What Is Transactional Analysis?

Transactional analysis is one of the somewhat lesser known psychological theories and approaches to therapy. It was developed by a psychiatrist named Eric Berne in the 1950s and it has since become popular among some counselors as well as in some business settings. It has similarities with both psychodynamic theory and cognitive behavioral therapy but is at once very much its own animal. And while it maybe doesn’t offer a complete picture of our psychology, it nevertheless offers a useful framework that still has many applications and is worth familiarizing yourself with.

The Concept

The general concept behind transactional analysis is that humans are social creatures and their behavior is very much modulated by the people that they are spending time with.

On a very basic level, TA explains how you might act differently with a particular group of friends, versus your parents. More often though, it is used in the context of the ‘parent-adult-child’ model, which describes three common modalities for our behavior/beliefs and which has some parallels with Freud’s theories regarding the ID, ego and superego.

When we are issued with any given situation, we might respond as the ‘parent’, the ‘adult’ or the ‘child’. These are ‘ego states’ and essentially dictate whether we will respond as a voice of authority (the parent), a voice of detached logic informed by our upbringing (adult) or that of a child (our innate emotional response). Another way of describing the three states is as ‘taught’, ‘thought’ and ‘felt’. None of these states is ‘bad’ and a healthy approach is to combine all three in an integrated manner.

Theoretically, our relationships with others can be improved by addressing which ‘ego state’ we are responding in at any given time (and why). At the same time, we can also work on improving our use of each ego state and the way we behave in each. In this way, transactional analysis has some similarities with cognitive behavioral therapy.

A particularly interesting concept to come out of transactional analysis is the idea of ‘self-reparenting’. This is a form of therapy that is essentially a form of ‘cognitive restructuring’. Here the patient, along with a therapist, will attempt to address the issues and psychological weaknesses that they carry with them as a result of their upbringing. Often it is simply making peace with the ‘inner child’ and assessing where parenting might have gone wrong. This can help to improve confidence and encourage a healthy approach to various situations.

Four Life Positions

In his original theory, Berne also suggested four ‘life positions’ that an individual can take and which are somewhat analogous to the other concepts in TA. As with our ‘ego states’ these beliefs can influence the way that we communicate and interact with others.

These are:

  • “I’m OK and you are OK”
  • “I’m OK and you are not OK”
  • “I’m not OK and you are OK”
  • “I’m not OK and you are not OK”

The first option is of course the healthiest stance to take, while the latter is the least desirable. Another objective of therapy then is to move the individual towards that healthy outlook.

Effectiveness and Analysis

As a framework, transactional analysis certainly has its usefulness. This is a theory of communication which has been used successfully in business and other fields to help encourage positive interactions with desirable outcomes.

Transactional analysis offers a useful model of child development, as well as a tool for communication and has proven useful effective in some clinical settings.

That said, transactional analysis is not more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy in the majority of scenarios (1). What’s more, the framework is somewhat limited in its applicability to a number of specific conditions and general psychological issues. Attempts to apply TA to phobias for instance introduce new concepts like ‘discounting’ and ‘grandiosity’ which are more vague and less useful than CBT approaches.

The field is undergoing continued development and progress however, which means it is always improving. Ultimately, the approach should not be considered as a standalone tool but rather used as part of a more integrated technique that combines different psychotherapeutic strategies into a single tool.

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