A Little about TA
TA was born from the work of a post-modern, Canadian Psychiatrist named Eric Berne. Berne’s work in the area of TA is almost synonymous with his book Games People Play. In his research and in his book, Berne proposes that when people meet, something happens. Person A initiates some action, then Person B reacts in some way. The exchange is considered a basic unit of behaviour and is called a “transaction.” As laypeople, we’re not used to breaking down behaviors into such small parts. However, understanding these small parts, or transactions, is critical to understanding the TA model. It is also critical to understanding how we can affect change around us.
(First, get your mind out of the gutter; these kinds of strokes are the kind derived from communicating.) One way of making sense of a transaction is by viewing it in terms of strokes and counterstrokes. A stroke can be viewed as positive, as in the case of praise and recognition. For women, a stroke might sound like this:
Babe, thanks for the awesome job writing that letter that helped us get our loan. Gorgeous AND smart, how’d I get so lucky?
For the guys, a stroke might sound something like this:
Imagine that. You put in an especially hard day at work, then came home to your family with a sense of humor. So refreshing, honey.
Feels good just reading examples, doesn’t it? As humans, we like strokes. A lot. Even better if they come from the person we love the most. Counterstrokes, on the other hand? Not so much. Counterstrokes are negative responses in transactions, as in the case of scolding or irritation. (You probably don’t need examples, right?). Berne contended that human beings need strokes (the feel-goody stuff) like praise, affection and attention, and will behave in productive ways that will elicit this feel-goody stuff when prompted by the right triggers or “drivers.” People, says Berne, want to believe (and more importantly, feel) they are fundamentally “ok” and that others are fundamentally “ok,” too.
A Little about Ego States…
Berne also concluded that people have three predominant “ego states” from which they operate at any given time. These states are: Parent, Child, and Adult. These states act somewhat like internal tape recorders throughout our lives, recording experiences and playing them back throughout our day-to-day experiences. Our Parent ego state is a deeply-rooted voice of authority and conditioning – a synthesis of things we learn about the world from the time we are born until we are about 5 years old. Our Child ego state is the emotional body of long-collected data within each of us. It is the most basic of our human reactions and is the “go-to” response from the time of birth. It is expressed when we have strong internal reactions and feelings in response to external events. Ultimately, as the connotation of the word suggests, our Adult ego is our ability to think through situations to determine rational actions based on a synthesis of lots of received data and stimuli. The adult in us begins to form at around 10 months of age, and is the means by which we keep both our Parent and our Child in check.
Ego States in Action
Consider the following example to see how TA and the ego states are common in our everyday lives:
HUSBAND (Tom) TO HIS WIFE (Shelly):
Hon, would you mind picking up a couple of extra steaks at the store for tonight? John and Matt are going to stop by to watch the game and have a few beers.
Shelly’s Response Style:
Don’t you think it’s a bad idea to have the guys over on a Tuesday night? You’ve got a presentation tomorrow and it doesn’t seem like you’ve prepared one bit. If you lose your job, Tom, you’re putting your entire family in jeopardy.
Whatever you say, master. It’s not like I haven’t been with the kids all day and couldn’t stand to unwind with my friends, too.
Sure, honey. That’s a good way to let off some steam. I know you’ve been working hard lately and have a big day tomorrow. Maybe when things settle down a bit I’ll plan a night out with the girls, too.
Understanding our Parent ego’s values, morals and limits; our Child ego’s feelings and emotions; and our Adult ego’s sense of reason and balance helps us evaluate our method of interacting with our partner so that – ultimately – we can adapt it. Just a little adaptation can go a long way.
How to “Hook” your Partner so that Life is a LOT MORE Enjoyable!
A complementary transaction occurs when both partners are addressing the ego state the other is in. The goal is to accurately assess the state of our partner is in so that we can initiate a transaction that will elicit a productive, complementary response.
A: Were you able to make that deposit today? (Adult to Adult)
B: Yes, I stopped on my way to work this morning. (Adult to Adult)
A: Baby, I’m really missing you this week with your crazy work schedule. Let’s get a babysitter tonight and go somewhere to make out. I don’t care where we go! What say? (Child to Child)
B: Now THAT’S what I am talking about! I miss you too, gorgeous. I’m there! (Child to Child)
A: Thank you for not leaving your underwear on the floor this morning, sweetie. I was hoping one day my multiple requests would finally sink in. (Parent to Child)
B: How grateful are you? Grateful enough to kiss me and tell me a hundred times how much you love me? Better yet, why don’t you show me how happy you are! (Child to Parent)
You can feel how these statements, though they call on varying combinations of the ego states, are complementary. They work.
How Understanding our Own (and our Partner’s) Ego States Helps to Improve Relationships
In relationships, every time we initiate an interaction or react to our partner – when the “transaction” is complete – we can bet on one of two outcomes: feeling good or feeling not-so-good. The idea is to achieve the feel-goody feeling a lot more than the not-so-feel-goody feeling. By causing partners to be uber-aware of the “states” they are in, as well as more acquainted with their partner’s states so that simple exchanges can be more fruitful, TA offers couples the tools to handle a myriad of difficult moments and situations in a controlled and empowered manner (versus the off-the-cuff ways that can lead people down treacherous pathways quickly – ones that are hard to return from in many cases).
Psychological Theory Applied (Translation: Technical Garble Broken Down!)
Short of attending a seminar on Transactional Analysis, you’re going to have to practice these basics on your own, in your own way, before you fully understand the impact these concepts can make in your relationship. At the risk of telling the world about a side I’m not so proud of, allow me to share a personal story about my own experience with Transactional Analysis :
I am in the Psychology profession, which is how I came to learn about TA. When I told my husband I’d learned a new theory about how people interact that makes a lot of sense, he was interested. (I must have hooked his Adult state at just the right time!) I was lucky in that my hubby was “on board” with geeking out and trying to talk about our ego states as we bumbled through our next couple of weeks. In fact, since learning about TA, we’ve had a lot of fun “pointing out” our own (and even more fun – the other’s) “states.”
EXAMPLE: A few nights back, after our children went to bed, my husband wanted to make a special trip to get an ice-cream indulgence he mildly obsesses over (but that he has been trying to cut from his diet). He explained to me where he was going by saying “I know I’m in my Child state right now, but I’m going to get my Snickers concrete anyway.” My response? “Honey, whatever you want to do. I refuse to be in my parent state and be bossy- you know what you are doing.” We both spoke with a light-hearted (strangely – almost flirtatious) undertone and despite my best efforts – I was clearly in my Parent state. However, because he was in his Child state, he wasn’t all that concerned with my opinion about things and we both had a little chuckle.
In more serious moments, being so aware of where I’m at throughout the day-to-day in terms of my ego states, I have assessed that I spend a lot more time in my Parent state than I would have guessed, certainly more than I want, and more than my gorgeous, competent, thoughtful, ADULT husband deserves. Could that be – in part – because I’m a mommy to three very dependent children under four and I spend a lot of really valid time in the Parent state? Maybe. But actually it doesn’t matter why. It matters that I am not very good at flipping the switch to the Adult state my spouse deserves so I find myself interacting with my husband a lot the way I interact with my children. It actually undermines the integrity of our otherwise strong relationship to interact with my husband as though he is my child; and, besides that – conditions my husband not to have to take responsibility for being in his Adult state as much as he should, either. After all, when people treat us like children, it’s easy get comfy in that role.
So, after deciding to clomp around inside the halls of Transactional Analysis with my spouse for a few weeks, braced for the good, the bad, and the ugly… I would add to Berne’s Theory of TA that one of the greatest things to come from learning about it – albeit it very humbling and downright difficult at times – is a heightened sense of how we interact with others. How our own actions (tendencies, habits, etc.) affect others. Because of my own awareness of my states, I’ve been able to snap into the Adult state much more than my not-so-savory Parent role I apparently set as my “default.” My husband, in turn, has been talking to me a lot more about a lot of things, probably without the worry of being judged or admonished… or sent to time-out.
So – whether your partner’s on board or not – you, alone, hold a lot of power in improving the outcomes of literally hundreds of little and big interactions throughout the day. Collectively, that means you have the power to improve your relationship single-handedly. View it as a bonus prize (from your Child state) if your partner joins you in the effort.
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