Transactional Analysis

***This post is a study exercise as a I prepare to take the NCE exam.  It contains excerpts from other posts that can be found hereherehere…&… here***

Eric Berne, (1910 – 1970) was born in Canada as Leonard Bernstein.  His father was a physician who died when Eric was young.  His mother was a writer.  In an effort to follow in his father’s footsteps, Eric Berne also became a physician, graduating in 1935.  After completing his internships, and becoming an American citizen, he changed his name to Eric Berne.  He started his practice in Connecticut and married his wife, Ruth in the early 40’s.  They had two children together.

Rosenthal, (2005) states that Transactional Analysis is often referred to as a “Populist Therapy Method”, since it is fun and easy for the laymen to understand.  While developing his approach, he made a point of simplifying the language and wrote several books on the subject including.

An overview of Transactional Analysis….

matryoshka-970943_1920Utilizing insights from this theory, my therapist keeps nesting dolls on the coffee table in her office.  Utilizing them in conversations from time to time, they have been productive tools for reflecting on the opposing ego states underlying my stuckness.  It seems my own “inner critic” and “hurt child” are fighting for “control” and as a result I’m getting nowhere.  Now that I’m a student, and reading Eric Brene’s works, it may be useful to quickly review some essential concepts. (n.d.) describes transactional analysis as a theory of social intercourse.  According to Eric Berne, “The human brain acts in many ways like a camcorder, vividly recording events.” (, n.d.).  While not necessarily remaining available for conscious retrieval, the emotive consequences of these events and our experiences of them remain.  It is only when interactions and events, trigger these memories that the effects of these events arise.  This cognitive process is much more complex in an individual with PTSD as you might imagine.  In an effort to provide convenient constructs to discuss the transactional process between these ego states, Eric Brene created several key concepts in this theory.  For example, structural analysis involves an examination of the various mental states I described earlier (“inner critic” vs. “hurt child”).  In contrast, transactional analysis examines the dynamics of social interaction and how these elements of our psyche play their role.  The nesting dolls in my therapy sessions provide a convenient method of illustrating Eric Brene’s concepts of ego states.  Rather than conceiving of these ego states as Freudian structures in the brain, Berne states they are “phenomenological realities” (, n.d.), that represent consistent patterns of reacting to life events.  Additionally, these phenomenological realities are based on past choices in response to life events.  Therefore, his conception of personality development is less determinstic than Freud.  For example, my own “hurt child”, reflects Eric Brene’s child ego state in which past experiences are experienced from the standpoint of their emotive impact.    In my specific instance, this is where most of my unresolved traumas exist.  In contrast, the Parent ego state, represents my own “critical parent”.  The critical parent’s camcorder provides an overview of early life experiences and the implicit messages they contained.  Finally, as I understand it, Berne’s adult ego state, reflects closely Marsha Linehan’s wise-mind concept.

T.A. Ego States…

529807Ego states refer to experiential realities that also represent a consistent pattern of relating with the world around us (Ingram, 2012)  Analysis of ego states is called Structural Analysis (Rosenthal, 2005).  Since, only one ego state is dominant at any point in time, our communication style and body language often communoicates which ego state we are operating out of (Rosenthal, 2005).

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 490629driven. 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)

Basic Concepts….

Defining Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis can be thought of as an attempt to understand social interactions between individual ego states (Rosenthal, 2005;, n.d.).

TRANSACTION – a unit of social intercourse, where two or more individuals interact

TRANSACTION STIMULUS – the actions and/or words from another acknowledging our presence & reacting to our behaviors.

TRANSACTIONAL RESPONSE –  is naturally our chosen manner of responding to transactional stimuli.

Types of Transactions

Berne also classifies types of social transactions in his theory, these include: (1) complimentary transactions; (2) cross-transactions; and (3) gimmicks, (Rosenthal, 2005).

Complementary Transactions

complimentaryAre predictable interactions based on the natural order of a relationship between individuals.  Responses are predictable, parallel and can proceed in this manner as long as all individual respect the parameters of the relationship, (, n.d.).   Rosenthal, (2005) describes these as healthy relationships. For example, when interacting with my kids I’m adopting a parent ego state, they can expect when they talk to me.


pac10Rosenthal, (2005) describes these as unhealthy relationships, (i.e. hurt child / critical parent).  Communication that is not complementary creates conflict and causes a breakdown in understanding.  It can be best described as a form of transference.  For example, let’s say I’m talking to my husband about the bills.  I assume I’m talking to an adult.  However, I get a response from his “Hurt Child”, and pouts when I begin discussing our spending this last month.


Gimmicks are used in games for a payoff – or ulterior motive (Rosenthal, 2005)., (n.d.) notes that they can involve the activity of more than two ego states are at play during an interaction. Gimmicks are based on our social needs.  In order to meet these social needs, our true feelings psychologically can contradict how we behavior in the social transaction.

In my last internship I received no support or training and was overwhelmed.

I initially engaged in a complementary transaction with my supervisor, and notified them the 70+ hour work week was too much.

However this didn’t work, they were desperately understaffed.

Therefore, I bided my time, appearing appreciative and friendly.

However, I was seething in frustration underneath.

I desired to make a good impression.

This is a gimmick.

Strokes (n.d.) defines as a unit of social interaction that are interpreted as a form of physical or verbal recognition.  They can involve a form of intimate physical contact or include verbal recognition.  Rosenthal, (2005), notes that they can be either positive or negative.

Rituals & Procedures

Typically socially interactions exist as a series of events that are learned as a result of previous interactions.  Procedures are series of complex transactions such as the standard greeting of a casual acquaintance when you ask them about how they’re doing and they say fine in the grocery store.  They serve the purpose of allowing us to folllow social rules while acknowledging others without expending a great deal of mental energy.  In contrast, rituals are byproducts of external social requirements (i.e. scripts, schemas and/or frames).  An excellent example of a formal ritual includes the typical Catholic mass (, n.d.).  We all know what’s expected and behave accordingly.


Like rituals and procedures, games exist as a series of typical events in the course of our interaction with others.  However, what makes them unique are that they include a series of gimmicks and can be characterized by an ulterior motives, and concealed motivations.  Rosenthal, (2005) describes them as containing underlying messages that contradict our behaviors, preventing intimacy and honesty.  They are repetitive in nature and color the nature of our unhealthy relationships.

Berne’s Scripts

In his book “Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy”, Eric Berne, (1961), provides a theory which is useful in analyzing social interactions.  His theory uses the concept of life scripts to describe a set of “unconscious relational patterns” (Erskine, 2010, p. 24).  Developed in childhood, they are relational patterns that reflect our attachment history and are repeated throughout life.  Scripts exist within limbic memory and influence our thoughts, perceptions and behaviors.  Finally, they provide “a generalization of specific experiences and an unconscious anticipation…that will be repeated throughout life” (Erskine, 2010, p. 22).  Berne uses the term “transference phenomena” (Ereskine, 2010, p. 15) to describe this repetitive nature reflected through our relationship history.

Our life script unfolds “like a novel based on messages accepted in childhood.  Therapy is based on creating new decisions and re-writing your own life script.”  A physician by the name of Stephen Karpman, (who studied under Eric Berne)(, has developed a “drama triangle” that builds on this concept.  It consists of the concepts of the concepts persecutor, victim & rescuer.  These roles are described below:

Life Positions…

transa6In the second of his videos (theramin trees, 2010), delves into how our own ego states interact with significant others.  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.  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.


Since this position conceives everyone as equals, it promotes well-being in your social interactions  You do not act from a position of superiority or inferiority so are effective in meeting your own social needs in a positive and mutually healthy relationships


This life position “causes clients to blame others for their difficulties and cause paranoia and criminal tendencies, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  You place yourself in a dominant or superior position over others and tend to project inadequacies onto others.  Donald Trump Exists Here.  


This is my own life position as a result of childhood ostracism. It caused me  to feel inept and inferior to others, and led to feelings of severe depression and suicide ideation during my teens.


Rosenthal (2005) states people here are often “homicidal, suicidal, both or schizoid”.  Are frequently overwhelmed with feelings of anger or betrayal.  It is characterized by extreme apathy and existential hopelessness.

A Personal Application…

“Transactional analysis often regards the experience of ‘ feeling stuck’ as the manifestation of an impasse or an intrapsychic conflict or interpersonal roadblock…my own aim here is to broaden the theory of impasses, exploring whether and how ‘stuckness’ may constitute a developmental opportunity” (Petriglieri, 2007, p185).

Resistance from this theoretical perspective can be “explained as a battle between inner parts: one part wants to change, while the other does not…” (Ingram, 2013, p 234).   According to transactional analysis, within us exist ego states that represent experiential realities from various stages in life.  Within each ego state is a typical coping style or pattern of relating to those around us. As I recall, two in particular have been engaged in a perpetual lifelong battle….

My Hurt Child

The child ego state can be thought of as an inner mental recording of painful childhood experiences.  When encountering triggers that remind us of these events, we’re sent back in time.  Emotionally, we can re-enact these early experiences with those around us. For example, within me lives a “hurt child” who was bullied kid and had no friends.  This hurt child asks, “I know I am bad; what’s wrong with me” (Ingram, 2013, p. 295).  She is submissive, insecure, with no sense of self.  Filled with a sense of shame, she seeks validation and acceptance from others – wherever she can get it…

My Critical Parent

The parent ego state reflects messages we receive from authority figures in our lives and standards of conduct we were taught.  My own critical parent, consists of messages from my parents that emotions were bad and creativity was a waste of time.   My critical parent consists of message from parents and teachers who ignored and overlooked the bullying.

My critical parent might say “you should take those pounds off. What’s wrong with you?! Your an indulgent loser (Ingram, 2013, p. 295).”  
My hurt child will be filled with feelings of insecurity as a former “ugly duckling”.  Shame takes over in reaction to the random characteristics that happen to define my meatsuit


Berne, E. (1961). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. (n.d.) A description of transactional analysis.  Retrieved from:
Erskine, R. G. (2010). Life scripts: A transactional analysis of unconscious relational patterns. London: Karnac.
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. ISBN: 978-1-118-03822-2 (n.d.) Games people play by Eric Berne. Retrieved from:
Theramin trees [screen name] (2010, June, 10) Transactional Analysis 1: ego states & basic transactions  Retrieved from:
theramin trees [screen name] (2010, June, 17) Transactional analysis 2: games. Retrieved from:
Petriglieri, G. (2007). Stuck in a moment: A developmental perspective on impasses. Transactional Analysis Journal. 37(3), 185-194.

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