Four Elements that Assist in Strengthening the Ego States
The theory of Transactional Analysis (TA) was developed by Dr Eric Berne, a radical pioneer in psychiatry during the 1960’s.
The Parent ego state is described as being a collection of recordings of everything external that the child experiences, primarily from parents and other adults, in the first 5 years of life before he or she enters the greater social world (school). The child records these tapes as rules, beliefs and truths about the self and others and this has a powerful influence throughout life.
The Child ego state is data that the child collects internally. This is mostly how the child feels about those external messages as they have not yet developed the ability to challenge data. As children are dependent on their parents, they may come to ignore their own biological and psychological needs in their unconscious drive to receive strokes (touch). They are responding to the demands and stimulations from those around them (Harris, 1973). Beliefs about ourselves and the world, and the feelings associated with that, are fully formed by age 5 and will develop little further over the lifespan.
A child may begin the process of self-actualization as early as ten months of age, about the same time as their physical mobility increases. As this Adult ego develops which continues throughout life, it can test and challenge Parent (taught) data, and update Child (felt) data so as to begin determining what is valid and useful and what is not. If this process is supported when the child is young, the child grows towards a sense of ‘wholeness’ that can be carried throughout life.
In the case of childhood trauma the child is often left with beliefs (and the accompanying feelings) about themselves, others and life, that severely inhibit a sense of wholeness. The ability to question, assess and learn, the Adult ego state function, is often suppressed, which is why re-parenting in a therapeutic sense can be developmentally important for autonomy and healing.
With this information, survivors can choose to re-parent themselves, i.e., strengthen their Nurturing Parent ego state and change the Critical Parent messages to support the Child and come more into their Adult ego state.
These four elements can assist in strengthening the foundations of each ego state:
- Safety has been shown in many models, to be fundamental to physical and psychological growth and healing. If a child feels safe to explore his/her world he/she will be better able to move though the development of the Child-Parent-Adult states with relative ease. When provided with the elements that allow them to feel safe, survivors of trauma and abuse, can re-negotiate this growing-up process, as it is the child ego state that feels. Having a physical safe place can be helpful, e.g, bedroom, at the beach, etc. Having an imaginary or visualised safe place can be even more valuable as a person can learn to go to this place in their mind whenever they are not feeling safe, to ‘ground’ themselves.
- Support is paramount in healing as it provides a framework for the Child-Parent-Adult states through observing and experiencing healthy role-modeling of the support person/s, data collection, testing theories and beliefs, challenging held assumptions, self-actualisation, awareness and care, understanding and creating boundaries and setting goals.
- Information is vital to creating a healthy Adult ego state, which, when functioning well, supports the Parent-Child states in creating more harmonious interactions with the self and others. When a person uses information that they’ve “always known”, without question or curiosity as to its origin, it is likely to come from the Parent state, which is called Parent-Contamination of the Adult (Harris, 1973). Similarly, if a person acts impulsively without thought or assessment of any risk, they may have a Child-Contamination. Data retrieval, processing and testing is the function of the Adult ego sate and is necessary to creating a healthy sense of self and others.
- Connection to the Inner Child/Inner Self is also an important part of the healing process as it provides an opportunity not only to be a child (perhaps for the first time, thus strengthening the Child Ego state), but also to collect data about child-like information, actions, language, etc (an Adult function) and to learn about how a child might be nurtured by a healthy, safe adult (worker role-modeling). This then goes towards rebuilding the Parent ego state as well.
Workers are encouraged to become aware of the ego states they themselves are operating from and to aim to come from an Adult state when working with survivors (as much as possible and when appropriate), to avoid power imbalances and misunderstandings in communications.
Words, gestures, manner and appearance can give clues as to which state we and others are in. Some of the clues to recognise which ego state may be operating are:
- Parent: Unthinkingly saying things like: “no”, “don’t” ”good”, “bad”, “always”, “never”, “have to”, “should”, “ought”, “must”, “you can’t”, “you poor dear”, “grow up”, “get over it”, “sweetie”, “honey”, “lazy”, “naughty”, “there-there”, etc,. Gestures, appearance and manner, such as: hands on hips, ‘the look’, over-explaining, being directive, assuming, judging, blaming, fault-finding, sympathising, condescending, negativity, comparing, rescuing, criticising, ignoring, controlling, sighing at, mumbling at, furrowed brow, pursed lips, arms folded across chest, pointing the finger, head-patting, wringing hands, tongue-clicking, ahem-ing, giving unsolicited advice, impatience, caring, sharing, consoling, accommodating, excusing, obliging, etc
- Adult: Words or phrases that can be used to gather, process and give out information without judgment, assumptions or emotions, like asking why, what, where, who, when and how questions (these gather information), saying things like: “it is my opinion”, “true”, “false”, “possible”, “unknown”, “objective”, “I think”, “I see”, etc. Showing interest in what another person is saying, paying attention, listening, observing, patience, empathy, compassion, understanding, reasoning, logic, etc
- Child: Tantrums, squirming, delight, teasing, nail-biting, justifying, manipulating, compliance, hand-raising for permission to speak, constantly saying “sorry”, whining, rolling eyes, fighting, screaming, shrugging shoulders, nose-thumbing, downcast eyes, quivering lip, tears, baby-talk, impatience, creativity, dissociating, having fun, giggling, playing, pretending, saying things like: “I want”, “I dunno”, “I wish”, “I guess”, “I don’t care”, and “when I grow up”.