I recently read Counselling For Toads, an introduction to Transactional Analysis set in the world of Wind in the Willows. Toad (of Toad Hall) is depressed, and his friends are worried about him. They encourage him to seek help in the form of some counselling, to better understand his feelings, and to learn to cope with them. The story is of Toad’s adventures in counselling, learning about himself, and figuring out his relationships with his friends.

It’s a lovely story, and a great introduction to Transactional Analysis (TA), a style of psychotherapy developed by Eric Berne. I’ll let you into the good news before you worry too much about poor old Toad: he makes a full recovery, and develops a new vigour for life. TA is very much of the opinion that all people are fundamentally good, have worth, and that emotional difficulties are curable.

There are a few key aspects to TA. These are models used to describe various aspects of people’s personalities, their emotional state, and their communication with others. These are:

  • How people are structured psychologically, modelled as the Parent, Adult and Child ego states.

  • Our life positions, which govern how we feel about ourselves (I’m (not) OK) in relation to other people (You’re (not) OK).

  • A way of analysing how people communicate with each other. Transactions represent a communication, including not only the words said, but the psychological meanings implied (or inferred), too. A ‘stroke’ is an individual unit of communication in this transaction. A ‘game’ is a particular, well known, transaction which has a particular set of rules that are followed through the communication.

  • Our “Life Script”, which is written at an early age, and defines our core beliefs. As an adult, our life script passes out of direct awareness, but it still drives what be believe and how we act.

Parent, Adult and Child

Your personality manifests itself in your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. An “ego state” is a facet of your personality which contains an organised cluster of these thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It’s understood that people rarely have truly distinct ego states (except in the case of multiple personality disorders), but it’s often useful to think of our personalities in terms of these ego states. Transactional Analysis defines three distinct ego states:

  • The Parent state, where you are acting (though not necessarily consciously) in the same way as your parents (or other parental/authority figures from your childhood) would act. Or at least how you interpreted those actions at the time – after all, these learned behaviours were developed when you were still very young! The Parent state can be positive – it can be nurturing and caring – or it can be critical.

  • The Child state, where your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours manifest themselves in the same way as they did when you were a child. The child state is the source of your emotions, creativity, and of your ‘innate’ reactions. Child-state behaviours can be positive too – carefree, creative, happy – or they can be ‘adapted’ to others.

  • The Adult state is the objective state, where you are taking in information, the surrounding context of a situation, evaluating it without the associated emotions and inhibitions. This is where you see reality for what it really is.

One of the goals of Transactional Analysis is learning to make more use of the Adult ego state, in addition to an awareness of the natural reactions of the Parent and Child states.

The Parent, Adult and Child ego states are within all of us, each becoming prominent in a variety of different situations. They don’t correspond directly to the actual roles of parents, adults and children. In fact, Malcolm (my son) telling me off for leaving my dirty socks in the living room would be an example of his Parent ego state at work (and, most likely, my rebellious Child state responding, petulantly saying, “I’ll pick them up later!”).

I’m OK, You’re OK

TA has the concept of a “life position”, which defines you psychological state on two axes: how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about others. This life position unconsciously affects all of your interactions with other people. It describes the four quadrants as:

  • I’m OK, you’re OK: I feel good about myself and others. I believe that other people are competent, and that they are acting in a way where they believe they’re doing the right thing. We’re all following the Retrospective Prime Directive.

  • I’m not OK, you’re OK: I don’t feel good about myself, and I think that everyone else is better than me. I’m not good enough, or not important enough for other people (who are far smarter/more important) to pay attention to. This is where Imposter Syndrome fits in. It’s also the quadrant most commonly associated with depression and sometimes with suicidal feelings.

  • I’m OK, you’re not OK: I’m better than everyone else. I’m fine, it’s other people who are weaker, not good enough, or damaged. At the most extreme, this is the realm of the psychopath.

  • I’m not OK, you’re not OK: I don’t feel good about myself, and I don’t feel good about the rest of the world, either. There’s no hope of rescue.

Both of these axes are continuums, and your position on them can change over time. Another goal of TA is to help you move into the, “I’m OK, you’re OK” quadrant, which is the nice, healthy, one to be in.

Strokes & Games

The core concept of Transactional Analysis is around, well, analysing transactions. A transaction is the flow of communication between two or more parties. It includes the verbal communication – the actual words used – and the underlying psychological intent of the communication. TA practitioners are often skilled at noticing non-verbal cues, like tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, in order to fully understand the transaction that is taking place.

Inside of a transaction, the individual units of communication are called strokes. More specifically, they are a unit of recognition or attention. Strokes can be positive (“you look nice today!”) or negative (“you’re an idiot!”). People need strokes and will seek to get whatever strokes they can, whether they are positive or negative. As children we try out different strategies for gaining strokes, developing our Child ego state. For example, a child might throw their dinner across the room, and get told off for it. That action has become something that generates a stroke of attention, albeit a negative one.

One of the concepts that TA shares with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is that of the ‘stroke filter’. (In CBT, it’s a cognitive bias often called ‘discounting the positive’.) The stroke filter stops you from perceiving particular strokes – either positive or negative ones. In a depressed state, you may well not hear positive strokes – people recognising your work, receiving praise, taking compliments. These strokes no longer fit with your mental model of yourself, so you’re unable to assimilate them. It’s not that you make an active choice not to hear these compliments, it’s really that you’re unable to accept them, because they don’t fit with your view of reality.

Transactions follow a couple of different patterns:

  • Reciprocal transactions are where the two participants are correctly addressing the ego state that the other person is in. They might both be in the same ego state (e.g. Adult <-> Adult conversation), or they might be in complementary ego states (e.g. one participant is the Parent talking to a Child ego state, and the other participant is in the Child ego state, responding to the Parent). This sort of transaction can continue indefinitely.

  • Crossed transactions occur when one participant is addressing an ego state the other isn’t engaged in. For example, a conversation initiated by the first participant is engaged as an Adult <-> Adult, but the respondent is really in the Child ego state and responds as they would to a Parent. This transaction often results in conflict.

A “game” is a sequence of transactions that occurs between two or more parties and leads to a predetermined outcome. Though not done consciously, both parties subconsciously know the outcome of the game and act their parts in it. Since this behaviour is subconscious, it’s always enacted between the Parent and Child ego states of the participants, as the Adult ego is the conscious awareness. Eric Berne’s best known book, Games People Play defines a catalogue of common games, describing the roles played in each, and the payoff that the players are looking for.

Counselling For Geeks

My idea when I started writing this was to try and think of analogies that would appeal to the likes of me, so that I could more effectively explain them. However, having reached this point, I’ve still only scratched the surface of Transactional Analysis. I’d like to do the same for other therapeutic strategies, including: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (spoiler alert: having had a few rounds of CBT, I don’t have a terribly high opinion – it feels like little more than a band-aid), Mindfulness, Cognitive Analytic Therapy, and Compassion-Focused Therapy.

I’ve had a little experience with most of them over the past year. There are many common themes throughout them, but there are some interesting differences, too. Different therapies suit different people, so it’s interesting to contrast the different techniques.

And I’d really like to figure out some analogous concepts from computer science, from engineering, or from geek culture, to help explain these concepts. Apart from anything else, I know that a good analogy helps to develop a deeper understanding of a concept.

So I’d like to ask for your help. Can you think of some analogies that would help to describe the concepts behind Transactional Analysis? How would you use geeky analogies to describe other therapies?

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