The Games we Play

“Pastimes and games are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy.”

Eric Berne

“Why am I always the one picking up after you?” she moans… “Stop talking to me like a child!” he yells…. She responds, “Well stop acting like one!” 

Some of you may recognize the dialogue. It’s two fully grown adults and yet somehow they’ve got themselves caught up in the dynamic of parent and child. It’s easily done and so common there is even a type of therapy which covers it. 

Transational Analysis (TA) was founded by Eric Berne (a Canadian psychiatrist) in the 1950s.   In TA, we learn to alter ego states as a way to solve emotional problems.  An ego state is an entire system of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours from which we interact or transact with one another. TA speak of three main ego states: Parent, Adult and Child.  These specifically being:

  • Parent – Behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from parents or parent-givers.
  • Adult – Behaviours, thoughts and feelings which are direct responses to the here and now and are the development of rational logical thinking.
  • Child – Behaviours, thoughts and feelings replayed from childhood.

We each have these three states within us.  And in fact for the Parent and Child ego state, these are further divided up as:

  • Controlling Parent – also known as the critical parent. Phrases such as “ don’t run”, “got to bed”, “do your homework” would fall under this ego state. When we copy how our parents behaved when they were in this role, we are said to be in this ego state. 
  • Nuturing Parent – Behaviours such as cuddling, bandaging cuts, tucking us into bed are all resonant of the nurturing parent. When we replay such behaviours we are said to be in our Nurturing Parent. 
  • Free child – We act as the Free Child when we behave uncensored. We cry when we feel sad, we get angry when pushed around for example. 
  • Adapted child – Contrary to the Free Child, the Adapted Child has learnt to change their behaviour at the request/ approval of their parents. For example we won’t show our true feelings for fear that it will upset our caregivers. Even when we rebel against these rules, we are still acting as the Adapted Child, as our behaviour is still under this influence. 

Just to add complication (!), these 4 categories can be further divided with a negative and positive pairing for each.  But let’s keep things a bit simple for now!

So with all the jargon out of the way, how does this all work in practice I hear you ask?

TA explains the simplest and easiest transactions occur (unsurprisingly) between adult ego states. When the ego states (and ultimately the transactions) are complementary, the dialogue flows. For example, critical parent to critical parent (e.g. joint moaning about late trains) or critical parent to adapted child (being told off, and the response being apologetic) or child to nurturing parent (when asking for advice). 

Problems can arise when the ego states are not complementary and become crossed. For example, “Have you seen my coat?” (coming from an adult ego state to another adult ego state). But the Child in the second individual may instead send the transactional response to the Parent in the first individual by replying, “You always blame me for everything!”

The goal of TA is to help the client gain and maintain autonomy by strengthening their Adult state. Eric Berne defines this autonomy as the recovery of three vital human capacities; spontaneity, awareness and intimacy.

Once we understand the TA theory above and how it relates to us, we can become aware of how we can switch ego states and improve the effectiveness of our communication. An important facet of TA is for us to realise we have a choice about which ego state to operate from and we are in control of this.

So next time you’re in a dialogue with someone and it’s not flowing, check in (internally) to see if the ego states have got crossed. If that’s the case, keep in mind some of the following tips:

  • To move into an Adult state – ask a question, state facts
  • To appeal to other’s Nurturing Parent – ask for advice, communicate your fears
  • To appeal to other’s Free Child (to lighten things up) – become the Nurturing Parent, use humour, be enthusiastic

Once we understand the games we play, we give ourselves the opportunity to change and hopefully gain a more positive and healthier outcome, for not just us but those around us too. 

Photo by Shirly Niv Marton on Unsplash

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