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Introduction to Transactional Analysis

What is TA?

Transactional Analysis (TA) is an approach to psychotherapy, initiated with the work of the Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne (1910-1970). Since his death, this approach evolved and incorporated new theories and concepts.
Berne was an innovator and a divulgator, he believed his theories should be available and accessible to all. His books are very accessible, although his 1950s American English has not always aged well. Because of this openness and accessibility, TA was often labelled as pop-psychology. However, even if TA concepts are described using simple words, they are complex and profound.

Key Concepts

What is a ‘transaction’ in TA? This refers to any exchange that happens in a communication.
One of the best known TA concepts is the Parent-Adult-Child model (P-A-C). We refer to those as ego-states. They are often referred to as ‘states of mind’, but I think this is somehow reductionist. An ego-state also involves body language, physical sensations and feelings. When the P-A-C is used to understand personality we talk about structural analysis.

Another important concept is the Life-script. This is the result of childhood decisions (these can be more or less conscious). The life-script is a proper plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. This is the best decision the child can make with the resources they have at the time in order to survive. In a way, the life-script is the result of the child adapting to the outside world, which can be perceived as hostile. The script can be reinforced in adolescence and by the time the individual reaches adulthood, they are no longer aware of it. This can bring people to distort and redefine reality to fit their script. We can do all sorts of things to fit our unconscious script, for example entering relationships and making important life decisions. Amongst therapists, there are two views on life-scripts: 1) with the help of therapy we can become aware of it and this is the end of it; or 2) we never really get rid of our life-script, we can just be more or less aware of it. Personally I feel more in line with the second option.

As children we want our personality to be validated and acknowledged by our caregivers. This sign of recognition is referred to as a stroke. Positive strokes reinforce our personality so we actively seek them. Growing up, we learn that certain feelings are allowed because we receive positive strokes for them, whilst others are discouraged because they are met with negative strokes. In adulthood we feel certain things more than others. We also replace certain feelings with others. For example, in western culture boys are discouraged to show sadness, but they are usually allowed to express anger; so grown-up men tend to display anger when they are actually sad. The feeling we feel to mask the authentic feeling is referred to as racket feeling.

The Philosophy of TA

There would be a lot to say about the TA philosophy. In its original formulation, it was a product of its time; by that I mean it was very positivistic. Despite this bias, TA has a central role in Humanistic psychologies. (I also think that there is an important value in having a positive bias because it can counterbalance the negative bias that we have as humans, but this is another story.)

TA has some central philosophical assumptions (these are taken from Stewart and Joines, 2002):

- People are OK

This is best explained in the ‘I’m-OK, You’re-OK’ concept (Harris, 1967). There’s a fundamental sense of OK-ness about me and you. I accept myself as I am and accept you as you are. I might not accept what you do, but I’m OK with who you are. (This is a profound and meaningful philosophical ground that is more complex than a simple semantic play).

- Everyone has the capacity to think
(Except people who are brain-damaged), we’re all able to formulate thoughts and decide what we want from life.

- People are able to decide on their own destiny, and decisions can be changed.
This is a statement about empowerment and respect. I think it’s really important to allow others to make their own decision and not to be stuck with them. It’s OK to change, in fact, it’s always a good thing to try to.
The empowerment comes from the conviction that we cannot be made to feel or act in a certain way by the environment. The environment (other people, situations, circumstance…) can put us under a lot of pressure, but it’s ultimately our decision how we want to respond.

This article gave a very brief introduction to Transactional Analysis. As a theory, TA has evolved becoming a truly integrative approach. In my opinion it’s mainly a Humanistic approach, but it has strong links to Existential psychotherapy and behaviourism. For this reason, TA is often used as a key to link different theories and built complex and sophisticated integrations.

Bibliography and further readings
Berne, E. (1961,1966). Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. New York: Grove Press.
Harris, T. (1967). I’m OK, You’re OK. New York: Harper and Row.

Hargaden, H. & Sills, C. (2002). Transactional Analysis - A Relational Perspective. London: Routledge.
Lapworth, P. & Sills, C. (1993,2011). An Introduction to Transactional Analysis. London: Sage Publications.

Stewart, I & Joines, V. (2002). TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. London: Lifespace.