WHAT IS IT?
- Transactional Analysis
Transactional Analysis (TA) was developed by Eric Berne and his collaborators in the 50’s and 60’s. It is based on the transactions people engage in. The unit of these transactions (words, signs, touch) is called a stroke. A transaction is any exchange of strokes.
These strokes can be given and received by a person in three modes – parent (internalised from the environment when young), adult (responding the here and now), and child (as if we were younger – probably younger than age 12).
As the result of the strokes we received as children we developed particular ‘favourite feelings’ – called ‘stamps’ in TA because we tend to collect them as people collected trading stamps in the US in the 50’s and 60’s.
TA talks about us having a ‘life script’ – a now unconscious story that we tend to live out. It is now unconscious but is the result of our learning and decisions while we were young (probably under eight years old, definitely under 12).
We are born with few instincts and not knowing much. The result is that we need to learn, and we can only learn from those around us.
And so we gradually learn about ourselves and those around us and how to get the goodies (or avoid being punished) – how our interaction with those around us can lead to security and pleasure (or not). Our life script is a story with the answers to these three questions:
- Who am I?
- Who are these others?
- What do I need to do to thrive/survive?
Gradually this learning becomes part of us – becomes attitudes and strategies that are unconscious. Often these attitudes and strategies remain throughout our lives.
There are two possible problems with our life script:
1. The attitudes and strategies we usually rely on were developed by a child. Which leads to slogans like, “Don’t let a four year old make your decisions for you”. A four year old deserves, care, nurture and respect; but they don’t know enough to make decisions about your life.
Usually our self development is getting better at these strategies. Which leads to the judgemental and cynical saying that, “People don’t want to change – they want to be better neurotics”. I think there is truth in this. Put more positively, It doesn’t make sense to do unnecessary work. Or, perhaps therapists need to communicate more clearly to their client what the change is they think their client needs to make and the kind of work that might be involved.
- Our attitudes and strategies were developed in a limited environment.
This was essential. If we were exposed to the whole world we wouldn’t be able to survive. However, it means that we will likely be unprepared for some aspects of the world we move into.
This becomes a problem especially for those who grew up in a stable and homogenous environment. If you grew up in a religious family, went to a school run by those of the same religion and largely socialised with those from this religion then it can be a shock when you get to uni. All of a sudden there are people who don’t do things as you do, and don’t see the slightest reason why they should. And they can quite forcefully tell you that what you do is both wrong and foolish. It is possible that you will be ill equipped to thrive in this new environment.
Which Means . . .
that the answers we developed to,
- Who am I?
- Who are these others?, and,
- What do I need to do to thrive or survive?
will likely be at least partly wrong.
Which is easy to say and understand intellectually. To modify and update these early answers can be tough going. These things really feel like they are part of us or that it is simply who we are. To change these things can feel like dying (I am not exaggerating).
I think there is much we can do to make the changing easier but it is quite possible you will be surprised by how strong your feelings can be in response to a suggestion that you change.
You Are More Than You Knew
When we were young we didn’t know all that we were capable of. And we didn’t know that there were lots of places where people did things differently.
So if we stick with our script (our answers to those three questions) we will limit ourselves (in my experience hugely). We will have a limited understanding of who we are, a poor perception of who others are, and a quite limited series of strategies for living well.
In other words
- You are more than you knew
- Others are more than you knew
- There are more ways of thriving/surviving than you knew.
Which Doesn’t Mean That What You Know Is Wrong or Not Useful
Even if you had a very abusive or misleading upbringing there is still probably lots of normal stuff you learned that is helpful to you.
- How to speak your first language.
- Physical co-ordination like walking, running, jumping.
- Organising to get things done.
- The social codes of your group.
- Probably at least some stuff about what you are interested in (hobbies, sports and so on).
And if you did need to adapt to an abusive environment you learned how to survive this. Thankfully, most people don’t need to do this – but it is valuable to know what you learned as a result.
I want to be careful and clear what I say here. I am not for a moment suggesting that any abuse you suffered was good to have suffered because of the strengths and abilities you developed as a result. The best way to learn is with loving and intelligent guidance. An abusive and stressful situation is the worst way to learn anything. What I am saying is that you deserve the credit for being able to learn and grow in an awful situation. That you were strong, resourceful and intelligent enough to learn and grow despite all the impediments put in your way.
FINDING WHAT YOUR SCRIPT IS
Our past learning is both a treasure house to draw from and a set of limitations. If we can recognise the limitations then we will be able to draw more readily on what we have and develop more of what we need. We will be able to live a life that is deeply satisfying.
TA’s scripting is the single best way I know to get a good sense of how we use our past to limit our present perceptions and actions. So here we go.
Your script may not make sense to you now. It may even puzzle you why you do things a certain way or why you react very strongly to particular things.
- Why is it I have trouble with that person (or that sort of person)?
- Why do I keep doing that (when it goes badly every time)?
- Why can’t I be like [whoever] who doesn’t have this trouble and handles [whatever it is] easily?
Your script did make sense at the time you developed it. And it will make it easier to understand and change it if you understand how it did make sense.
If you can recall your childhood, try these things.
1. Remember as vividly as you can the big events that had an impact on you. The places, the people, the events (sights, sounds, touch, taste, smells). If there are lots go through them one at a time, you don’t have to do this all in one go.
2. Remember how you and those around you responded when things got tough.
- Was the situation analysed?
- Was it a call to focus and act?
- Was there resignation in the face of ‘what can’t be helped’.
- Was there confidence that ‘we’ll get through this’?
- Was there anxiety and uncertainty?
Recall as many specific words and actions as you can.
3. The next part is harder. Try to remember normal life. Not the big things but the little things.
- What a normal day was like (if there were normal days).
- Family rituals – cleaning your teeth, bathing, family meals, recreation.
- Did you spend time reading or daydreaming?
- What you did withfriends
- Did you enjoy being inside or outside more?
- Were there family relatives or friends that you like and disliked (if so what was it you liked or disliked about them?)
If you can’t remember your childhood, try these things.
1. Take note of how you respond in stressful situations. You will probably find that you handle them differently to how you handle situations that you find easy to deal with. Note your feelings and responses.
- Do you freeze? (my usual first reaction).
- Perhaps aggression is your preference or
- leaving or distancing yourself whether by leaving or detaching internally may be your preferred response.
2. Take note of how you respond when you get sick. What are your emotions and actions?
- Ignore it?
- Use discipline to not give in to it?
- Nurture yourself?
- Take time out?
- Do everything you can to maintain as much of your normal activity as possible?
- Take the opportunity to do things you don’t normally do?
3. Pay attention to what gives you sensory pleasure (even if it is something that you judge as bad. We are just observing for now, judging comes after you have found out what is actually going on.). The more intense the better.
4. Recall any times where you have felt elated, or freed. Specify in detail how these times and places were different to your usual life.
In each of these situations it is likely that you feel younger than your chronological age and how old you usually feel. You will probably feel similarly to the way you felt as a child and you may find yourself thinking in ways that you thought as a child and acted as a child.
If you aren’t good at remembering your childhood or paying attention to the details of your experience, you can try using imagination and creativity.
1. Set a short time period. Say 3 or 5 minutes. In it you are going to write a fairy tale.
- You start with, “Once upon a time”, and write so fast you don’t have time to stop and think.
- When the time is up or nearly up write the ending in a sentence or two.
- If the ending is unhappy take a minute to write a happy one.
2. Imagine your perfect home and family. (Unless being a hermit is what feels best for you. In which case imagine your perfect hermitage and how it relates to the outside world and other people – if you would like it too.)
3. Imagine someone is going to impersonate you. You have to give them instructions on how to play you. Not just what to do, but how to feel and think; so that they really know what it is like to be you.
All of these exercises are to give you a good sense of what your script is. From doing these exercises you should get a good sense of your answers to the questions:
- Who am I?
- Who are these others?
- What do I need to do to thrive (or survive)?
GETTING FREE OF YOUR SCRIPTING
While doing these exercises you may have thought of things you want to do, new ways that you want to think or feel. These are important and valuable, the provide crucial and vital information – and may be wrong (don’t let a four year old run your life. Your life should honour the importance of your inner four year old but there needs to be space for the older parts of you too – adult abuse is not a good substitute for child abuse).
If you don’t have a good sense of what you want beyond the limitations of your script here are some things to try.
1. What are the things that would feel great but that you judge to be unrealistic?
Perhaps they are genuinely impossible – if so they probably contain a longing that is real and worth paying attention to. I remember being in a therapy group when a therapist challenged us with this sort of thing and I thought, It is impossible to walk to Saturn – and immediately had a flash of me walking around on Saturn’s bright rainbow coloured rings. It was intensely beautiful.
But perhaps they aren’t. Are there people that have or do these things or live in the way that you judge to be unrealistic? Could you become like these people or do or have these things with some work? Perhaps it would be too much work but that is different to it not being possible. If you don’t know how to attain these things it may be possible to find out. (Google is your friend, there are innumerable books and courses out there, friends and other people to ask and employ. It should be possible to get some sense of where to find out how to do something and how much work it may take.)
2. Set a brief time period, a few seconds or a few minutes, in which you can do whatever you like. It could be:
- going for a walk
- dancing freely
- talking to a friend
- writing in your journal
- eating delicious food
- planning a project
- expressing a little of a long suppressed feeling
- reading a book
- playing a game
- . . .
After this time period is over contemplate how you could have more periods in your life like this. Times where you get to try out things, see what you want to do, get to do just whatever is right for you.
3. Get clearer on your values. Here are some thought starters.
- What is the most important way that the world needs to change?
- If you were to give instructions to an adolescent about to start making their way in the world what would you tell them?
- What do you feel that Life/God/The Universe is asking of you?
- What do you feel better after doing?
- What is it that you just don’t like compromising on?
- Tell a friend about what you think is most important in life (or imagine doing so).
SMALL STEPS AND CELEBRATIONS
Once you have a sense of where you want to head then it is time to take the first step in this direction.
This will be new – so you won’t be able to know in advance how it will turn out. There is no reason to scare yourself or push yourself. You don’t want to set yourself up for a fall. Do something you are pretty confident about. Then celebrate. It is the first step on a path taking you to a free-er and more satisfying life. It may not be a big distance but it is in a quite different direction. So it is worth celebrating.
Reward yourself at every step on your journey of a free-er and more satisfying life. You don’t need to let anyone else know if you don’t want to – you may just want to have a sit down and a cup of tea or coffee, or just acknowledge to yourself what you have done. If you want to you can ask everyone you know to celebrate with you. But you don’t need to.
Further Reading. Still the most accessible introduction to TA is James’ and Jongeward’s Born to Win (many cheap copies available on Amazon). It is easily the most accessible self therapy book I know. Clear explanations and lots of exercises that clearly relate to the text and can lead to significant change. It’s a gem.
To find out how to live authentically you can download my manifesto.
It has exercises that will help you experience what authenticity means for you and so experience a more satisfying life.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave this anonymously if you wish.