October 25, 2021

Transactional Analysis: Ego States

By Doxa Zannou

Identity Development

Do you have a friend or family member who is “stuck in the past” or “stuck in their childhood”? Or do you find yourself regressing to a child-like state in arguments with loved ones? Have you ever said or acted in a way that reminded you of your parents, and it completely blindsided you because it was the most unconscious reaction you had in that moment? If you said yes to any of these, and are curious to understand more, Transactional Analysis is a great, psychoanalytic theory that explains these common phenomena. This blog is an overview.

3 Main Premises of Transactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis was developed by Eric Berne and has 3 main premises: 

  1. The human mind can be divided into 3 ego states named the “Parent,” “Adult,” and “Child.” Ego states describe the psychological mindset you are in, during a particular interaction, event, or “transaction.” Your ego state includes your verbal and nonverbal expressions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, which change from state to state.
  2. We relate to others through a series of ‘transactions,’ and these transactions are influenced by the ego state in which we function.
  3. We live our lives according to life scripts and life positions that we are not always conscious of, and that nonetheless dictate our values, passions, and goals. 

In today’s article, we will discuss the first premise, and we will explore future premises in upcoming posts. Let’s dive in! 

The Child Ego State

The Child ego state develops first and includes all the childlike thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you have. It can either be preserved as you grow older, or it can be fixated or stuck in a specific time or place in the past. When you shift to your Child ego state, you begin to think, act, or speak the way you did as a child. The Child ego state can be divided into 2 additional categories: The Natural Child or the Adapted Child. 

The Natural Child is spontaneous, expressive, self-loving, and inherently hedonistic. It is the version of the child that has not yet been “trained” so-to-speak. It can be fun and carefree, but will also rebel, bully, throw temper tantrums, or go to whatever means necessary to get what it wants. Healthy individuals are able to express the positive qualities of their Natural child instead of stifling or ignoring it. 

The Adapted Child is the “trained” version of the child, who is adaptive, compliant, submissive, and obedient. The Adapted Child is who your parents disciplined you to be. The Adapted Child can believe it is inherently “bad” or “damaged” and must seek external validation to be “good.” Operating from this ego state can be helpful if you are taught to exhibit positive traits such as respect, patience, empathy, etc. However, operating from this ego state can be harmful if you are taught to thoughtlessly submit to authority figures or obey orders that are harmful to you or others. 

The Parent Ego State 

The Parent ego state is based on what you were taught in your early childhood up until you were about five years old. Your experiences are unconsciously internalized and accepted by your brain without you processing, judging or filtering them. Some examples of such events recorded without much thought include, “don’t talk to strangers,” “stay away from hot objects,” and, “always say thank you.” If you are a parent, you are likely to recognize this state in how you parent your own children. Alternatively, you can also recognize this parent state in your young children. The parent state is essentially like the voice of your parents, inside your mind at all times, speaking to you, or speaking through you. The parent ego state can either be a Nurturing Parent or a Critical Parent, depending on the situation. 

The Nurturing Parent is loving, kind, and comforting. A common example of young children who operate from their nurturing parent ego state can be seen when they swaddle dolls and sing them lullabies. Operating from the Nurturing Parent ego state can be detrimental if you begin caring for others at your own expense, or if you enable others to depend on you. 

The Critical Parent is judgmental, harsh, condemning, and blaming. The critical parent can be the voice in your mind judging you for crying, and telling you to, “stop being so emotional!” If you are operating in your Critical Parent state, you may even display a sour face, creased eyebrows, and crossed arms, or other nonverbal cues your own parents displayed towards you as a child. The critical parent can be helpful in situations where you must determine the right course of action, or the standards of behavior to which you ought to hold yourself and others accountable.

The Adult Ego State

The Adult ego state lives in the “here and now,” and is realistic. It makes logical and rational decisions, and reacts with confidence, calm and attentiveness to the present. It tends to be objective when interpreting and analyzing a situation, and weighs strengths and weaknesses without prejudice. It is the state that allows you to reason and evaluate all stimuli impartially for future use.

When speaking to clients, I have often heard their Adult state say things like, “I know I was being harsh,” “I knew I was overreacting,” “I know my emotions are valid and should not be numbed,” “I know I am capable, even though part of me is terrified,” etc. The Adult state mediates your Parent and Child state. When the adult is strengthened, it allows you to operate in the here-and-now, while shifting in your parent or child states only when appropriate. 

Transactional Analysis In Therapy

If you resonate with any of these ego states, and would like to understand how they show up in your life, therapy would be a great place to start! Together we can explore how you shift through these ego states, and how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change towards yourself and others depending on which state you are operating in. As mentioned above, the goal of therapy is to strengthen your adult state so that you can show up in your relationships, fully present and aware of the ‘here-and-now.’ Of course, functioning from your adult state does not mean dismissing the other ego states. It simply means that you are able to act from the Child or Parent state when appropriate, instead of simply reacting because you are stuck in the past, triggered by unconscious childhood wounds, or repeating your parents’ unhealthy reactions.

If you recognize that your Adult state needs to be strengthened and empowered, I would love to connect with you so we can begin this process together. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment!


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