The main therapeutic approaches – Part 4 – Transactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis (TA) was originally conceived by Eric Berne in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He started out as a follower of Freud and trained as a psychoanalyst but over time, began to believe that the approach took too long to bring about change.  He started to develop his own theory by incorporating ideas from psychoanalysis and the humanistic approaches. 

Berne’s theory kept with the psychoanalytic belief that childhood experiences influence adult behaviour.  He described it as a “script” which was unconsciously written when we were young.  Then, as we grow, he suggested that we seek out situations and people who reinforce our script belief.  This means that people who have had a healthy childhood with “Good Enough” parents will generally have a positive and healthy life as adults, feeling able to cope to a greater degree when things go wrong.  However, if a persons experienced an unhealthy childhood, e.g. with an absent or abusive parent, they are likely to seek out people or situations in adult life who will make them feel the same way.  Berne suggested that a person’s script is maintained by the following factors:

  • Stroke filter – A stroke is a form or recognition and can be physical (e.g. a hug or a slap), verbal (e.g. a comment) or non-verbal (e.g. a look or body language).  They can also be positive (e.g. a reward), or negative (e.g. punishment).  A person’s stroke filter will allow through any strokes we believe we deserve (whether positive or negative) and will disregard any which we believe we don’t deserve.  As such, people who have a negative script find it very difficult to accept certain (or maybe all) positive strokes as their filter disregards them before they can be integrated into the unconscious.   

  • Games – Despite the positive sound, Games are an unhealthy process in TA terms.  Games generally take place between two people with the eventual outcome reinforcing the script belief in both people.  Games always take place in the unconscious and even people who are psychologically aware often fail to recognise them until the Game is complete. 

  • Rackets – These are similar to Games, but take place internally within you rather than with another person.  A racket describes us attempting things or putting ourselves in situations which unconsciously we know will reinforce our script belief.  E.g. a belief “no one will accept me if I were to admit I’m struggling” may encourage the individual to unconsciously push people away, keep them at arms-length which will then lead them to not accepting the individual.  The individual then believes they were correct in their original assumption and thus the script is reinforced.

Another of the main concepts within TA theory is Ego States.  Berne believed that at any time, we operate out of one of three Ego States.

  • Parent Ego State – When we behave, use phrases or think in a way that our parents (or others with significant influence in our lives) did.  E.g. liking the same TV programme as our parents, supporting the same football team, using the same words to describe an ethnic group, etc.

  • Adult Ego State – Reacting to situations in the here and now in a rational, reasonable way.  The Adult Ego state is often logical, although emotions can come into the Ego State if it is appropriate to the situation, e.g. Anger over mistreatment, joy over a pleasant surprise, etc. 

  • Child Ego State – Behaving, thinking or feeling as we did when we were a child, e.g. being free and fun, being rebellious or conforming to others expectations. 

All the Ego States can be either positive or negative and analysing the transaction between two peoples Ego States can be extremely revealing.  We shall explore Ego States further in future blog posts. 

TA is my preferred approach to treatment as it integrates several different theories.  It helps clients to understand where their difficulties originated from, how they are being maintained and how they can be changed in the future.  Although it usually involves long term work (e.g. over several years or longer for severe trauma), it can also be effective over shorter time frames. 

As I specialise in Transactional Analysis, many of my future posts will revolve around this approach, delving deeper into the specifics of this form of treatment.