Maritha on Counseling

Maritha Pottenger

This issue will examine Transactional Analysis (T.A.), a modality originated by Dr. Eric Berne. Dr. Berne was trained as a psychoanalyst and his Freudian roots are apparent in some of his theories. His work has been extended by a variety of other people, including Claude Steiner, Hogie Wycoff, Muriel James, Dorothy Jongeward, T.A. Harris, etc. There is an International Transactional Analysis Association (I.T.A.A.) for anyone interested in exploring education and training facilities, plus many books available in the popular press.

While working with patients, Berne noticed they would often appear almost as different people. An adult woman might be logical one moment, whining like a child another and then point a blaming finger, sounding authoritative. Berne noted these shifts included the tone of voice, gestures and words used, and general body language.

He named these different modes of expression “ego states.” An ego state is “a consistent pattern of feelings and experience directly related to corresponding consistent patterns of behavior.” Berne’s first three ego states were the Parent, Adult, and Child. People of all ages were assumed to have all three. The Adult ego state is an objective, problem-solver with acquired knowledge. The Child state is open, spontaneous and into self-gratification. Four basic emotions are considered innate, and a part of the child: mad, sad, glad and scared. All others, says T.A., are learned and can be unlearned. Berne saw the Parent ego state as largely an incorporation of unanalyzed information from the patient’s own parents (and authorities). This includes attitudes, opinions, prejudices and value judgments.

Thus Berne invented his first stage of Transactional Analysis: “Structural Analysis.” He began training his clients to recognize their own ego states and analyze them. E.g., some clients had a “favorite” ego state—one they spent a lot of time in. By learning to observe themselves, Berne hoped people would choose the more appropriate ego state for the moment, rather than just blindly reacting.

Berne also looked at what he called Exclusion and Contamination. Exclusion occurs when someone is cut off from one or more ego states. E.g., an individual who has an Excluded Parent tends towards sociopathy. (They lack Parental input regarding values, ethics to say “Don’t do that!” etc.) Someone with an Excluded Child tends to be rigid, obsessive-compulsive. Berne and others diagrammed ego states. The original little map was of the “Big Three” ego states. Exclusion is shown by a line separating ego states.

Contamination is shown by overlapping ego states. The Adult is supposed to deal with “objective, scientific information,” which can be tested in the world. But it can be contaminated—by opinions, prejudices, etc. from the Parent. When the individual accepts such opinions, prejudices, etc. AS IF they were facts, T.A. calls this Hallucination. Child-contaminated adults are Delusions. All of us act on Delusions some of the time. We allow our feelings, the results we IMAGINE or fear will happen, to rule our logical problem-solving. E.g., “If I assert myself, she won’t like me.” is often a Delusion—NOT an Adult, “scientific” fact.

Berne’s triumvirate (which many have suggested has much in common with Freud’s ego, id, super-ego) soon proliferated. The Parent was broken into Nurturing and Critical Parents. The Child included a Free Child, Little Professor and Adapted Child. Each state had its own role, feeling, etc. The Nurturing and Critical Parent are much as one would suspect from the names. One offers supportive, care-taking advice. (But even nurturing can be over-done, crippling an individual’s self-sufficiency). The other offers criticism, condemnation, what is wrong. (But even the Critical Parent is a necessary part of life. Sometimes we need harsh commands as a life-saving device, e.g. “DON’T cross that street before looking both ways (or I’ll punish you!)) The Free Child is into pleasure and doing what comes naturally. The Adapted Child is an adult-pleaser and tries to do and say what s/he thinks others want to see and hear. The Little Professor is our intuitive side that makes insights on insufficient information and is often blindingly accurate in its assessment of people.

Another approach has been to look at the actual parents’ states as reproduced in the child. E.g., within my Parent (state) is contained a little Parent, Adult, and Child from my mother, another triumvirate from my father, etc. (In my case, a T.A. therapist would probably include a triumvirate from my maternal grandmother who was an important authority figure in my childhood.) Again, little circles are used to illustrate this. Needless to say, all of this can become very complicated. One criticism of hard-core T.A. people is that they are hooked on cartography! They get so into their maps, they lose sight of the people. Or, one T.A. joke made the rounds to the effect that take away a T.A. therapist’s blackboard (where they generally sketch out all their circles, etc.) and s/he becomes helpless!

Berne’s next step was “transactional analysis,” looking at the interactions between people. (Early T.A. was largely in groups.) Ego states are the basis of some transactional analysis. E.g., a crossed transaction is said to occur when someone gets a response from a non- complementary ego state, that is an ego state other than the one they were aiming for. People usually feel mildly to severely unhappy after a crossed transaction. They tend to withdraw, turn away, change the topic, etc. One or more people feel misunderstood. An example would be “When will you be ready?” followed by “Why are you always rushing me!” Gestures, facial expressions, posture, tone of voice all contribute to the meaning of a transaction. If “When will you be ready?” is asked in a neutral tone, and a non-accusatory setting in terms of body language, we can classify it as an Adult message, seeking information, expecting an Adult response. “Why are you always rushing me!” depending on the context—could be a Parent (to Child) blaming response or a (whining) Child (to Parent) response. As illustrated by the diagram below, either way, the response CROSSES the line of the question, whence the name a crossed transaction.

Complementary transactions occur when we get what we expected (in terms of ego states). They are predictable, following what Berne called the “natural order of human relationships.” Here, the lines do not cross. Examples could be: “When will you be ready?”—“In ten minutes.” or “I feel awful!”—“Would you like some chicken soup?”

Ulterior transactions involve at least two ego states. A socially acceptable message in one state “covers” a hidden message in another ego state. E.g. “Would you like to see my etchings?” is, ostensibly an adult to adult query. Under the “Man or Woman from Mars Test” such an alien, unfamiliar with hidden meanings would assume these two Earthlings are about to embark on an artistic discussion. However, people in our culture know there is a “hidden” message. That might be translated as “Let’s make love!” a Child to Child message.

Transactions can also be indirect (speaking to one person while hoping to influence another who can overhear), diluted (message watered down by kidding, sarcasm, etc.), weak (perfunctory, superficial), intense (Strong, full of feeling) and direct (message given straight to person it is intended for). Generally, therapists work towards maximizing direct, intense transactions.

Analyzing transactions can lead to Berne’s third level: Game Analysis. Games have a beginning, a set of rules, and an ending pay-off which is psychological. The transactions in a game are complementary, ongoing and socially believable. They are often repetitive and only “superficially rational.” Beneath is an ulterior message, concealed motivation, or what Berne called a “gimmick.” The pay-off is the reason for playing (not for fun). It is predictable, usually a bad feeling. The pay-off ends the game. Games are played to fill time, to get attention, for excitement, and to reinforce early attitudes.

In T.A., much emphasis is put on early learning. Like Freud, Berne talked and wrote as though the child was molded by parents and environment up to about age five and subsequent changes were quite difficult. Other therapists have disagreed with Berne concerning the difficulty of changing early patterns and have challenged Berne’s view of the child as victim. Several have pointed out the power and responsibility of the child in choosing what to react to, what to adopt, and interpreting parental words, actions, etc.

Berne postulated four basic life positions. We all generally experience all four, but most of us have a “favorite” where we spend more of our time. The games we play usually reinforce our favorite life position. The positions are:

1. I’m OK, You’re OK. Life is worth living. This is healthy as long as it’s realistic.

2. I’m OK, You’re not OK. Your life is not worth much. People here may persecute others. Criminals are often here.

3. I’m not OK, You are OK. My life is not worth much. People here often feel powerless, depressed. They may be suicidal.

4. I’m not OK, You’re not OK. Life is not worth anything. Such individuals may be suicidal, homicidal. They may exhibit schizoid behavior.

Berne’s most popular book, Games People Play, gave catchy titles and descriptions of a variety of games. Here are a few examples of games, and the life position they strive to reinforce.

IF IT WEREN’T FOR YOU blames others to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO blames others to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

I’M ONLY TRYING TO HELP YOU saves others to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

WHAT WOULD YOU DO WITHOUT ME saves others to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

BLEMISH finds fault to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

N.I.G.Y.Y.S.O.B. (NOW I’VE GOT YOU, YOU SOB) gets even to prove “YOU’RE NOT OK”

KICK ME provokes put downs to prove “I’M NOT OK”

POOR ME enjoys misery to prove “I’M NOT OK”

HARRIED cops out to prove “I’M NOT OK”

Games often involve switches in three roles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. These roles are a part of the Karpmann or Rescue Triangle. In life, there are legitimate persecutors, rescuers, and victims. In the rescue triangle, these people are not legitimate. The victim claims s/he cannot cope or is being unjustly denied, when actually the victim could take care of him/herself. Rescuers foster dependency under the guise of helping others. Persecutors set unnecessarily harsh limits or are punitive, and sadistic. Stepping into any of these roles guarantees an opportunity to play the others.

The Rescue Triangle is often played in families. E.g., Johnny spills his milk and casts a guilty “Punish me!” look around the table. In the jargon, this is called “the hook.” Johnny is hooking for a Persecutor to play “Kick Me.” Daddy falls for it, and berates Johnny for being clumsy, stupid, or whatever. Mommy is sucked in, and rushes to the rescue of poor Johnny. She tells Daddy not to be cruel, how he is too impatient, etc. Already, one switch has occurred. Mommy, rushing in as Rescuer to Johnny has become Persecutor of Daddy. Now, the game can continue with Jenny rushing in to rescue Daddy by persecuting Mommy, or Johnny himself may rescue Daddy by persecuting Mommy. Etc. As the ads sometimes say: “This is a game the whole family can play!”

Counselors need, especially, to be aware of the rescue triangle. Clients often arrive, “hooking” for a rescue. The counselor who gets sucked in (from a need to be noble, helpful, or whatever) will try to rescue (do for the client what the client is perfectly capable of doing for him/herself) and the counselor will (sooner or later) end up persecuted by the client. Everyone can then feel badly!

People tend to choose games which reinforce their “rackets.” A racket consists of non-spontaneous feelings, reactions. Generally, children get used to a certain feeling (or response) at a young age. It becomes familiar. So they try to re-create it over and over again (like proving one’s life position.)

Rackets tend to run in families, e.g. an anger racket. People into an anger racket will feel angry when others might feel sad, hurt, guilty, etc. (“Uproar” is a good game for an anger racket.) Such people substitute anger for other emotions. Rackets often start as a way for a young child to manipulate someone. E.g., the child finds that anger is a sure-fire way to get attention. Nothing else works as well.

Besides racket feelings, one can have a thinking racket (always confused; others have to cope) or an action racket (procrastination; bluster, etc.) Examining rackets is a part of the fourth level of analysis in T.A.: Script Analysis. A script is a life plan or drama (like a play) which one feels compelled to enact. People may be scripted as winners or losers. They may have tragic, comic, heroic, melodramatic, etc. scripts. Fairy tales, myths, movies, stories may be used to help get an idea of someone’s script. Some of the best work on scripts has been done by Claude Steiner (Scripts People Live) and Hogie Wycoff. Ms. Wycoff discusses a variety of “banal” scripts that sex-role conditioning in our society offers. These are from Solving Women’s Problems.

Some of the scripts for women include “Mother Hubbard, or Woman Behind the Family.” She takes care of everyone except herself, always sacrificing for others. Such women often have severe problems with menopause and/or when children leave the nest, as they are so identified with their nurturing role. They often end up frustrated, depressed, embittered when they do not receive the rewards they feel are deserved.

Then there is Plastic Woman who buys the media image of beauty. She is a good consumer, changing clothes, hairstyles, shoes and so on to try to always be attractive. She measures her worth in terms of people’s reaction to her physical appearance.

The Woman Behind the Man is often very bright and could be highly successful, but lives her abilities out through a man whom she pushes up the ladder of success. She basks in his reflected glory, but continually strives to be non-threatening lest people see through the facade.

Poor Little Me bought into her parents and/or society’s vision of little girls as helpless. She learned early how to be rescued by those around her, and keeps on playing the victim role to the hilt. It works best when she is young and cute, often failing severely as she gets older.

Creeping Beauty really does fit the media image of beauty, but spends most of her time focusing on her flaws and imperfections. Since anything can appear less than perfect, especially out of context, she often feels she is fooling everyone, that she is actually ugly. Or she worries that she is ugly underneath the surface everyone notices.

Then there is the Nurse, who makes a profession out of being a Rescuer, in one form or another. She is exceptionally skilled at taking care of others, but somehow she often ends up out in the cold. She often expects us others to “mind read,” giving her what she wants without her having to ask for it.

Banal scripts for men are discussed in Scripts People Live. Big Daddy spends his life immersed in responsibilities. He is always taking care of others. This also gives him the “right” to be absolute ruler. Big Daddy is a complementary role for Poor Little Me. (They attract one another easily. The roles mesh together.)

Man In Front of the Woman knows that he is less competent than his wife (or secretary, whoever the woman is). He gives lip service to her contributions, but makes it clear HE is in charge. He tries to imply that she does the drudgery, the sweat-labor, while he supplies the creative spark. He often feels guilty at taking some of her credit.

Playboy spends his life looking for the “perfect” woman according to the media ideal. He often attracts Plastic Women or Creeping Beauties. He tends to play Blemish, concentrating on physical appearance, and is never satisfied.

The Jock buys society’s message that athletics make a real man. Usually still in his teens, he decides to become proficient in sports. He often becomes cut off from his feelings. His rational and intuitive faculties are underdeveloped. While he may have success when young, as he grows older, he feels repeated disappointments that “Nice guys finish last.”

The Intellectual buys the role that rationality is all that matters. He neglects his body to develop his mind. He may be highly “successful” in traditional terms, but his life seems empty, stale. His relationships tend to be over-regulated. He lacks spontaneity, having shut down his emotional side.

The Woman Hater buys society’s (father’s, mother’s) messages that women are inferior and no good. He looks down on them, and prefers activities and institutions (e.g. the military) where it is possible to spend a lot of time in the company of men without women. He is often into hunting and sports. He generally lives alone, and his contempt of women will spread to children, and spontaneous, joyful, creative activities.

All of these scripts are assumed to have counter-scripts and ways to get out. But one often has to recognize first that one is IN script, before being able to analyze it and find another way to live.

Script analysis looks at games and rackets. It is assumed that no one will be game free. But games are played from first degree (fairly mild and harmless) through third degree (ending in the hospital or morgue). The aim is to get games to the first degree, if possible. Scripts are also analyzed in terms of “platforms.” A platform is a generalized opinion about someone or something. For example, fill in the blanks:


MONEY IS .....

LIFE IS .....

SEX .....


Therapists and clients may examine the attributions of an individual (e.g. I am a white, female, urban-dweller) and how they may affect scripting.

T.A. looks for Injunctions also. Berne described these as being implanted “like an electrode” from the crazy child of a mother or father into the child’s Child state. Breaking an injunction feels life-threatening. There are at least ten injunctions:

Don’t Feel

Don’t Trust

Don’t Get Close

Don’t Succeed

Don’t Be You

Don’t Be Important

Don’t Be Sexy

Don’t Grow Up

Don’t Think

Don’t Be.

Injunctions are also influenced by cultural conditioning. Due to discrimination, Blacks (and other minorities) often have a “Don’t Trust.” (or at least, don’t trust whites). Women often have “Don’t Think and Don’t Succeed.” Men often have “Don’t Feel.” A “Don’t Be” is a suicide script. Parents who kill themselves give children a “Don’t Be!” message. Parents who kill themselves indirectly, e.g. smoking a lot, alcoholic, extremely overweight, etc. are assumed to be sending a “Don’t Be” message to their children.

Because breaking injunctions is so threatening, T.A. therapists emphasize the three “P’s” in working with clients: Permission (to be, to act, to change); Protection (a safe environment, provided by the therapist in which to learn and grow); Potency (strength of the therapist to guarantee safety and security).

T.A. also looks at how people structure their time. They make five divisions:

1. Rituals—simple, complementary transactions, such as “Hello” which supply maintenance strokes for people.

2. Pastimes—innocent topics of discussion. Spending time without heavy involvement. May be testing for games, activities, intimacy.

3. Games—recurring sets of transactions, each with a gimmick and pay-off. Games may be short or life long, e.g. Debtor.

4. Activities—dealing with external reality. Getting things done. “Work.”

5. Intimacy—human contact involving tenderness, affection, empathy. Free of games. Free of exploitation.

Strokes are a part of script analysis. A stroke is defined as “Any act(s) implying recognition of another’s presence.” Everyone needs strokes. Strokes can be physical and non-physical. Strokes can be negative or positive. A basic assumption of T.A. is that people often prefer negative strokes to no strokes at all. Children who are raised with many negative strokes will often continue to seek out negative strokes when older. They stay with the familiar (but painful) pattern. Part of T.A. therapy involves analyzing what kinds of strokes a client gets, how much, how often, how and what kinds of strokes the client gives or doesn’t give to others as well as to her/himself.

Stroke patterns are also family and culture-influenced. E.g. Northern European families often give fewer physical strokes than southern European families. Claude Steiner has written a good essay, “The Stroke Economy,” on how we tend to get conditioned away from stroking and being stroked.

A few other T.A. concepts I enjoy:

Face Painting—reacting to someone as if they were another, usually a significant family member or person from the past. Not in the here and now.

Rubber Banding—going back to former thoughts, feelings, reactions. Not in the here and now.

Tapes—experiences recorded in the brain, like a tape-recording. Often played back with the same exact old feelings, thoughts, actions.

Discount—lack of attention or negative attention which hurts physically or emotionally (includes negative strokes).

Psychological Trading Stamps—collecting feelings, and eventually cashing them in for a pay-off. (Pay-offs can include a temper tantrum, an affair, running away, a fight, whatever.) Stamps come in colors, symbolic of feelings being “saved up” Red is for anger stamps; black or blue for depression; green for jealousy or envy; white for purity or self-righteousness, and so on.

There is lots more to T.A., but I’ve tried to include here the major concepts. I enjoy much of T.A. because Berne and others chose amusing, self-explanatory terms for many of their concepts. People of most ages and backgrounds can relate to T.A. easily.

T.A. has much in common with astrology in that both view human beings as complex and multi-faceted. Both say no part of being human is bad; we merely need the appropriate time and place to express each of our different parts. Both recognize that people are often repetitive and predictable, but can change, grow, and enlarge their lives. The T.A. concept of face-painting shows up (as a possibility) in the horoscope. E.g. Someone with the Moon in the Fifth has, among a multitude of other possibilities the potential of repeating his/her relationships with Mother with a child. That is the individual MIGHT face-paint, react to the child as if it were the mother. The same issues would be dealt with in the relationship with the child as the parent had with the mother.

Berne himself was too much of a determinist for me. He talked of parental “electrodes” implanting themselves in a child with no real recognition of how much power a child has to accept, reject and interpret the world surrounding her/him, including parental offerings. Berne also tended to assume individuals were heavily “set” by around age five. I think we continually reinforce (and refurbish) our attitudes and actions after age five. It is not all that difficult to alter even old patterns. Part of the key lies in our powers of interpretation. If we acknowledge that “X happened and I felt Y,” we can choose to now feel Z. But if we assume “Because X happened, I must feel Y.” we are stuck. Berne tended to assume parents provided X and children Y, forgetting children can choose from A to Z. And even if we didn’t know all the choices back then, we can learn them now!

For me, one of the difficulties is T.A.’s refusal to deal with the unconscious. They will label something (e.g. games) as “out of awareness” but deny the unconscious per se. I feel this leads to an overly rational (conscious) approach. Thus, when a person is aware of unhealthy behavior, says s/he wants to change and doesn’t, the T.A. therapist often falls back on the assumption of deeply ingrained childhood patterns. I would tend to ask what unconscious needs that behavior pattern serves (even if illogical or irrational by the standards of the conscious mind) and how can those needs be met in a different manner which can be satisfying to both the conscious and unconscious?

Getting too caught up in maps, diagrams and mental games of explanations is an occupational hazard of astrologers as well as T.A. therapists. One of the biggest games in T.A. groups is the game of “Game Naming.” This works like, “Oh, you’re into Kick Me. Well, now I understand you. That’s all I have to do.” People assume that attaching the label is sufficient. They don’t go on from there, and often forget how much MORE the person is than any label. Astrologers do this with, “Oh, you’re a Gemini. I understand you!” Or, “You’ve got Neptune rising; I don’t understand you and never will.” Even if done with more sophistication, this can be very destructive.

Personally, I find many of the concepts of T.A. useful with clients, and easy to convey. It is another way of looking at “reality” and figuring out how human beings may work. I think much of our past is highly important and understanding it can make our future more fulfilling. But T.A. people often forget that we all constantly re-write (re-interpret) our pasts. Memory is very self-serving! Thus, we are in control, NOT former traumas or “electrodes.” Fortunately, some therapists recognize this.

Those astrologers who believe “The planets did it!” should get along well with therapists who assume “The parents did it.” They are both playing “Wooden Leg.” That’s a game of “I could be great, except for this wooden leg....” For astrologers, malefics and squares (etc.) are wooden legs. For Berne and others, parental electrodes are wooden legs.

Most of our wooden legs are products of our interpretations and imagination. And even with a “real” wooden leg, it’s amazing how much one can do when s/he focuses on doing it rather than focusing on how s/he CAN’T do it! Here’s to the power within us all!

Copyright © 1981 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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