Even the most confident and socially adept person suffers the effects of Transactional Analysis (TA, Eric Berne). We can at times become unable to interact to our usual standards with certain people. It doesn’t matter whether we know them well or have just met; there is something about them that causes a change in us, a loss of confidence, a feeling of inferiority, and many other associated feelings and emotions.
The foundation of TA is that we have several pre-set ways of interacting (ego-states) with people or in certain situations. This is not just on a superficial level in the way we adapt to certain situations or people, but a much deeper change; it affects mood, emotion, feelings, thoughts, demeanour, confidence and many other facets of our being. Most of the time the selection of our ego-state is subconscious and based upon the familiarity of a situation or person in relation to our past experiences. While it usually provides a reasonably functional interaction, on occasion, and for no apparent reason, we can experience the feelings listed above.
Interactions or transactions?
Berne calls every interaction we have with another person a transaction. It sounds very clinical but it is in fact an appropriate way to describe it. He suggests that it explains our desire to gain recognition from others. Deep down every interaction we have is an opportunity to achieve recognition in some way. By analysing how we feel and what we think during these transactions we can begin to understand ourselves more astutely.
Berne also suggests that in order for an adult transaction to be functional, each person has to be of a similar mind-set. For example, if a transaction between two adults is to be successful (success is a very subjective term but is used to explain an interaction that is equal – whatever that looks like!) both parties have to be reasonable, objective, and assume a similar level of power. However, if one party assumes too much power and the other is subjugated then it changes the whole dynamic of the transaction. It is all too easy to recognise when a timid person interacts with a strong assertive person! The vast majority of the interactions we have will go by without event and without any need of analysis. However, for those occasions that stick in the memory, where awkwardness or embarrassment prevails, it is worth analysing.
The three ego states
Before getting to an example it is necessary to briefly introduce the 3 ego-states that Berne presents: Parent, Adult and Child. They are consistent patterns of thinking, feeling or behaviour which have developed through our life experience.
In Parent state we subconsciously mimic our parents or parental figures. No matter how dysfunctional they may be, we use the same strategies as parental figures to deal with difficult situations. It may be obvious through repeating phrases our parents have used, but more importantly we tend to treat others how we were treated by our parents.
In adult state we are as close to an objective interpretation of reality as possible. We see people for who they are rather than who we project onto them. Instead of an unhealthy influence from our past, we respond to things in the here and now.
Both the parent and child states have positives and negatives. However, a negative is that in the child state fear often dominates reason. Instead of dealing objectively with a situation we can adopt childish ways of dealing with it which include emotionally charged responses and a lack of empathy.
A parent to child interaction is functional between a parent and a child, but if these roles are assumed between two adults it can be dysfunctional. We all have experiences in our past that influence us in the present. Let’s take person A, who is reminded of an old and particularly strict school teacher by person B. Without realising it, when person A is in the company of Person B they may transfer into child ego state, or in other words feel how they used to do at school with that teacher. This happens very early on in the interaction, perhaps even before a word has been spoken, and it provides the platform for a difficult interaction. Person A is now more likely to misinterpret and misunderstand Person B through a lens created by memories of past interactions with their teacher. Comments or even general conversation will be taken more personally and are more likely to result in defensiveness. It is unlikely to be as obvious as kicking, screaming and tantrums but the subtle changes in tone of voice and body language are sufficient to impact the interaction.
It is important to understand that the ego states are not static. Although many people to do not know how to, everyone has the ability to change the state they are in. Furthermore, the states feed off of each other. For example even if Person B is not reminded of a child by Person A to start with, there is a possibility that they will end up exhibiting a parent ego state. At some point during the conversation, Person B may become aware of Person A’s defensiveness or child-like behaviour. In response to this, and perhaps without being aware of it, Person B begins to exhibit parent like strategies to deal with Person A. The combination of changes in body language, tone of voice or comments then reinforce Person A’s view of them as the strict school teacher. In a wonderful snowballing effect the whole cycle repeats itself.
What is the point of knowing this?
There are endless ways in which analysis of our interactions with others can help us. However, the most important point to draw from this is how our past experiences impact upon our interactions in the present. The process of identifying this in ourselves takes a while and usually starts from a place of retrospective analysis. Slowly but surely we can begin to catch our feelings and consequent reactions earlier so that hopefully at some point we can be aware of our thoughts and feelings in the moment. The objective is that we are able to recognise when something like the example above is happening and try to minimise it. If person A was able to recognise that the feelings they had towards person B at the start were drawn from past experiences then they would have a chance of challenging their childlike defensive reactions.
A well-adjusted person who is able to understand themselves in the moment is not immune to difficult situations. Confrontation and awkwardness is unfortunately a part of life. However, by understanding ourselves better we can hope to minimise the unnecessary moments!