rebellion are all features of the child ego state and may be activated by the individual at any time throughout his life.

Berne recognised that three such ego states must be in everyone and that together they make up the unique individuals Personality.

For Berne the ego states are not roles but are phenomenological realities.

Each ego state is concerned with what actually happened in the past for that person and how they acted will determine how they act in the here and now. The decisions that they made then will determine the decisions and behaviours they now make in the present.

The Parent Ego State

(Case Study One)

Bob was the leader of his group of friends and it was he who always set the time that they should meet, where they should go and what they ‘should do’. He often shook his finger at his friends reprovingly. People in his circle of friends eventually got fed up of him and many left the group.

(Case Study Two)

Mary and Joan were good friends and they went everywhere together. When Joan’s mother died it was Mary who looked after her and often put her arm around Joan saying such words as ‘Don’t worry about things. I will help you with all your work; I love you a lot you know’.

The above then, are examples of a controlling parent behaviour and a nurturing parent behaviour,of the Parent Ego state

The Parent Ego State

The parent ego state contains the attitudes and behaviours that are observed and copied from the individual’s caretakers and figures. In other words the spoken and unspoken rules. The “shoulds’ and the ‘oughts” of life. The individual’s early parent is formed in the child from birth to approx five years and in Transactional Analysis terms is called the parent in the child or the P1. The complete parent ego state or the P2 is formed between the ages of five years to approx twenty years as a result of even more external stimuli from their authority of caretaker figures.

When the P2 is activated in later life, the person will be acting in the ways that their authority figures will have acted, indeed this is the model that the individual will have incorporated into his own parent, though it must be noted that each individual will have a different parent ego state and will act in their own unique way.

The Adult Ego State

(Case Study Two)

James decided to go and see his aunt who lived in the next town – as he had never left his town before, he had to get his map out to work out how he would get there – this he did successfully and he got to his aunt’s house at the time he said he would. Thus we can see that James used his adult ego state to work out logically, given the facts, how to solve a given problem.

The Adult Ego State emerges around six months in the child and is concerned primarily with appraising facts, reasoning, thinking, evaluating and responding to available data.

It is described by many Transactional Analysis writers like a computer, concerned only with rationality and logic.

However, I think this position is some what misleading and I prefer Berne’s commentary, which describes that adult as coming from an integrated stance which does not mean that when the person activates their adult ego state he is coming from just a rational position, but that he also has access to feelings, thinking and attitudes. Indeed the person will be part of the ‘here and now’ and experiencing and coming from an integrated adult stance.

The Child Ego State

(Case Study One)

When john’s mother died when he was three years old, he was too young to really understand what had happened, he just felt hurt that his mother had gone away. When he was fifteen years of age, John had a hard time trusting women – he often complained that women left him and let him down a lot when he most needed them. Other people felt that women were really good to him and helped him a lot.

(Case Study Two)

Fiona when a small girl could get her father to do anything she really wanted. Indeed as she grew up she was very good at managing to get men to do what she wanted. Later, she was fired from several jobs by her bosses who said they felt she was manipulating them.

(Case Study Three)

As a child, Freda’s parents argued a lot and her major method of defense was to withdraw and spend a lot of time alone going for long walks. At eighteen she got sacked from many jobs for daydreaming and fantasizing. In her personal life, she would withdraw mentally if her friends argued with her. They got fed up with her and left.

People who spend a lot of time operating from a child ego state usually are acting as they did when they were a child. For example, Freda lost a lot of jobs because she daydreamed when she should have been concentrating on her work. Fiona attempted to manipulate men in her life with the expectation that she would get what she wanted as she had from her father when a child.

Being in your child ego state does not mean that you are being childish. It simply means that you are acting out as you did when you were a child.

The Child Ego State

The Child Ego State is primarily concerned with feelings though that does not mean that when in the ‘here and now’ experience the person does not have access to attitudes and thinking, but it simply means that when activated feelings are usually the executive energy force.

The child ego state is the part of the personality, which is preserved from actual childhood; it also contains all the impulses a person was born with. The child ego state is, as said above, primarily about spontaneous feelings, needs and wants of the child. It is also important to note that the child ego state contains ‘recordings’ of childhood memories and experiences. Therefore, when the person feels and acts as they did when they were very young, they are experiencing their child ego state.

The personality can be subdivided further into the Nurturing and Controlling parent and the Free and Adapted child. An example of the nurturing side of the parent ego state would be the person who lovingly takes care of the dog who go injured whilst crossing the road. An example of the controlling parent being activated would be in the person who might say ‘all dogs should be kept on leads and not allowed to roam free’ and do nothing to look after the injured dog. From this particular example we can see how the same ego state can act in different ways according to person’s past messages.

An example of the difference between the free and adapted child ego state would be for example, the person who complies to almost anything and perhaps may automatically say ‘thank you’ whilst repressing other feelings as opposed to the free child stance of free and spontaneous feelings, according to the situation. The free child is naturally inquisitive, curious and often does act without thinking of the consequences.

Another stance of the adapted child position is one of pseudo-rebellion. In other words, an aware adaptation to a particular situation is the flip child of the compliant child stance.

Again I think it is important to mention here that different people will respond differently to situations and thus different ego states will be activated according to their past messages in life. But, almost certainly, most people will have access to all parts of their personality if they wish, though according to their particular pathology, certain ego states may well dominate their personality in may situations of their lives.

Structural Pathology

This is the part of TA theory that deals with when we get, “stuck” in one Ego State or part of the Self.

The Two major parts of Structural Pathology are Contaminations and Exclusions.

Contamination’s between the different parts of the personality or ego states simply means that two ego states overlap or distort so that the person often feels he cannot keep the different ego states separate from each other.

He will often describe a ‘stuck’ feeling within his personality. A lot of work in Transactional Analysis is around alleviating this ‘stuck’ sensation or de-contamination, as it is known. An example of a child/adult contamination from a child stance would be a person stating,

‘If I believe my mother is not dead for long enough, she will not be’


‘If I wear my lucky medallion, I am bound to pass my exams without even revising.’

In other words, in these statements, there is obviously a distortion of adult reality from the child’s perspective. It is then necessary to cathart the adult. Contamination can also occur between parent and adult and often does; you may even diagnose double contamination between parent and adult and the child and adult ego states.

Contamination whether from a dominant parent or a dominant child ego state will lead to a dysfunctional ego structure and the person will stay in the unreal position for him or her. This may provide a certain degree of security for the person as it will be familiar to them, but it will also inhibit the real potential for positive change in their life. What the person needs to be able to do is to have access to all ego states and also be able to redistribute his energy evenly in all of them.

An example of a parent/child contamination would be when a person uses such statements as ‘coloured people are inferior to white people’ and ‘boys are cleverer than girls’.

These examples are obviously prejudiced and occur when the person acts or behaves as though something he believes in is the absolute truth and valid for all time. It often comes directly from their own authority figures and is not necessarily true, thus the person, instead of moving to check out the belief by using his adult ego state instead takes it straight on board into his own parent.

Identifying the different Ego States of the Self.

So far, I have described the structure and function of the different units of the personality and how you might be aware of which part you may be operating from in you life experiences. To enable you to identify even more specifically which ego state you are coming from in a specific situation, there are certain clues, which will help you. There are many ‘behaviours ‘which are typical of each ego state.

Your Child Ego State

When coming from a Child Ego State, your tone may be one of laughing, screaming, angry, rebellious, whining, helpless, stubborn or playful. Your words may be ‘wow! I love you. Brill. I hate you. Ace. Amazing. Incredible, I never do it right. Sorry!

Your Critical Parent Ego State

Your tone of voice may be harsh, strong, self-righteous, critical, ordering, dogmatic, uncompromising, overbearing. The posture here will likely be upright, hands on hips, wagging finger, head upright, invasive, erect. The words could be – lots of “woulds, Shoulds” disappointed in you, upset by your behaviour, eat all your food, children should be seen and not heard, don’t be late, stupid, when are you going to do…….., why have you not……….

Your Adult Ego State

The tone of voice may be measured, clear, precise, crisp, rational, logical. Words may well be very factual. ‘I see you are well, how long is it to London, what time is it, it is a fact it is cold today!

All the above words and behaviours, will then give you some clue as to what ego state that person is operating from and thus what you can do to change the situation for yourself. However, it must be remembered that these are only some of the clues for exact ego analysis, you will need more evidence or information for a positive and accurate diagnosis. You may need to ask more historical questions and certainly, you will need to see the person in the ‘here and now’ to be certain of you analysis.

The Egogram in TA theory

To talk about the ego structure and not to mention the innovation of the Egogram by Jack Dusay in the early 1970s would be a disservice in my opinion to Transactional Analysis. An Egogram is simply defined as:

‘a bar graph showing the relationship of the parts of the personality to each other and the amount of psychological energy emanating outward.’

The Egogram is a bar graph showing the amount of energy within the ego structure of the person and how he will re-distribute his energy within the different egos at one given time. Thus the most important aspect for the use of the Egogram in modern psychotherapy is that, it gives an evaluation of the distribution of energy in the personality, and it can be used by the individual to show how much energy is needed to be re-distributed to other parts of the personality to make positive change. It is simple to construct and use, for example, firstly, draw a horizontal line on a piece of paper. Underneath, label the five ego states – adapted child, free child, adult, controlling parent and nurturing parent.

Think of yourself at this particular time or at a specific moment in the past, draw whatever you feel is the most energised part of your personality, and draw it with a vertical line. (This will be your highest column.)

Now, using your intuition, draw the lowest energised part of your personality as it is in comparison with the other. (This will be the lowest column.)

Then fill in the other states as you see them in comparison with the above.

Having done the exercise, you should have now an egogram of the distribution of your energy within your personality at a given time. This will help you see where you might need at certain times to re-distribute your energy to help solve problems in life or therapy.

At this point it is important to mention the constancy hypothesis. As John Dusay suggests in his book on Egograms, when the energy in one Ego state increases, the energy in another Ego state decreases, which means that one can successfully distribute one’s energy from one Ego state to another. Indeed, having used Egograms successfully in my own self-evaluation whilst in therapy, and with my own clients within my practice, I have come to the conclusion’ that the creation of the Egogram by Dusay has been invaluable to modern psychotherapy and especially Transactional Analysis. Certainly, it shows graphically, the kind of person you are and will show you the way you can positively change to be the person that you want to be in your life.

Bob Cooke

Bob Cooke

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Bob Cooke is Psychotherapist, Trainer, Consultant and Supervisor with an international reputation.  In 1987 he founded the Manchester Institute for Psychotherapy (to the present day), of which he is the director. He is also responsible for the Institute’s training programme and oversees trainees from first year to full clinical membership of the UKCP.

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