Transactional Analysis (TA)

I have mentioned several schools of therapy in the past months. I have left out the one that had the most impact on me personally. It was one approach that did not require me to leave my brain at the door (the 60’s was very concerned with emotional self-expression and letting it all hang out). They do say that if I can remember that, I cannot have been there; I was!

Maybe now is the time to talk about it. Usual rules apply – because it worked for me and, indeed, for others – does not mean it will work for you.

I know some people hate diagrams, graphs and pictures and TA has lots!

Consider, as you read: what can I do to translate TA ideas into my world? How might I use it to design my own safe experiments?

TA was developed in the middle of the last century by an American psychiatrist called Eric Berne. He revisited the traditional therapies of Freud, and others, to add a behavioural dimension to therapy (at that time behavioural therapies were getting on their feet, but needed more time to evolve into the more modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Freud had sub-divided our being into different things – the id, the ego and the super-ego, to mention but three. These are the well-known three.

Berne thought about it differently by identifying the behavioural potentials within three ego states – The Parent, The Adult and The Child. Put simply, these ego states emerged from a conversation between:

The TA Ego State

In this model each ego state has something important to say about the way we communicate. The fluency of those ‘conversations’ plays a vital part in determining our mental health – given that much of our wellbeing depends on our communications with important people in our life.   You can imagine the potential for confusion when 3 x 3 elements seek to work together! 

Let’s look at this a little further; person Blue is engaging with Person Green in the diagram, below.

TA Transactions

This diagram demonstrates that fluent conversations arise when we communicate from one ego state, to the same ego state – and get it back in equal measure.

This is the complementary transaction. All the others complicate the picture as one ego state aims its energy in one place and appears to get it back from another. That can lead to misunderstandings.


I am going to leave you to speculate more on the other four communication styles. Do you find yourself intuitively attracted to one or the other? How does that style of communication manifest for you with different people in your life, today?

Observe how the communication styles changes from person-to-person. You may have predominately complementary transactions with George and crossed transactions with Jane. I’m not saying your communications with Jane are always crossed, but you may observe a favoured style in place when you engage with Jane.

Another valuable quality of TA is its ability to identify how communications WITHIN ourselves get complicated.  Notice two examples of such complications illustrated in this next picture.



This diagram demonstrates how just-touching and equal-sized ego states represent an ideal …. an ideal, I emphasise, not our real world!!

In the real world, we have opinions and prejudices. These arise when information is informed by what others told us. Most often, that works fine, but just occasionally, our failure to observe and just notice things for ourselves is over-ridden by the opinions of the previous generation. The greater power of adults over little ones can lead us to accept things without question. Those ‘things’ can be prejudices – opinions (P) not supported by hard evidence (from A). Such examples will include racism, misogeny and insensitivity to ‘outsider’ groups of people. Oh, and also a low opinion of ourselves. The example of ‘delusion’ offered in the illustration, above, arises when the thoughts, feelings and sensations from our past get mixed up with today’s happening, e.g. “you’ll let me down just like my parents did“.

You can put the two illustrations together to become aware of some quite sophisticated transactions. For instance, when two people meet these confusions of prejudice and delusion can create a special kind of ‘complementary transaction‘, one that matches in the following way:

1. by fostering a ‘complementary symbiosis’, where two people meet each others’ needs. Parent relates to Child, and Child-to-Parent.  It’s a match, but one that makes it difficult to be Adult-to-Adult. 

2. by fostering a ‘competitive symbiosis‘, where two people ‘compete’ for Top Dog. So, Parent relates to Parent, and vice versa, or Child-to-Child, and vice versa. The end-result can be a shouting match or a Game of “Mine’s Biggest”!

By the way, symbiosis is a term for a ‘match’, usually in nature; between different animals. Thus,  in nature, cleaner fish buzz around large fish nibbling away unwanted items that are leeching off the large fish.  The small fish gets both protection and food, and the large fish gets some semblance of comfort!

The problem  – in communications – is that the symbiosis may not promote change. Indeed, it can go unnoticed as each of us gain a dubious benefit from continuing the restricted communication. 

This form of exchange can foster ‘delusion’;  when something appears to exist now but the evidence for it is thin on the ground. Our memory selectively attends to information from the past to generate the picture we want to perpetuate. This can result in dodgy life decisions, e.g. choosing life partners based on things we learned from parents and care-takers. That way – too late – we find that our dreams can become nightmares. Of course, it’s all a matter of degree. I doubt any life partnership arises from rational decision-making (even if there is such a thing, and neurological research suggests otherwise). It is observably the case that some decisions we make are based on old data – archaic experiences, as they are called.

This is just an introduction to the very large arena that is Transactional Analysis (TA). You would need to do a lot of research and personal development to absorb all that TA has to offer. I will develop some TA ideas as I go along but, for moment, consider:


Can I suggest you re-visit the inverted tree? Use it to identify two or three specific niggling things from your past and present. Note them down. Did they appear to relate to things you were told by parents and caretakers or do they feel like coming from within?

Then, take a piece of paper and note down the how each item is influenced by;

  • the ideas and experiences that other people gave you in the past about the ‘thing’.
  • the current and immediate implications of the ‘thing’ you have chosen.
  • any conflict in your own mind about where the ‘thing’ came from; between thoughts, feelings and sensations or beliefs and ‘sayings’ others instilled in you? Try the body scan safe experiment.
  • …. and then, consider this third diagram.
This is the OK Corral

After you have reviewed the incidents and experiences, consider to what extent those events created your ‘life position‘, as it is called. The Life Position can vary from situation to situation, of course, but we tend to adopt a ‘favourite’ position. It would be good to think we saw ourselves as OK, and all others around us as OK, as well, but, in practice, it is feasible to find three other Life Positions:

I am OK, but you are not (bottom left);

I am not OK, but you are (top right);

I am not OK and you are not OK either (bottom right).

Do the incidents you selected appear to reflect one of these four positions? If there is a ‘favourite’ (note: not preferred), consider what safe experiment might be required to shift the life position just a little bit.

I am going to stop at this rather arbitrary point. I have started to show how TA can be a practical help in the design of safe experiments. Please bear in mind this is merely a scratch of the surface!!

Look out for more!! Tell me what you find.


Return to:


What is a nudge

Designing safe experiments

If I had a complaint about TA, it is that it is not good at addressing today’s power differentials.

Actions, not words

Actions, instead of words