Meet the family - of ego states


Many people who seek counselling are struggling with their feelings and the power those feelings have over them. Many people struggle with unwanted feelings and thoughts for years, pushing them aside and carrying on regardless, either pretending they don't exist or don't matter, or masking them with temporary distractions. One of the key concepts which can be extremely powerful is such cases is ego states, developed as part of transactional analysis by the late, great Eric Berne in the 1960s.

A tool for awareness...

Ego States provide a framework for awareness - a mechanism which can be used to identify what a person’s thoughts and feelings are doing. Using ego states it is possible to regain (and retain) awareness of what we are experiencing in any given moment - and to decide and control what happens next.

Modes of thinking and feeling...

Ego States are modes we go into at different times. We can move rapidly between them or we can get stuck in a particular ego state for some time. There are three main ego states: parent, adult and child.

2.pngMeet your parent...

Your parent - is the mode you go into when you are responding to the rules and values you have learned in life. In your parent ego state you are likely to be controlling, critical or judgmental. Conversely while in your parent you might be nurturing, caring or hospitable. There are two sides to our parent ego state. Most people however, don’t seek counselling because they're feeling too nurturing.

3.pngMeet your child...

Your child - is the mode of pure feeling. You are in your child ego state when you are sad, afraid, lonely or confused. You are also in your child ego state when you're playing and having fun. There are two sides to our child ego state. Most people however, don't seek counselling because they are experiencing too much fun.

We are the sum of all of our ego states...

Moving into parent and child mode is a normal part of being a human being.

We move into parent mode because we often need to take control of situations and other people in our lives. We often encounter difficult situations where other people behave in a way which conflicts with our rules and values. In those situations it is normal to judge, or feel anger or hostility towards others.

We move into our child ego state when we become vulnerable - when something happens which invokes sadness or fear, uncertainty or loss. For some people rage can emerge within the child ego state, often as a defense against unbearable feelings of deep sadness or fear.

4-4.pngMeet your adult...

Your adult! The mode of the moment. The mode which engages you in the here-and-now. The mode in which you find the space to engage in full awareness of the thoughts, feelings and actions you are experiencing at this exact point in time. As 'normal' functional human beings we engage in adult ego state often - when we are concentrating on a task, completing a transaction or solving a problem.

The pain of parent and child...

Many people find themselves dominated by their parent or child ego states. While it is normal to 'bounce around' our ego states, it's not normal to get stuck in them. Some people can't stop being angry - they are consumed by their parent ego state, where criticism, anger or resentment burn strongly. Sometimes this parent activity is directed inwards - manifesting as intense self-criticism, self-reproach or hateful self-talk. This takes huge energy and can result in negative behaviours as a way of letting off steam or trying to escape the energy-draining emotional burden.

Equally, many people find themselves sunk into child, swamped by feelings of hopelessness and despair - unable to escape or see a way to feel differently. This can become a downward spiral, interspersed only by periodic shifts into parent mode to inflict negative and damaging self-criticism.

Use your adult to set you free!

We're all different and no matter how the above scenarios may manifest themselves in each of us - we all have access to our adult ego state; our internal voice of reason; our mediator; our logical processor of facts; our fairness-administrator. Accessing our adult means engaging in the here and now, this very minute, and seeing what is real versus what is not real - what we really need to respond to versus what we are responding to through habit. It is about taking ownership of the package of thoughts and feelings which are happening within us right now, and putting them under our own spotlight for examination.

Our adult will ask questions:

* What am I feeling? Sad? Lonely? Jealous?
* Why might this be happening?
* Do I know why?
* Can I be OK not knowing why?
* What do I need in order to feel better?
* Can I accept it's not my fault?
* Do I have to care what others may think of me?
* Can I challenge my beliefs?
* Can I do something different which might help me escape my stuck-ness?

By engaging in this type of adult questioning we can find counter-arguments to our repetitive and negative thoughts and feelings; we can shift our energy out of the pain of the past or dread of the future into all that really exists - the present moment and the choices that exist within it.

Further Reading: 'TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis' - 1987, Ian Stewart, Vann Joines.

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