Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis (TA) is a widely recognised form of modern psychology, and one of the most accessible theories of psychology at that. In simple terms, TA is designed to promote personal growth and change. It is considered a fundamental therapy for well-being and for helping individuals to reach their full potential in all aspects of life.

Founded by Eric Berne in the late 1950s, TA therapy is based on the theory that each person has three ego-states: parent, adult and child. These are used along with other key transactional analysis concepts, tools and models to analyse how individuals communicate and to identify what interaction is needed for a better outcome.

Throughout therapy, the TA therapist will work directly on problem-solving behaviours, whilst helping clients to develop day-to-day tools for finding constructive, creative solutions. The ultimate goal is to ensure clients regain absolute autonomy over their lives. Eric Berne defines this autonomy as the recovery of three vital human capacities - spontaneity, awareness and intimacy.

How does transactional analysis work? 

Transactional analysis is a talking therapy and sessions are designed to explore an individual's personality and how this has been shaped by experience - particularly those stemming from childhood. This is achieved through skilful questioning and the utilisation of various models, techniques and tools.

Sessions can be carried out in the form of one-on-one counselling, or with families, couples or groups. And, although it is commonly recognised as a brief and solution-focused approach, transactional analysis can also be applied as an effective long-term, in-depth therapy.

In counselling, TA therapy is very versatile, for it can be used in a wide range of areas and incorporates key themes from humanistic, integrative and psychoanalytical and psychodynamic therapies.

The atmosphere that supports transactional analysis is non-judgemental, secure and respectful, ensuring that a positive relationship is forged between the therapist and client(s) in order to provide a model for subsequent relationships and communication that are developed outside of therapy.

In this setting, the therapist works collaboratively with the individual. Together, they will identify what has gone wrong in the client’s communication and provide opportunities for them to change repetitive patterns that limit their potential.

Key concepts of transactional analysis 

Below is an exploration of some of the key concepts of transactional analysis that a therapist will use in their work. 

Ego-states 

Ego-states refer to the three major parts of an individual's personality, and they each reflect an entire system of thought, feeling and behaviour.

These ego-states are:

  • Parent - Rooted in the past; a set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours learnt from our parents and other important people. This part of our personality can be supportive or critical.
  • Adult - Rooted in the present; relates to direct responses in the 'here and now' that are not influenced by our past. This tends to be the most rational part of our personality.
  • Child - Rooted in the past; a set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours learnt from our childhood. These can be free and natural or strongly adapted to parental influences.

Our ego-states determine how we express ourselves as individuals, interact with each other and form relationships. The simplicity of the terminology used in TA makes the model very accessible.

The beauty of the model is that people intuitively understand the concepts very quickly and accurately discuss which ego-state they may have been in at given times.

- Counsellor Matthew Robinson.

Unconscious scripts

TA therapists recognise that we all have the potential to live the life we want, rather than the life we are programmed to live. Sometimes, however, this potential is hindered by repetitive patterns or 'unconscious scripts' that stem from childhood decisions and teachings.

TA therapists use script theory to identify these unconscious scripts. These will be analysed using the ego-state model, and their identification is crucial to helping clients realise how certain permissions and prohibitions they received as a child are impacting their lives and how they communicate.

These unconscious scripts often exist as repetitive patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings - characteristics that suggest the child ego-state is overbearing and tainting other parts of an individual's personality.

woman on phone

Transactions

When individuals communicate, their ego-states interact to create transactions. If the ego-states interact and blend in a healthy way, transactions tend to be healthier. But, sometimes ego-states can contaminate each other to create a distorted view of the world. Transactions may be classified as straightforward, crossed-up, or ulterior, and understanding these is key to conflict resolution.

Strokes

Strokes refer to compliments, acceptance and recognition, which are influential in how people lead their lives. TA therapy recognises that we are greatly motivated by the reinforcement we get as children, and if this was dysfunctional, we are likely to adopt dysfunctional patterns of living as we get older.

Intimacy

Another motivation recognised in transactional analysis is intimacy. Similarly to strokes, if the intimacy a child experiences is dysfunctional, it can lead to problems. Children may learn that this type of intimacy is the best that he or she can do to meet basic needs and communicate with others. This can lead to the development of repetitive patterns of behaviour that can hinder a person's potential.

Redecision

This refers to an individual's capacity to ‘redecide’ and make changes to certain decisions that were made as a child - those stemming from unconscious scripts. Redecision reflects the assumption of TA therapy that individuals have the potential to lead their lives as they choose. This power is released after a redecision is made while a client is in their child-ego state.  

Ultimately, therapists will encourage clients to challenge their current beliefs and the way he or she uses their life script. This will help them to better understand the direction and patterns of their life for themselves, and this awareness can help them to make the decision to change their behaviour.

Explore the key principles of transactional analysis in more detail.

Who can it benefit?

Designed to promote personal growth and change, transactional analysis offers the opportunity to develop all kinds of skills that can be applied to all areas of life. This makes the therapy valuable for helping to solve many types of problems.

TA has been successfully applied in a wide variety of settings outside of counselling, including organisational training and consultancy, parenting, education and coaching.

One of the exciting things about transactional analysis is the simple models and language it employs, which help you to understand why you have become who you are today and how (and in what ways) you relate to other people.

- Counsellor Patricia Lyon.

Essentially transactional analysis can be used in any field where there is a need for understanding of individuals, communication and relationships. As a result, it is particularly useful where there are issues of conflict, confusion or where something is lacking. Relationship issues - between families, friends and couples - tend to benefit greatly, as TA encourages clients to address problems that have built up over time.

Many people find TA therapy appealing as it promotes an equal relationship between client and therapist, in which the client is encouraged to focus on their commitment to change. Berne believed everyone has the capacity to decide what they want for their lives, and the therapy helps clients to recognise their worth and value in order to go about achieving these goals.

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