“Those who look outside dream, those who look inside awaken.” ~ Carl Jung
Transactional Analysis is a theory created by Eric Berne, where people incorporate Ego States while interacting with their interpersonal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as well as how they communicate (transact) with others. Berne describes three Ego states, Parent, Adult, and Child/Over-Adaptive Child. Similar to Berne’s approach; yet in simpler terms, I will separate and deconstruct the Ego into five categories, which represent different patterns of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. These Ego states are; (1) Adult, (2) Critical Parent, (3) Over-Nurturing Parent, (4) Adolescent, and (5) Child Heart. While reading through the discussion of the following Ego states, I encourage you to ask yourself, which Ego State do you find yourself embodying most often?
Adult Ego State: The Adult Ego State is the part of our Ego, which seeks to understand. While operating from this space, people are in charge of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The Adult Ego sets healthy boundaries and heals our past while letting go of shame or guilt. It is in this state that we are flexible, responsible, honest, and forgiving. Also, it is in the Adult Ego that we confront ourselves or others lovingly and gently, which is a necessary task to create healthy change.
I equate the Adult Ego part of who we are as complete internal and external awareness, which is grounded in the present moment and approaches life with love. It is that simple. When in this state of being, all judgment is suspended, and instead, we approach ourselves and others with curiosity. Suspending judgment is an ideal thought yet difficult call to action because doing so requires the openness to check our learned biases. The more often we operate from the Adult Ego State, the more likely we can transcend to a place beyond Ego and into complete awareness — the awakened self.
While operating from this part of our being, people listen internally to their thoughts and feelings and examine their behaviors without judgment. When in the Adult Ego State, the individual is fully present, aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions; and in turn, they can be fully present and engaged while in communication with another. Consider having a conversation with someone. As they are speaking, are you fully present and engaged in what they are saying through their words and body language? Or did they say something; which tweaked a feeling or thought within, and now you are just wishing they would stop talking so you can throw down some of your knowledge at them? More often than not, it is the second scenario in which our society and culture mimic.
When in the Adult Ego State, people allow themselves to become fully aware of who they are — listening to their internal thoughts and feelings (or other aspects of the Ego) on a deeper level. Doing so, they can manage the behaviors that come as a result of the thoughts and feelings. One way to do this is to understand the other parts of our Ego. With that said, let us take a look at the Critical Parent Ego State.
Critical Parent Ego State: Operating from the Critical Parent Ego State, we typically are in a state of being critical of ourselves or others. Characteristics of this part of our Ego include; blame, guilt, shame, control, overbearing, rigid, nagging, scolding, perfectionism, judging, and persecuting oneself or others.
Sadly, many people are stuck in this critical mindset and often do not even realize it. I regularly meet people who tend to operate from the Adult Ego with others yet step into this Critical Parent Ego when it comes to themselves. People are cruel to their own heart, soul, and being; yet, are kind and caring towards others. Self-criticism is the direct opposite of being compassionate to one’s self. It is essential to be aware of your inner critic in order to reframe the critical talk and promote a more loving and compassionate stance towards oneself and others. Remember, do not fight the Critical Parent Ego State. When reacting with one negative voice to another negative voice, the likelihood of strengthening the inner critic occurs.
The Critical Parent Ego has positive attributes also. Yes, that is correct. Each Ego State; other than the Adult, has positive and negative characteristics. It is our Adult Ego’s job to discern whether the different parts of our Ego are serving us well or not. Positive qualities of this part of our Ego include learning our values, morale standards, and right and wrong.
Over Nurturing Parent Ego State: Aww, the Over Nurturing Parent Ego State. The part of our Ego that appears kind; yet, in many ways is toxic to ourselves and those around us. When in this state of being, we often enable others which actually disables them. Our efforts appear loving and nurturing when; in reality, they are not. When we try to solve other’s problems or try to take responsibility for them, we are restricting them from their self-worth and being self-reliant. I see many parents; myself included, fall into this Ego State often. Operating from the Over-Nurturing Parent Ego State can lead us into the pitfall of codependency.
Adolescent Ego State: Now let’s discuss the Adolescent Ego State. The primary focus of the Adolescent Ego State is survival. When operating here, we find ourselves wanting to be in control, yet not wanting; or seeking, the responsibilities of being in control. Many people living in this Ego state want to be kept safe; however, they do not want to be the person responsible for keeping themselves safe. Often there is a desire to avoid emotional pain (or listening to our child heart) while attempting to meet needs through addiction, sex, overeating, or other maladaptive behaviors. Negative characteristics of this Ego State include lying, manipulating, justification, defending, explaining, sarcasm, compulsivity, gossiping, overly emotional, and addictive behaviors. With that said, some positive attributes of the Adolescent Ego State include creativity, boundless energy, adventurous, and tenacious.
Similar to how people in their adolescent years need a healthy adult to teach and guide them, when an individual is operating from their Adolescent Ego State, their Adult Ego State must step in and be in charge. An excellent example of the Adult Ego State being the guide is a person is going out with friends to dance and have drinks. The Adult Ego State makes sure there is no drinking and driving or over-drinking. If the person was operating strictly from the Adolescent Ego State, they may over-drink and possibly even drink and drive.
Child Heart Ego State: Anyone who knows me also knows I have a fascination with the Child Heart Ego State, which is the part of who we are that feels all feelings: mad, sad, glad, and afraid. When in this state of being, we have no secrets, are imaginative, creative, simplistic, expressive, and vulnerable. The Child Heart Ego is curious, playful, innocent, trusting, and has an active and vivid imagination. The Child Heart Ego State learns kinetically (by doing) through experimenting and experiencing. It is the Child Heart Ego State that is the pure essence of whom we were created to be, the part of our soul that no individual or event can take or define. It is also the Child Heart of who we are that is vulnerable and in need of love, guidance, instruction, and gentle nurturing.
Often the Adolescent Ego State will step in and shut down our Child Heart because the Adolescent Ego wants to protect the child from feeling any pain, fear, or anger. Additionally, when our Critical Parent Ego State is loud and shaming, our Child Heart will shut down. It is the Adult Ego State’s job to manage each part of our Ego States so that our Child Heart Ego feels safe enough to be vulnerable, authentic, and open.
Putting it into Practice
As you read and reflected upon these Ego States, contemplate these questions.
- Which Ego State do you currently find yourself operating from most often?
- How would operating from the Adult Ego State more frequently create healthy change in your life?
- When was the last time you allowed your Child Heart Ego to express your feelings and be vulnerable? How could doing so allow you to be a more balanced person?
- How does your Adolescent Ego State show up in your life and relationships?
- How often do you allow your Critical Parent Ego State to be in control?
In the upcoming week, become aware of self-critical talk as much as possible, as well as behaviors that may be destructive to yourself, others, or your personal goals. In doing so, incorporate at least one change to assist you in responding to yourself or others from an Adult Ego perspective.
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Berne, E. (2016). Transactional Analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. Place of publication not identified]: Picker Partners Publishing.