The Different Faces we wear

Ego State Therapy & Theory / Transactional Analysis Part 2.

Have you ever felt like you are made up of different parts or voices? Maybe there’s part of you that wants to do something new and at the same time another part that is resistant, or critical, or judgemental?

Maybe there is part of you that always seems to react in a certain way to specific people or situations – even when that reaction is destructive or unhelpful?

You might feel you’re never able to say “No” to a particular person or that there is someone in your life where you always seem to be in the role of “listener” or “rescuer” and they never seem to care about how you are?

Perhaps you say to yourself “I’m not going to let that happen again” – and then it happens again?

Some people might have you feeling helpless or small, or maybe exasperated, or like you have to do EVERYTHING yourself?

Maybe you sometimes feel like it’s so bloody obvious what the other person “should” be doing or changing, and you can feel angry, judgemental and critical of them?

Transactional Analysis (or TA) is a simple, accessible language and set of ideas that can help us to notice and understand what’s going on for us in our relationships and interactions with other people. It can even help us understand and improve the relationship we have with ourselves.

TA comes from the work of famous psychiatrist Eric Berne. His ideas and theories have been widely used ever since to offer us insight into why we think, feel and act the way we do.  It can help us to uncover what our subconscious is up-to. 

The basic concept from TA that underpins nearly everything else is the idea of Ego States.

An Ego State is a psychological position or “state” that has its own distinct set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The idea is that in any interaction with another person, we are ALWAYS coming from one of these positions…

The PARENT Ego State

This is a psychological state where you think, feel and behave in the same way that you perceived your parents or other important adults in your life did when you were a child. The thoughts, feelings and behaviours are like recordings or tapes from the past that get activated by something in the present. These recordings or tapes kind of take over. A bit like a computer virus. Something happens in the here-and-now, that triggers the old tapes and off they go, over-riding everything else. It’s not something that we consciously choose or decide to do and often we don’t realise it’s happened until afterwards. Sometimes the Parent Ego state is coming from a Controlling / Critical / Teaching / Telling place and sometimes it is coming from a Nurturing / Caring / Rescuing / Smothering place

The ADULT Ego State

This is a psychological state where you think, feel and behave in a way that, rather than being an automatic, unconscious reaction, is a mindful, present, conscious, choiceful response to what is happening in the here-and-now. The Adult Ego State is able to draw on your full life experience and all your resources in a way that is realistic, objective and appropriate to what is happening in the present moment.

The CHILD Ego State

This one is similar to the Parent state in that the thoughts, feelings and behaviours are like recordings or tapes from the past that get activated by something in the present. This time the recordings are coming from the way you thought, felt and behaved, when you were a child. Again, these recordings or tapes kind of take-over – a bit like a computer virus. Something happens in the here-and-now, that triggers the old tapes and off they go, over-riding everything else. It’s not something that we consciously choose or decide to do and often we don’t realise it’s happened until afterwards. Sometimes the Child Ego state is coming from a Compliant or Resistant place, and sometimes from a Free / Creative / Curious place.

So the Parent and the Child states are unconscious “reactions” and the Adult State is a conscious choice of how to “respond” in a way that is appropriate to the here-and-now.

Everyone’s Ego States are going to be different, depending on our experiences as a child and the sense we made of them.  The same event could activate the Parent, the Adult or the Child in different people.

For example, someone cancels a date or a catch-up with you because they’ve had an offer to go another event…

This set of circumstances might activate your Parent Ego State:

  • That is unacceptable
  • People should keep their commitments
  • They are clearly useless
  • I hope they will be ok without me
  • Ah I can tell them what they should do at that event

Or maybe your Child Ego State:

  • Woo hoo that sounds brilliant I wanna go too!
  • But what about MEEEEEEEEEEE!?
  • They’re rejecting me
  • I’m not good enough
  • What did I do wrong
  • I hate you! Goodbye forever!

Or maybe you would be in your Adult Ego State:

  • I need to find out more information and not jump to conclusions
  • I have no way of knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling
  • I’m going to ask for what I would like, without being attached to the other person giving me that
  • I can trust that they have made a decision that is right for them

So those are the basic Ego States.

It starts getting really interesting when we become aware of how our Ego State can influence the way another person responds to us AND the Ego State that the other person is in can influence the way that we respond to them. Everyone’s Ego States can influence everyone else’s.

So, if I talk to you from my Parent Ego state, as if you were a child, it is like I have sent you an invitation to respond from your Child Ego state. Maybe you will feel patronised, or small, or rebellious, or like you have to do what I say or agree with me, or fearful that there will be bad consequences if you don’t.

There are 3 main ways that our Ego States can interact with another person’s Ego States and we can experience many changes of Ego States and type of interaction in a single conversation.

The interaction might be predictable. For example, I speak to you from my Child Ego state to your Parent Ego state, and you reply from your Parent to my Child. These types of interactions can go on and on indefinitely as it is a stable pattern.

“I can’t do it – I’m so useless”

“Aw poor you – here let me do it for you”

Another type of interaction is the non-predictable one. For example, I speak to you from my Parent to your Child, but you reply from your Parent to my Child – yikes! I would not have been expecting that! These types of interactions can’t continue for long unless one of us were to move into an Ego State that makes it predictable again.

“For goodness sake! Stop doing that!”

“Who do you think you are? How dare you speak to me like that?”

The thrid type of interaction is the Slippery one! This is where there is one thing going-on on the surface or at first glance, but there is something else going on under the surface.  Often these interactions look like Adult to Adult on the surface but underneath it is Parent to Child or Child to Parent.

“Oh, nice of you to join us” – looking at the words and actual meaning of these words, the seems like Adult to Adult. But what might be going on under the surface is “I am angry that you are late and now I want you to feel bad about it”.


“Darling did you get round to putting the bins out?” When what might really be being said is “I bloody know you haven’t put the bins out. I’m angry about it. And I want you to have to admit that you haven’t done it”.

Sound familiar?

Most people agree that the most useful, productive Ego State to be in and to operate from is Adult. Of course, this is easy to say and harder to do. It’s all too easy to have the best of intentions and then end up being triggered into Child or Parent. We are all human. Having these Ego States is very human. We can’t really switch them off or get rid of them.

The key is to start to have awareness around them and to be able to notice when we are in Parent or Child in an unproductive way, and be able to choose to step into Adult.

It would be lovely to think that if we just start operating from our Adult Ego State, everyone else will magically respond to us from their Adult Ego State and all our communication and relationship problems will disappear! While being in our Adult more often does indeed create the conditions for more useful and productive interactions, other people can be really quite determined to continue to operate from their Parent or Child and may continually invite you to “play that game” with them.

From the Adult Ego State you can see that this is to do with them. At some level they are choosing to respond like that. It is their “stuff” and not ours. We don’t have to take any responsibility for it.

Transactional Analysis is based on the principle that people CAN change. We are not stuck or trapped with our old familiar perspectives.  The change requires awareness first of all and then choices to do something differently (even when that feels unfamiliar) – all from the ADULT EGO STATE.

In other articles we will explore some of the reasons that people can be determined to think, feel and behave in unhelpful or destructive ways. But for now, try out a bit of people-watching, and see if you can start to spot the Ego States at play.

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