woman, photomontage, faces, Transactional analysis

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Click below to listen to this article:

Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis (TA) is a form of psychotherapy that aims to help people understand their patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and how these affect their relationships with themselves and others. It is based on the idea that we have three ego states: parent, adult and child, which influence how we communicate and interact in different situations. TA therapy helps clients identify and change their unhelpful or dysfunctional ego states, and develop more autonomy and awareness of their own needs and desires. TA therapy can be used for various issues, such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, relationship problems, self-esteem, and personal growth. This article will review transactional analysis therapy and how it is applied to achieve psychological health.

What is transactional analysis therapy?

The theory behind transactional analysis is that each person has three ego states: parent, adult, and child. These ego states are not literal, but rather psychological constructs that represent different aspects of one’s personality. The parent ego state contains the values, beliefs, and rules that one learned from their parents or other authority figures. The adult ego state is the rational, logical, and problem-solving part of one’s personality. The child ego state is the emotional, creative, and spontaneous part of one’s personality. Transactional analysis therapy assumes that people can switch between these ego states depending on the situation and the person they are interacting with. The goal of transactional analysis therapy is to help people achieve a balance between these ego states, and to communicate effectively with others from their adult ego state. Transactional analysis therapy also helps people identify and change dysfunctional patterns of communication and behaviour that may cause problems in their relationships or personal wellbeing.

Transactional analysis has some commonalities in theory with attachment theory. Attachment theory is another psychological perspective that focuses on how early and family relationships shape the emotional bonds and expectations of people in their later relationships. Both TA and attachment theory can help us understand how our past experiences affect our present behaviours, feelings, and thoughts, and how we can change them to improve our well-being and relationships. TA and attachment theory share some common concepts, such as the importance of security, autonomy, and intimacy, but they also differ in some aspects, such as the role of cognition, the nature of change, and the therapeutic goals.

Sign up for our Newsletter!
We will send you regular updates regarding new articles, as well as hints and tips regarding self-transcendence. We aim to limit this to once per month, though some months we will have additional special editions covering significant articles worthy of being the sole focus of a newsletter. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.

Transactional analysis therapy is best applied for psychological issues that involve interpersonal difficulties, such as low self-esteem, communication problems, relationship conflicts, or identity confusion. Transactional analysis therapy can help people develop more awareness of their own and others’ emotional states, and improve their ability to express their needs and feelings in a respectful and constructive way.

The ego states of transactional analysis

Transactional analysis is a psychological theory that proposes that the human personality consists of three ego states: the parent, the adult, and the child. Each ego state represents a different way of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and can be influenced by external stimuli or internal thoughts. The parent ego state is based on the internalization of the messages and values of one’s parents or caregivers. It can be nurturing or critical, depending on the quality of the parental figures. The adult ego state is based on the objective assessment of reality and logical reasoning. It can be rational or irrational, depending on the accuracy of the information and the validity of the arguments. The child ego state is based on the expression of one’s emotions and needs, as well as the replay of childhood experiences. It can be natural or adapted, depending on the degree of spontaneity or conformity.

The ego states interact and relate to each other in various ways, depending on the situation and the person. One way to understand these interactions is through the concept of transactions, which are the exchanges of verbal and non-verbal communication between two or more people. Transactions can be classified into three types: complementary, crossed, and ulterior. Complementary transactions are those in which the sender and the receiver are in the same or corresponding ego states, such as parent-to-child or adult-to-adult. These transactions are usually harmonious and effective, as both parties understand each other and have clear expectations. Crossed transactions are those in which the sender and the receiver are in different or incompatible ego states, such as parent-to-adult or child-to-parent. These transactions are usually conflictual and ineffective, as both parties misunderstand each other and have different expectations. Ulterior transactions are those in which the sender and the receiver have hidden or covert messages that differ from their overt ones, such as a parent who acts like a child or a child who acts like an adult. These transactions are usually manipulative and deceptive, as both parties have hidden agendas and ulterior motives.

The personal scripts of transactional analysis

Scripts in transactional analysis are unconscious relational patterns influenced by our implicit, experiential beliefs, survival reactions rooted in our bodies, and explicit judgements. These scripts usually form in periods of relational stress at critical points in our development. Changing the life script is the aim of transactional analysis psychotherapy.

Some examples of scripts are:

  • I’m not OK, You’re OK: This script is based on the belief that one is inferior or inadequate, while others are superior or competent. People with this script may seek approval or validation from others, avoid conflict or confrontation, and feel helpless or hopeless.
  • I’m OK, You’re not OK: This script is based on the belief that one is superior or right, while others are inferior or wrong. People with this script may be arrogant, aggressive, manipulative, or critical of others.
  • I’m not OK, You’re not OK: This script is based on the belief that both oneself and others are worthless or hopeless. People with this script may be depressed, isolated, cynical, or suicidal.
  • I’m OK, You’re OK: This script is based on the belief that both oneself and others are valuable and capable. People with this script may be confident, respectful, cooperative, and optimistic.

For more information on how life scripts work, so our article on The dark side of life scripts.

New article alerts!
We will notify you of new articles as soon as they are published. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.
The typical flow of transactional analysis therapy

Transactional analysis therapy involves analysing the transactions or communication exchanges between people or within oneself to determine which ego state is being activated or triggered. There are three types of transactions: complementary, crossed and ulterior. Complementary transactions are those in which both parties communicate from the same or corresponding ego states (e.g., Adult-Adult, Parent-Child, Child-Parent). These transactions are harmonious and effective. Crossed transactions are those in which one party responds from a different ego state than the one expected by the other party (e.g., Adult-Child, Parent-Adult, Child-Child). These transactions are disruptive and can lead to conflict or misunderstanding. Ulterior transactions are those in which one party communicates from two different ego states at the same time (e.g., Adult-Child), either verbally or non-verbally. These transactions are manipulative and can have hidden agendas or messages.

Transactional analysis therapy helps people identify their dominant or preferred ego state, recognize the ego states of others, avoid crossed or ulterior transactions, and develop more complementary transactions. It also helps people become more aware of their life script, which is a pre-conscious plan that governs their life choices and outcomes based on early decisions made in childhood in response to their environment. Transactional analysis therapy aims to help people change their life script if it is negative or limiting, and adopt a more positive and flexible one that allows them to grow and achieve their potential.

A theoretical example of TA being applied to an individual facing relationship difficulties is as follows:

  • The individual, who we will call John, seeks therapy because he feels unhappy and dissatisfied with his marriage. He complains that his wife is always nagging him, criticizing him, and controlling him. He says he feels like he can never do anything right or please her.
  • The therapist, who uses TA, starts by explaining the basic concepts of TA to John, such as the ego states, the life script, and the transactions (the exchanges of communication between two people). The therapist also introduces the idea of psychological games, which are repetitive and dysfunctional patterns of interaction that people play to get their needs met, but that ultimately result in negative feelings and outcomes.
  • The therapist then asks John to draw a structural diagram of his ego states, which shows how much he uses each one in different situations. John draws a large parent ego state, a small adult ego state, and a medium-sized child ego state. He says he feels like he is always in his parent mode at work, where he has a lot of responsibility and authority, but that he switches to his child mode at home, where he feels powerless and rebellious. He admits he rarely uses his adult mode, which is the rational and objective part of him.
  • The therapist then asks John to draw a script matrix, which shows how his life script was formed by the messages he received from his parents and other significant people in his childhood. John draws a matrix that shows that his father was a dominant and critical parent who gave him messages like “You are not good enough”, “You have to work hard to earn my approval”, and “Don’t trust anyone”. His mother was a nurturing but submissive parent who gave him messages like “You are a good boy”, “I will always love you”, and “Don’t upset your father”. John says he internalized these messages and made decisions like “I have to be perfect”, “I don’t deserve love”, and “I have to avoid conflict”.
  • The therapist then asks John to identify the games he plays in his relationship with his wife. John says he plays a game called “Yes, but”, where he asks his wife for advice or help, but then rejects or ignores whatever she suggests. He says he does this because he feels insecure and wants her to reassure him, but also because he resents her authority and wants to defy her. He says this game usually ends with his wife getting angry and frustrated, and him feeling guilty and ashamed.
  • The therapist then helps John to analyse the payoff of his games, which is the hidden benefit or reward he gets from playing them. John realizes that by playing “Yes, but”, he confirms his life script beliefs that he is not good enough, that he doesn’t deserve love, and that he has to avoid conflict. He also realizes that by playing this game, he avoids taking responsibility for his own problems and decisions, and maintains his familiar role of being a helpless child.
  • The therapist then helps John to develop new ways of communicating and relating with his wife, using his adult ego state. The therapist teaches John how to use assertive communication skills, such as expressing his feelings and needs clearly and respectfully, listening actively and empathically to his wife’s feelings and needs, and negotiating win-win solutions. The therapist also encourages John to challenge his life script beliefs and decisions, and to replace them with more positive and realistic ones. For example, instead of thinking “I have to be perfect”, John can think “I can make mistakes and learn from them”. Instead of thinking “I don’t deserve love”, John can think “I am worthy of love”. Instead of thinking “I have to avoid conflict”, John can think “I can handle conflict constructively”.
  • The therapist then monitors John’s progress and gives him feedback and support. The therapist also helps John to deal with any resistance or setbacks that may arise during the therapy process. The therapist’s goal is to help John achieve autonomy, which is the state of being free from psychological games, life script limitations, and unhealthy ego states. Autonomy involves having awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy in one’s life.
Further reading

If you would like to learn more about transactional analysis, here are some weblinks with URLs for further reading:

Transactional Analysis Theory & Therapy: Eric Berne – Simply Psychology

Transactional analysis – Wikipedia

Transactional Analysis (TA) – European Association for Psychotherapy

Transactional Analysis – GoodTherapy



Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content