Has your partner ever told you, “you’re acting like a child?” Has a friend ever called you super judgmental and harsh? Does your boss make you feel insecure, even when they are giving you constructive feedback? Do you act one way as a parent, authoritative and confident, and another as an employee, passive and compliant? Do these ways of being feel automatic and out of your control? No matter what the scenario, we all have different parts of ourselves and are naturally reactive beings. Transactional analysis, or ego state theory, looks to identify these parts and understand their purpose in our psyche. All parts of ourselves serve a purpose, no matter how much we disapprove of them. Seeing them, then reconciling them in order to improve our optimal functioning is incredibly hard work.
More than likely, I’ll assume that you don’t like the part of yourself that threw an adult tantrum when your partner tried to set a boundary. While based on old stories, and less than productive, that reaction was trying to tell you something important. Our reactivity serves to protect us, but we do not always need protection. Sometimes, our mind lies to us and tells us we are in danger, which creates all sorts of problems, especially in social and romantic relationships.
The example I always use in an ego state overview is that of driving a car for the first time. We learn to count to three at stop signs and take our turn at a rotary essentially, to avoid death. However, these same types of survival mechanisms can keep us stuck when we associate a specific behavior, situation, relationship with “I’m going to die” triggering feelings. Even early childhood situations that seem minute can cause this type of reaction. For example, if we bring up curiosity about sex to our parents and they shut us down jokingly due to their own discomfort, eventually we may come to believe that expressing sexual desire is something that we should shy away from. Insert a couple inevitable stressful experiences with sex and tada, we may develop issues with sexual function. When we meet a compatible partner, that doesn’t just go away.
In positive news, we can rework that and any pathway through working with a trained clinician. In ego state therapy, it’s a therapist’s job to bring forth your most stable, wise states and help them make contact with the younger, fearful, stuck states. Simultaneously, your therapist should work with you to challenge some old, rigid rules that often propel reactivity.
The most concrete way to understand ego state theory is to identify the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. Think of a snowman, with the Child as the foundation and the Parent as the snowman head. The Child part is our oldest, most vulnerable part. Here, live undigested experiences from growing up, when we truly didn’t yet have the tools to deal with distress. Some children rebel, while some become overly compliant, and these roles often carry over into our lives as grown ups. The Child part often wishes things were different, hopes things will change, but lacks the skills to make this happen. When our Child part gets activated in adulthood, we often feel powerless of our circumstances and relationships. We get stuck and retreat or, if more aggressively inclined, get stuck and rage.
The head of the snowman, The Parent part of ourselves, is triggered when we behave from a ‘should’ place, often modeled by the rules of our parent’s household. The Parent state also includes our perception of societal standards. Herein lies our version of the truth, the way the world is. However, it is not our real Truth, as it is based on the world as our parents saw it, not our own wise lived experience. In example, in the past, people I’ve worked with find themselves having a lot of unbending rules around gender norms, like “men should always be the primary provider.” A man in this scenario might come into therapy feeling inadequate if they do not fit this traditional stereotype. When we explore why, much of this rule for life is not based on their lived experience, but that of their parents, forty years prior.
The Adult, the body of the snowman, our core, is the here and now. In therapy, we develop a strong sense of the confident Adult to help us reconcile the Child and Parent when they get loud. The Adult is novel from the other two states as it is always updating with new experiences, allowing emotional growth and new neural pathways. We can ask for help from the Adult state and properly communicate how we are feeling. Still, without the Parent state, we’d likely have no moral compass and without the Child part, no spontaneity. Again, all parts have a place, we just need to find ways to be calm, curious, and brave enough to bear witness.