It isn’t often that a book written to explain a theory to professional practitioners becomes a runaway best seller. However that is exactly what happened to ‘Games People Play’ which sets out the theory of Transactional Analysis. Published in 1964 by the psychiatrist Eric Berne, the book resulted in a huge wave of popularity for TA and its inventor.
One reason for its popularity is that the theory – and the school of psychotherapy on which it is based – seem very accessible, straightforward and practical. Accessibility is helped by the fact that the technical jargon is full of catchy terms like ‘life scripts’, ‘ego-states’ and ‘discounting’ and that parts of the theory are expressed in engaging one-liners like “I’m OK you’re OK”. However, setting the jargon aside, a distinctive feature of TA is that the client is very much an equal partner in what takes place.
This partnership is emphasised by the fact that both the treatment as a whole and the individual sessions are governed by contracts between client and therapist about what is to be achieved. “In my work with clients we move around a triangle: the diagnosis, the contract and the treatment” says TA psychotherapist Adrienne Lee who teaches at the Berne Institute in Kegworth near Nottingham.
At the heart of TA is the idea that our behaviour is governed by a life-script, a set of rules that govern the way we behave in different situations. In extreme cases the life-script may run to a final scene: it will include a set of circumstances that would cause us to want to die. Scripts also include positive components about situations that make us feel loved and valued. We each write our own life-script during our early childhood. It is largely complete by the time we are seven years old.
The writing is done unconsciously – we are simply deciding how to survive and prosper in a largely hostile world. The decisions we make, such as “it’s better not to show your feelings” or “people always let you down” will be based on our imperfect childish understanding of the events that affect us. Even so, these decisions will be incorporated into our scripts and will continue to affect our behaviour long after we have ceased to be consciously aware of them or the events on which they were based.
Problems arise in adulthood when the rules in our life-script are not appropriate for our adult circumstances. This is very common because the rules are based on an incomplete view of the world seen from the perspective of a small child. To cure the problem – and cure is definitely the goal of TA therapy – we need to become aware of the part of the script that is inappropriate and rewrite it.
To work on the script both therapist and client may adopt one of three different ways of behaving, known as ego states. In order to recognise the script we may need to adopt our childhood perspective, known as the Child [caps ok] ego state. We may also adopt the Parent [caps ok] ego state, in which we take on the behaviour of one of our parents, or of a parent figure. The third ego state, Adult, is that of a responsible resourceful adult, fully aware of what is going on.
The idea of the three ego states, known as the PAC (Parent, Adult, Child) model is at the heart of TA. It is used to analyse interactions between people in a wide range of situations. In therapy there are three schools that use the ego states in different ways to help the client change his behaviour.
In the classical school the main aim is to encourage the client to use his Adult ego state to behave according to a full understanding of the situation, rather than allowing his script to control his behaviour. Redecision therapists encourage the client to use the Child ego state to revisit, and change, childhood decisions, often by having a dialogue with an imaginary Parent. In the cathexis school the therapist assumes the role of Parent in order to help the client, who is in Child ego state, to remake childhood decisions about his script.
All of these approaches take time to achieve a full cure, known as a script cure. Many therapists practise techniques from all three schools, depending on the client. However, whatever the school, the progress of therapy will be agreed with the client who will be treated as an equal partner in the process, even to the point of having access to his case notes. So if you want to be your own therapist, TA therapy could be the natural choice.
TA therapists should be available through the standard referral orgainisations for psychotherapy:-
US: APA Tel: 1 800 964 2000, or go to https://helping.apa.org/
UK: UKCP Tel: 0207 436 3002 or go to https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/
There are also specialist sites for TA