What is transactional analysis (TA)?

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Transactional analysis is a school of psychotherapy and personality theory. Many of TA’s key concepts, such as therapeutic contracts, games, and life scripts, have been accepted in the general psychotherapy community.
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Transactional analysis (TA) is a theory of personality and social interaction originated by Eric Berne in the mid-1950s. TA’s popularity has been primarily as a form of psychotherapy and a method for improving social interactions between people in almost any setting—from the group therapy room to business and industry. Berne rejected psychoanalytic therapy, which he considered a type of game called “archaeology,” in favor of his own short-term, action-oriented, commonsense approach to psychotherapy. Before entering a group psychotherapy session, Berne would ask himself, “How can I cure everyone in this room today?” In 1964, Berne’s book Games People Play created a popular interest in a theory of personality and psychotherapy unequaled in the history of psychology; the book sold more than a million copies.

The basic concepts of transactional analysis describe an individual personality and the individual’s repetitive patterns of interacting with others. Three distinct ego states compose the individual personality: “parent,” “adult,” and “child.” Berne observed these as distinct phases in his patients’ self-presentations. The child ego state within each individual is defined by the feeling, creative, and intuitive part within the person. The child ego state may be approval-seeking or defiant. The fun-loving or “free” side of the child state is curious, spontaneous, and impulsive. Parental discipline, when too harsh or inconsistent, often damages this spontaneous and free child; the adapted child is what then results. The adapted child can have a broken or rebellious spirit and may develop depression or addictions. In either case, the individual, authentic self becomes distorted because of an excessively compliant or defiant adaptation.

The adult ego state is objective and, in a sense, resembles a computer. The adult retrieves, stores, and processes data about physical and social reality. Task-oriented behavior and problem solving are the domain of the adult. If one were trying to build a bridge or do homework, the adult ego state would serve best; however, many problems require the assistance of the intuitive and creative child to be solved most effectively.

The parent ego state is an internalization of one’s biological parents or other substitute authority figures in early childhood. The parent state judges, criticizes, and blames. This harsh side of the parent state is the critical parent. In contrast, Berne also recognized the nurturing parent that soothes, encourages, and gently supports the individual. The nurturing parent calls forth the free child, while the critical parent conditions the adapted child. The parent ego state is like a tape recording of the “dos and don’ts” of one’s family of origin and culture; it may contain obsolete information. When in the parent state, one may point or shame with an extended index finger or disapproving scowl.

Role of Transactions

Transactions are basic units of analysis for the TA therapist. A transaction occurs when one individual responds to the behavior of another. Transactions are called complementary when both persons interact from compatible ego states. For example, a feverish child asks her parent for a glass of water, and the parent complies. A crossed transaction occurs when individuals in incompatible ego states interact. For example, a whining and hungry child asks a parent for an ice cream cone, and the parent (speaking from her adult ego state) reminds the child that it would not be nutritious. The child cannot incorporate the adult data. Another important type of transaction is the ulterior one. An ulterior transaction occurs when the spoken message is undercut by a hidden agenda. To exemplify this, Berne cited a cowboy who asks a woman to leave the dance and go look at the barn with him. The face value of his adult-to-adult question is subtly undercut by a child-to-child sexual innuendo.

Ulterior transactions, when not clearly understood by both parties, lead to “games.” A game by definition is a social transaction in which either one or both members of the duo end up feeling “bad.” This bad feeling is experienced as a payoff by the game perpetrator; the game pays off by confirming the player’s existential life position. For example, the game that Berne called “blemish” involves an existential life position of “I am not OK, you are not OK.” In this game, the player exhaustively searches his or her partner for some defect, such as a personality quirk or physical imperfection. Once this defect or blemish is found, the player can hold it up as proof that others are not OK. One thus avoids examining one’s own blemish while providing that “others are no good.” An example of this can be seen in the chronic bachelor who cannot find a woman who measures up to his perfectionistic standards for marriage.

Racket Feelings and Life Scripts

“Rackets” are the negative feelings that one experiences after a game. Racket feelings are chronic and originate in the early stroking patterns within one’s family of origin. In the game of blemish, the player will ultimately feel lonely and sad, while the victim may feel hurt and rejected. Berne compared rackets to stamp collecting: When one collects ten books of brown stamps from playing blemish, they can be cashed in for a divorce or suicide.

Life scripts emerge through repetitive interactions with one’s early environment. Messages about what to expect from others, the world, and self become ingrained. A script resembles an actor’s role in a drama. An important outcome of one’s early scripting is the basic decision one makes about one’s existential position. Specifically, the basic identity becomes constellated around feelings of being either OK (free child) or not OK (adapted child). Coping strategies are learned that reinforce the basic decision. Life scripts can often be discovered by asking individuals about their favorite games, heroes, or stories from their childhood. Once individuals become aware of their life scripts, they can be presented with the option of changing them. If a script does not support a person’s capacity to be an authentic winner in life, the TA therapist will confront it. TA holds that people are all born to win.

Use in Psychotherapy

Transactional analysis has been applied to the areas of individual and group psychotherapy, couples and family relationship problems, and communication problems within business organizations. This widespread application of TA should not be surprising, since TA’s domain is wherever two human beings meet. Berne believed that the playing of games occurs everywhere, from the sandbox to the international negotiation table. Consequently, wherever destructive patterns of behavior occur, TA can be employed to reduce dysfunctional transactions.

TA’s most common application is in psychotherapy. The TA therapist begins by establishing a contract for change with his client. This denotes mutual responsibilities for both therapist and client and avoids allowing the client to assume a passive spectator role. The therapist also avoids playing the rescuer role. For example, Ms. Murgatroyd (Berne’s favorite hypothetical patient name), an attractive thirty-two-year-old female, enters therapy because her boyfriend refuses to make the commitment to marry her. Her contract with the therapist and group might be that she either will receive a marriage commitment from her boyfriend or will end the relationship. As her specific games and life script are analyzed, this contract might undergo a revision in which greater autonomy or capacity for intimacy becomes her goal.

During the first session, the therapist observes the client’s style of interacting. The therapist will be especially watchful of voice tone, gestures, and mannerisms and will listen to her talk about her current difficulties. Since games are chronic and stereotypical ways of responding, they will appear in the initial interview. For example, her dominant ego state might be that of a helpless, whining child looking for a strong parent to protect her. Ms. Murgatroyd may describe her boyfriend in such bitter and negative terms that it is entirely unclear why a healthy adult would want to marry such a man. Discrepancies of this sort will suggest that a tragic script may be operating.

During the first few interviews, the transactional analysis includes game and script analyses. This might require some information about Ms. Murgatroyd’s early childhood fantasies and relationships with her parents but would eventually return to her present behavior and relationship. The early history would be used primarily to help the therapist and client gain insight into how these childhood patterns of interacting are currently manifesting. Once the games and script have been clearly identified, the client is in a much better position to change.

After several interviews, in which Ms. Murgatroyd’s past and recent history of relationships is reviewed, a pattern of her being rejected is evident. She acknowledges that her existential position is “I am not OK, you are not OK.” Her repeated selection of men who are emotionally unavailable maintains her racket feelings of loneliness and frustration. She begins to see how she puts herself in the role of victim. Armed with this new awareness, she is now in a position to change her script. Through the support of the therapist and the group, Ms. Murgatroyd can learn to catch herself and stop playing the victim.

Therapist Techniques

Berne believed that the original script could best be changed in an atmosphere of openness and trust between the client and therapist. Hence the TA therapist will at all times display respect and concern for his or her client. At the appropriate time in therapy, the therapist delivers a powerful message to the client that serves to counteract the early childhood messages that originally instated the script. Ms. Murgatroyd’s therapist, at the proper time, would decisively and powerfully counterscript her by telling her, “You have the right to intimacy!” or “You have the right to take care of yourself, even if it means leaving a relationship.” Since the existential life position is supported by lifelong games and scripts, which resist change, TA therapists often employ emotionally charged ways of assisting a client’s script redecision.

To catalyze script redecision, a client is guided back in time to the original scene where the destructive message that started the losing life script was received. Simply being told differently by a therapist is not always strong enough to create an emotionally corrective experience that will reverse a life script. Once in the early childhood scene, the client will spontaneously enter the child ego state, which is where the real power to change lies. This time, during the therapeutic regression, the choice will be different and will be for the authentic self.

Ms. Murgatroyd, who is struggling to change an early message, “Don’t be intimate,” needs to reexperience the feeling she had at the time she first received this message and accepted it from her adapted child ego state. In the presence of the therapist and group, she would role-play this early scene and would tell herself and the significant parent that she does have the right to be intimate. These words would probably be spoken amid tears and considerable emotional expression. The parent(s) would be symbolically addressed by her speaking to an empty chair in which she imagines her significant parent sitting: “Whether you like it or not, I’ll be intimate!” She would tell herself that it is OK to be intimate. This time she will make a new decision about her script based on her authentic wants and needs, rather than on faulty messages from early childhood. Ms. Murgatroyd’s further TA work might involve new contracts with the therapist and group as she integrates her new script into her daily life.

Influences of Other Approaches

The general thesis of TA that current behavior is premised on responses to emotional trauma of early childhood is generally agreed on by most psychologists. Early life experience teaches people a script, a behavioral pattern, which they then repetitively act out in adulthood. Behavioral and humanistic schools alike recognize the formative role that early experiences play in adult behavior patterns; these ideas are not original to TA. TA’s contribution is to have created a vocabulary that demystifies many of these ideas and provides a readily learned method of psychotherapy.

Transactional analysis evolved as a form of short-term psychotherapy beginning in the mid-1950s. Berne’s early work in groups as a major in the Army during World War II helped him identify the need for both group and short-term therapy. The human growth and potential movement of the 1960s added momentum to the transactional analysis approach. TA’s recognition of the innate goodness of the free child prior to the damage of early parental injunctions and self-defeating scripts was consistent with the then emerging humanistic schools of psychology. Berne began using TA as an adjunct to psychoanalysis, but he eventually rejected the psychoanalytic idea of the dynamic unconscious. Berne’s move away from the unconscious and Freudian system paralleled developments in other schools of psychology. Both behavioral psychologists and the cognitive school wished to move away from what they saw as “depth psychology” fictions.

Most of the TA jargon and concepts can be readily seen to correspond to equivalent ones used by other psychologists. Sigmund Freud’s constructs of the superego, ego, and id bear a noteworthy similarity to Berne’s parent, adult, and child. The superego as the internalized voice of parental and societal values to regulate behavior nearly coincides with Berne’s parent ego state. Freud’s ego and the adult ego state similarly share the responsibility of solving the individual’s problems with a minimum of emotional bias. Freud’s id as the instinctual, spontaneous part of the personality shares many characteristics with Berne’s child ego state.

Berne’s concept of a game’s “payoff” is clearly what the behaviorists call a reinforcer. The idea of scripts corresponds to the notion of family role or personality types in other personality theories. For example, an individual with a dominant child ego state would be labeled an orally fixated dependent type in Freudian circles.

Interest in Dysfunctional Families

The psychological role of dysfunctional families has become a topic of conversation for many nonspecialists. The explosion of twelve-step self-help groups has evidenced growing concern about America’s mental health; the prominent role of shame and abandonment experiences in early childhood is receiving widespread interest. This surge of interest in making mental health services available to all society is a continuation of what TA practitioners pioneered. It is likely that future developments in the mental health field will draw on the rich legacy of TA.

Rescripting Methods

Finally, pure transactional analysis as practiced by Berne in the 1960s right before his death has been modified by TA therapists who combine it with emotive and experiential techniques. Many TA therapists found that life scripts failed to change when their clients merely executed new adult decisions. Powerful therapeutic experiences in which the individual regresses and relives painful experiences were necessary. These enable the client to make script redecisions from the child ego state, which proved to be an effective source of change. Future TA therapists are likely to continue enhancing their methods of rescripting by eclectically drawing on new methods of behavior change that go beyond traditional TA techniques. The intuitive child ego state, on which TA therapists freely draw, promises creative developments in this school of psychotherapy.


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