This Monday after surviving another work weekend I came home to find myself alone with two elderly cats. Evidence of my husband’s morning remained throughout the house. The boys had shed their clothes on the floor and half eaten cereal was left on the counter. After a quick shower, I threw my scrubs into the laundry and fired up Netflix. While lounging on the sofa I grabbed my iPad to quickly check my email. Scrolling through this week’s reading assignment for school, I find it ironic that it pertained to transactional analysis. Having just written a post which touched briefly on this subject I was delighted to have an opportunity to learn more about it. As an approach to therapy, this theory always reminds me of those nesting dolls on my therapists coffee table… Later that evening after dinner with the family, I settled down to read that week’s assignment. The following is a quote from my textbook:
“Resistance is often explained as a battle between inner parts: one part wants to change, while the other does not…” (Ingram, 2013, p 234).
This quote hit me as I read it like a bucket of cold water. Contemplating insights in my latest posts, I couldn’t help but note I had just made this conclusion regarding my own stuckness history. In fact, the above video succinctly summarizes my latest lightbulb moment:
It is this statement from the video that requires a close consideration. After all, we all have those issues that we try to get unstuck from, only to be frustrated with the same old repeating patterns. Reading through my post on “Anatomy of a Misunderstanding” I can see the very ego states battling it out within me. To add to matters my hurt child has managed to maintain a consistent dynamic with my sister’s critical parent. Samples of these separate egoic selves can be found everywhere in my old journals. Before attempting to apply transactional analysis to this situation, I’d like to first examine these ego states.
T.A. Ego States…
In transactional analysis, ego states refer to experiential realities that also represent a consistent pattern of relating with the world around us (Ingram, 2012). Three primary ego states exist in transactional analysis: parent, adult and child. The parent ego state is a representation of the way parents and other authority figures conduct themselves. The parental ego influences us by echoing the learned rules and morals communicated to us from authority figures throughout our life. Two main forms of parental ego states include the nurturing and critical parent. The child ego state, in contrast, is archaic and emotionally driven. Comprised of our own first-hand early childhood experiences, it reacts impulsively with others on the basis of these deep emotional memories. Two versions of the childlike ego state exist: the rebel and hurt child. Finally, The adult ego state is much like the wise-minded DBT perspective. In this respect, it is fully present in the moment and is capable of making realistic appraisals based on all perspectives, including thoughts and emotions. As somebody who is trying to lose weight, a funny description of each state is provided in my textbook:
“[rebellious child] I’m going to eat what I want and you can’t stop me…[hurt child] I know I am bad; what’s wrong with me. I’m trying, but just can’t…[nurturing parent]…don’t worry, I know you’re stressed. Go ahead and have some ice cream…[critical parent] you should take those pounds of. What’s wrong with you?! You’re an indulgent loser…[Adult] Lets come up with a plan where I can maintain a steady weight loss of one pound a week yet still eat foods I enjoy and have certain meals where I can disregard the rules.” (Ingram, 2013, p 295)
So what does this quick and dirty overview of ego states have to do with my sister and I? As I continue with this week’s readings yet another quote jumps out at me: “Many problems in adulthood can be understood as efforts to resolve conflicts and satisfy unmet needs.” (Ingram, 2012, p301). This quote confirms my suspicion that we inadvertently “trigger” each other quite often. Preferring the ego state of a critical parent, this adaptive perspective has provided my sister with the structure she needed growing up. Her conversational statements reflect a need for clarity and structure. Made in an assertive and pragmatic manner, she states her opinion, directly and unapologetically. I end up hurt by her and somehow made to feel I’ve overreacted. Since her comments bring up old issues, I react by sharing my these feelings to her comments. She states I overreacted. Here are some examples:
During a visit with my sister, I was discussing how difficult it was to for me since dad was more “hands off” and focused on his work while our mother acted as disciplinarian. As the oldest child, I feel the cultural gap between my mother and I was a big problem for me socially. My sister still doesn’t realize this since my mother changed her parenting to adapt to American culture, after learning a few lessons the “hard way with me”. At any rate, our mother held me to many standards consistent with her upbringing and cultural values. I did not date, I did not wear makeup, and only wore very conservative clothing (by the time my sister was in high school, my mom relaxed these rules). As a result of these rules, I was not allow me to wear regular underwear. My mother instead bought me the “granny panties” and would also forbid me from shaving my legs. I went to school hairy most of the time, unless I was able to smuggle a razor from somebody. I will spare you the story of how much teasing I receive as a result of all this. my sister’s reaction was: “Wow, there’s no way I would have ever allowed that to happen. I would have found a way to go to school properly groomed!” Mind you this was several years ago and the bullying of my childhood was fresh. The “critical parent” in my sister, made it clear that what I did was stupid. While not stated verbally, her comment implied the statement: “What the hell is wrong with you?!?!?
Around the time my sister started dating her husband she converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity, (I am agnostic). As a result of new spiritual beliefs, her thoughts about a woman’s role in society changed to reflect this fact. As a result, her views are a stark contrast to my mother, who is an M.D. and was raised in a very matriarchial society. In her family education is instilled as a priority, and all the women in her family have advanced degrees. I have to say, I respect my sister for following her beliefs and doing what felt right in her heart. At the same time, I respect my mother for her accomplishments and feel its best to simply “do what works”. In the early years, my son was very ill, I had to stay home. As he grew older, our financial situation changed and I worked full time. Consequently, my husband and I examined where we were, and where we wanted to go, then drew a straight line between points.
One day while visiting with my sister I shared my frustrations of balancing home, work (and now school). At one point she mentioned that part of her reason for staying home was wanting to develop a close attachment for her kids. She then states at one point: “There are only 24 hours in a day. Any parent who works should understand this leaves less time for their kids. My family comes first.” This again triggered me emotionally. We ended up getting into the same stupid argument where I have to repeat what she says and I get a response: “I didn’t mean it that way”
In the second of his videos (theramin trees, 2010), delves into how our own ego states interact with significant others. Throughout our day, experiences, thoughts, memories, often cause us to float from one state to another. In the case of my sister and I, we’re engaged in a fairly “complimentary transaction” (theramin trees, 2010). In fact our entire dynamic is complmentary and very much in sync. I play role of “hurt child”, and she is the “critical parent”. Her “critical parent” consists of messages she receives on how to “do the right thing”. This has served to provide a sense of structure, clarity and meaning in her life while she “raised herself”. I play role of the bullied child (see pick to the left).
“Many children grow up with deep feelings of shame – that they are defective and inadequate to the core and, if others find out that secret, they will be rejected, humiliated, and abandoned. The childhood solutions keep painful emotions out of awareness. For that reason they are resistant to change…” (Ingram, 2012, p 302)
Why is it this endless cycle occurs? In answer to this question, (theramin trees, 2010), mentions the concept of “life positions”. In transactional analysis, this concept refers to a consistent belief about ourselves in relation to others. As a broad stance we take in relation to others, it might convenient to think of “life positions” as self-imposed roles. We distort our realties through these life positions, and utilize patterns of interaction with others as preferred coping tools. Naturally, the benefit of a “life position” is its pay-off. While I can’t speak for my sister, my own “life position” allows me to play victim. The needs that are fulfilled as a victim, are that people acknowledge my hurt so I can receive compassion and feel better (things I didn’t get as a child). Theramin trees (2010), suggests to viewers, that in addition to desconstructing transactions to gain clarity, we should let go of the payoff that allows these cycles to continue. Without the payoff (i.e. need fulfillment) the “life position” is no longer a logical choice. For me, letting go of the victim role, means not expecting that others can or will ever understand or acknowledge all the painful experiences of my childhood, including family. The radical acceptance and forgiveness I’ve worked on to get to this place has taken time and continues still. As I have expanded my “adult ego state”, my relationship with my sister has improved substantially. In fact, if we can both learn to develop greater tolerance for negative emotions the old baggage can’t replay itself continually. Once this happens, we can begin to learn valuable lessons from one another.
addendum…(one week later)
I’m here trying to sort out my family relationships and my role in them. What follows is an email snippet with my mother. At the time it was sent I was trying to process some traumas regarding early childhood bullying. It is an email from my mom, after I told her I wanted to speak with my old counselor in high school.
“Kathleen, in this venture you have to be ready to hear things you may not want to hear. I told Barb to give her impressions as she remembers them. If all you want from her is a statement that others were bad and were really after you, then you are only looking for vindication of the righteousness of the stance. If you are willing to accept that you may have had a hand in creating an atmosphere of aloofness around yourself, a cocoon of leave me alone I hate you all; then you are more likely to come to acceptance and resolution.”
This perception of events blames me for what happened. What she still doesn’t realize is how suicidally depressed I was then. I remained strong and didn’t do anything stupid. I needed comfort and I got criticism. Once I developed the courage to tell her this in a conversation, she reflected on it a bit gave me a hug and sent me the following email after arriving home:
“I agree. I do not fully understand the pain that you suffered as a child. I also was not there to hold your hand. I am sorry………Mom”
My heart melted when I read this and the hurt disappeared. With my “hurt child” satisifed, the adult ego state has taken over. I immediately felt bad for having to bring up this old shit. As a mother, with the shoe on “the other foot”, I now realize how difficulty parenting is. You have no guidebook since there is not “Right Answer”, everybody has an opinion, and “making mistakes” is scary – (especially if our kids pay the price”). I share my own shame-laden parenting story here and commentary on the concept of “Good Enough Parenting” .