Transactional analysis (TA) is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the ritualistic transactions of interactions and behaviors that occur between individuals. Developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s, TA focuses on social interaction, emotional well-being, and responsibility, involving life scripts that people develop based upon early childhood experiences. TA is an understandable, sophisticated structural analysis of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Brief History of Transactional Analysis
Eric Berne, M.D., was born Eric Lennard Bernstein in Montreal, Canada, in 1910. He completed his education in 1935 at McGill University and his residency at Yale’s Psychiatric Clinic. However, he experienced increasing frustration with the psychoanalytic approaches of the time. In response, he developed his own approach. In 1958, he published Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy. He later published the popular best seller Games People Play, and numerous other books, manuscripts, and papers. Berne subsequently founded the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA), continuing as a psychotherapist and writer until his death in 1970.
Basic Elements of Transactional Analysis
TA is a psychosocial approach that uses a concept called structural analysis to understand the interactions or transactions that occur between individuals. Berne’s observations during group counseling sessions led to his identification of three ego states that coexist within personality: Parent, Adult, and Child. According to the theory, all three ego states exist within the individual. Even young children have an Adult and Parent ego state. Transactions occur between ego states.
The Ego States
During Berne’s early sessions, he noted that clients thought or behaved sometimes like children, sometimes like adults. Originally, he designated two ego states, the Child, named the archaeopsyche, and the Adult, named the neopsyche. Later, a third ego state was identified, that of the Parent, or exteropsyche. The Child denoted the creative, intuitive, and pleasure-seeking or sometimes rebellious nature of the person. The Adult formed the realistic, logical part of the person. The Parent was derived from introjection and identification with an individual’s biological parents. Opinionated, judgmental and nurturing, often protective, the Parent completes the tripartite ego states that form personality: Parent (P), Adult (A), and Child (C) (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Parent, Adult, and Child ego states Source: Adapted from Berne, E. (1964).
The Parent state operates as a collection of prerecorded, judgmental rules for living. Like a tape playing in our heads, the Parent reminds us of the correct way to think, feel, or behave. It tells us how to react and how to live, right or wrong. When critical, as it often is, this state is known as the Critical Parent. When supportive, it is Nurturing.
The Adult state can be compared to a computer. Functioning in a factual, logical, and rational manner, the Adult faces facts and makes decisions. If the data are correct, the conclusion follows. If the facts are incorrect, the resultant answers are wrong. One of the key purposes of the Adult state is to provide a factually based appraisal of the effectiveness of behavior in the pursuit of goals. Contamination occurs when information from the Parent or Child state distorts the appraisal.
When in a Child state, individuals act like “the child they once were,” with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they once experienced. Individuals actually think, see, hear, and react as they may have as children. When the Child is thoughtful, imaginative, and creative, this is known as the Little Professor. When the Child is loving, hateful, or impulsive, this is the Natural Child. Guilt, shame and fearful states are identified in the Adapted Child. All three ego states—Parent, Adult, and Child—are important for healthy functioning; no single ego state should dominate the others.
Transactions are units of social interaction. They are communicative exchanges between people in both directions. Those exchanges originate in and are received by various ego states. When transactions are overt and pass to and from the same ego state (Adult to Adult, for example), these transactions are complementary, and communication flows. When they cross from one state to another (e.g., Adult to Child or Parent to Child), they become crossed and disrupt communication. Covert transactions are deceptive in nature and form the basis of games. Covert transactions also are ulterior in nature and occur when people say one thing and mean another.
Strokes, Rituals, and Games People Play
Strokes are essential for survival. Positive strokes consist of praise, accolades, and commendation. They are verbal and nonverbal expressions of appreciation and value. Negative strokes are demeaning and judgmental. If people are to thrive as individuals, according to Berne, they need strokes. Just as transactions are units of exchange, strokes are units of interpersonal recognition. Counselors focus on this aspect of TA to assist people in the process of reversing unhealthy patterns of stroking.
There are five ways to get strokes: rituals, pastimes, intimacy, work, and games. Rituals are preset exchanges. Pastimes are common small talk. Intimacy and work, although challenging, are the most satisfying sources of strokes, whereas games are devious.
Undesirable or dysfunctional behavioral interactions earned the title of Games within TA. Games are defined by Berne as sets of often repetitious transactions with hidden or ulterior motives that result in predictable, well-defined outcomes.
Some games earned labels by Berne. These include Ain’t It Awful, I’m Only Trying to Help and Please Don’t Kick Me, among others. If It Weren’t for You is often played out between couples so that one member of the couple can blame the other for not being able to achieve desired goals. Why Don’t You…Yes, But (WDYB) is commonly found at social gatherings, committee meetings, and psychotherapy groups, where a problem is thrown out as “bait” and the offered solution results in a Yes, But response, making the transaction a game.
Existential Life Positions and Life Scripts
Popularized by Thomas Harris, M.D., this aspect of TA notes that people are born OK, capable of change, and inherently healthy in human interaction. However, not everyone assumes an OK position. Founded on early and youthful social interactions, people may decide that “I’m OK, but you are not,” “You are OK and I am not,” or “You are not OK and neither am I.” The healthiest perspective is “I’m OK, you’re OK.” The early decisions may be self-limiting, but seemed to offer the best chance of survival at the time. These choices become a pattern resulting in a preconscious life script designed to reaffirm the life position. Some scripts are tragic, some banal, and others are healthy. Changing these self-limiting choices that form the life script is the goal of the psychotherapeutic process of TA. A common technique for doing so involves changing decisions made within the Child state (redecisions).
The Therapeutic Milieu
TA educators or therapists are encouraged to focus on patterns of interaction, particularly seeking those trans-actions that are covert, those that cross-contaminate, or those that lead to delusion or self-limitation. Using symbols, egograms are constructed to illustrate the relative strength of ego states, and transactions are visually presented. Contracts are used as tools to resolve issues and educate clients. Scripts are analyzed. Permission to function in an Adult ego state is granted as a crucial device in overcoming unhealthy parental or child influences. Life scripts are outlined with the intent of changing self-limiting patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In group TA settings, three stages are identified; initial, working, and final. In the initial stage, rapport is developed and contracts for change identified. The working stage allows for analysis of games and restructuring of life scripts. In the final phase, redecisions made from the Child state are validated and participants are encouraged to transfer their redecisions from the therapeutic milieu into real life and to close by sharing positive strokes with other group members.
Transactional analysis provides a useful and comprehensive structural analysis system that can be applied in group, individual, family, and classroom settings. Often combined with Gestalt therapy, TA can be thought of as an educational model, viewing the individual within a systematic social context. Research on the efficacy of TA in educational, occupational, and clinical settings supports TA as a method of promoting mental health and improving interpersonal communication. According to recent research, TA may also help to increase self-esteem.
Although not as popular as in the 1970s, TA continues to thrive, in part through the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA). With more than 10,000 members, ITAA publishes the Journal of Transactional Analysis; sponsors international conferences; and provides training videos, DVDs, and Web resources.
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- Barrow, G., Bradshaw, E., & Newton, T. (2001). Improving behaviour and raising self-esteem in the classroom: A practical guide to using transactional analysis. London: David Fulton.
- Berne, E. (1961). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy. New York: Grove Press.
- Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The basic handbook of transactional analysis. New York: Grove Press.
- Dusay, J. M. (1977). The evolution of transactional analysis. In G. Barnes (Ed.), Transactional analysis after Eric Berne (pp. 32-52). New York: Harper’s College Press.
- Dusay, J. M., & Dusay, K. M. (1989). Transactional analysis. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (4th ed., pp. 405-453). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.
- Harris, T. A. (1969). I’m ok, you’re ok. New York: Avon Books.
- Massey, R. F. (1995). Theory for treating individuals from a transactional analytic/systems perspective. Transactional Analysis Journal, 25(3), 271-284.
- Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Redecision Therapy is a very effective short-term therapy based on the premise that the decisions we make as adults are strongly influenced by the messages we internalized as children. These messages came primarily from those whose opinions carried the most weight – our parents (and / or primary caretakers), and other authority figures. In addition to those powerful messages we received at an early age, previous decisions we’ve made in life – about ourselves, the world, and others – also play a significant role in the choices we make today. While some of these influences may be very positive, many of the problems we experience as adults are the result of the impact of negative messages and past decisions.
Redecision Therapy, as the name suggests, is designed to help you make healthier, more life-affirming decisions today and in the future. This is accomplished by identifying and extinguishing negative patterns and messages and replacing them with new ones that are beneficial and positive.
History of Redecision Therapy
Developed over 50 years ago in the mid-1960s by Mary Goulding, MSW and her husband Robert Goulding, MD, Redecision Therapy is a powerful blend of two popular and influential psychotherapies – Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis and Fritz Perl’s Gestalt Therapy. The theoretical framework of Redecision Therapy aligns closely with that of Transactional Analysis, while many of the experiential techniques and methods used to effectuate change stem from Gestalt therapy. Redecision Therapy also includes unique elements based on the Goulding’s own experiences as seasoned psychotherapists. Their goal was to create a psychotherapy, based on the strengths and complimentary objectives of Gestalt therapy and Transactional Analysis, that was both brief and highly effective.
Since its creation, Redecision Therapy has come to be used by therapists all over the world. There are training centers in the U.S. as well as many other countries. The Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy, located in Chapel Hill, N.C., uses this approach to therapy as the primary one they teach to students. The USATAA (United States of America Transactional Analysis Association) also provides training and certification in Redecision Therapy for mental health professionals interested in offering this form of psychotherapy to their clients. The Redecision Therapy Association is a worldwide organization dedicated to the ongoing practice, training, research, and ethical use of Redecision Therapy.
Transactional Analysis Influence
As mentioned above, the theoretical structure of Redecision Therapy is based largely on Transactional Analysis. Following is a brief overview of some of the most salient elements of T.A. that are also used in Redecision Therapy.
The Three Ego States
Transactional Analysis is based on the premise that our personalities are comprised of three distinct ego states: The parent, the adult, and the child. These states influence the way we communicate and relate to other people in our lives.
The “parent” ego state, as you might expect, is the part of our personality that’s driven by the lessons – the values, morals, and rules – we learned from our parents and other authority figures. This ego state may be critical, nurturing, supportive, or controlling.
The “adult” ego state is rational, objective, and non-emotional. It’s the most psychologically healthy aspect of our personality. It operates in the here and now and isn’t influenced by childhood messages.
The “child” ego state represents the most natural part of our personality. It’s driven by emotions and impulses. It’s also strongly influenced by the messages we received as a child – both positive and negative. The thoughts, behaviors, and feelings we learned in childhood impact this ego state. The degree of independence (from parental influences) of this ego state can vary widely depending on childhood experiences.
A Theoretical Model
As a theory, Transactional Analysis has many facets:
- It’s a model for human behavior, and as such provides a clear explanation for the development of behavioral patterns (particularly problematic behaviors that keep us stuck)
- It’s a theory of personality It’s a theory for relationship and communication patterns
- It’s a theory for the development of psychopathology
- It’s a theory of human development, based on the “life scripts” or messages learned as children that influence us throughout or lives
One of the main reasons Transactional Analysis is popular with therapists, their clients, and others interested in having a better understanding of themselves and others is because it’s easy to understand. Many theories of personality, human development, and so on are quite complex and difficult to grasp, especially for anyone who doesn’t have a background in clinical psychology (and sometimes even for those who do). Transactional Analysis is brilliant in its simplicity and relatability. The average person can read it and easily identify with things like ego states and life scripts.
Life Scripts refer to the unconscious restrictions and permissions that influence the choices we make and roles we assume in life. They’re created or “written” by our ego states.
As children, we adopted these restrictions and permissions as a survival mechanism. Often, we’re not aware of these life scripts and how strongly they influence unhealthy behavior patterns, such as always being a victim or rescuer. Redecision Therapy, like T.A., helps you identify and “redecide” (change) problematic life scripts.
Transactions refer to our communication with others. Naturally, these are influenced by whichever ego state we’re operating from in the moment. Our healthiest transactions occur when we’re operating from our adult ego state. Transactional Analysis and Redecision Therapy are designed to help you resolve interpersonal conflicts and adopt a more realistic way of looking at things by understanding and changing unhealthy transactions.
Gestalt Therapy Influence
The term “Gestalt” refers to the idea of a unified whole, which is how nature is viewed in Gestalt theory. Gestalt therapy involves an experiential and humanistic approach based on the premise that each of us has an innate desire to solve our own problems and grow continuously throughout our lifetime. As a therapy, it emphasizes the importance taking responsibility for your life and living in the present rather than focusing on the past. It also recognizes and addresses the relationship between current problems and unfinished business.
The primary goal of Gestalt therapy is to attain greater self-awareness in terms of how your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and responses impact your life.
Redecision Therapy, as mentioned above, utilizes many of techniques and methods used in Gestalt therapy, including the “empty chair”, dream work, and the parent interview. These techniques will be discussed below.
Role of the Therapist
In Redecision Therapy (as well as several other types of psychotherapy), the therapist has multiple roles which include:
- Teacher – The therapist educates you about ego states, life scripts, game analysis, and script analysis. He or she helps you understand how the problems you’re experiencing today developed, and how to use various techniques to change them.
- Ally and Consultant – The therapist is your ally throughout the therapy process. Your therapist works with you to establish a clear and specific contract that outlines your therapy goals.
- Facilitator and Guide – The therapist helps you achieve the goals outlined in your contract by giving you the proper tools, assisting and guiding you in their use, and facilitating the process.
- Challenger and Supporter – The therapist motivates, challenges, supports, and encourages you to try out new behaviors and perspectives. The therapist always supports the client’s authentic self and encourages the client to do the same throughout therapy.
Techniques Used in Redecision Therapy
Many of the techniques used in Redecision Therapy originated in Gestalt Therapy. The goals of these techniques include self-discovery, increased self-awareness, and positive changes in the negative messages, decisions, and life scripts that have been causing problems in your life. Some of the techniques frequently used in this therapeutic approach include:
The Empty Chair – One of the most well-known and widely used techniques originating from Gestalt therapy is the Empty Chair exercise. As the name implies, this powerful and highly effective technique involves having you sit across from an empty chair. As you look at this chair, you vividly imagine that it’s occupied by someone (e.g. a parent, spouse, yourself, someone you’ve yet to meet, etc.) or something (e.g. a trait you have but dislike, a symptom such as pain, grief, or anxiety, a situation or event, a lifelong dream, your job, etc.) that’s causing problems or distress in your life. The possibilities are essentially endless.
As the exercise continues, you’re instructed have an in-depth conversation with whomever or whatever is sitting in the other chair. You can ask any question and say whatever you’re thinking or feelings. For example, you can express thoughts and feelings that you’ve kept inside, never had the chance to say, or refrained from saying due to the potential consequences. As you can probably imagine, such a dialogue inevitably evokes many different emotions (often intense) and reactions.
After spending some time talking to the imagined person or object in the empty chair, the therapist will have you reverse roles. Now the person in the opposite chair is you, and you’ve just assumed the role of the imagined person or object. This gives you the opportunity to look at things from the perspective of the object or person you imagined in the empty chair, as you respond to “yourself” (now sitting in the other chair) from that perspective.
The initial conversation is often very cathartic. It also helps many people gain a deeper awareness and understanding of their true feelings, motivations, frustrations, and desires. The role reversal is powerful because it helps clients look at things from a different, as well as more objective, perspective. It also provides an opportunity to adjust the dialogue in a way that supports the client’s goals. Many people find the empty chair technique to be very enlightening.
Dream Work – Our dreams are believed to be projections of ourselves, often revealing some of our deepest fears, unfulfilled longings, and internal conflicts. In Redecision Therapy, as well as Gestalt therapy, dream work doesn’t involve dream interpretation or analysis, as some might assume. Rather, dream work involves reliving or re-enacting a particularly significant or troubling dream a therapy session. Dream work allows you to explore and discuss thoughts and feelings the dream elicits as you act out the roles of different people or objects from your dream. Like the empty chair exercise, dream work promotes self-awareness.
Another aspect of dream work includes rewriting one of the scenes in the dream or the ending of the dream to something that is more positive and supportive.
The Parent Interview – The parent interview is another powerful exercise frequently used in Redecision Therapy. Parents (or primary caregivers) play a significant role in shaping our lives and influencing how we look at ourselves, others, and the world. As children, we don’t have the ability to objectively evaluate the messages receive or the “shoulds” and “oughts” imposed upon us. We take them at face value and internalize them as our own. When these messages and rules are flawed (e.g. distorted, inaccurate, unfairly negative, or maladaptive) they create problems later in life.
During this exercise, you’ll assume the role of one of your parents, and the therapist will interview you (acting as that parent). The therapist will as your parent a variety of questions about his or her feelings, thoughts, choices, and life experiences. This exercise will give you insight regarding your parent and enable you to consider things from his or her perspective. Having a greater understanding of why your parent or parents may have acted in certain ways or made choices that were hurtful to you can help heal those old wounds. Negative feelings toward the parent, such as anger or resentment, can give way to empathy and compassion.
Early Scene Work – This exercise involves having you relive one of your childhood memories or early life scenes. The therapist will ask you, as your childhood self, questions about decisions you made, emotions you experienced, and thoughts you had as a child. Significant events in childhood sometimes lead to negative decisions and beliefs that cause ongoing problems. The exercise can help reveal a potential connection between the childhood scene and the problems you’re experiencing.
There are many other techniques used in Redecision Therapy in addition to the four discussed above.
How Redecision Therapy Works
Redecision Therapy is based on the premise that your current problems stem from early, faulty decisions about the world, yourself, and others. They are metaphors of unresolved past conflicts. Those early decisions and assessments enabled you to survive. Although they once served a purpose, they’re now causing problems and keeping you stuck.
The initial part of therapy involves working with the therapist to establish a contract that outlines your therapy goals – the changes you want to make and the problems you want to eliminate. Once this contract is created, the next part of treatment involves working with the therapist to identify and explore how the problem (that led you to therapy) developed from early experiences and decisions. You’ll explore the problem in terms of emotions, how you see yourself, and how you think others see you. Many, if not most, of your current perceptions – both positive and negative – have been carried over from childhood.
Early scene work and other Gestalt techniques, such as the empty chair exercise, will help you gain self-awareness and understanding of how those early experiences led to the creation of problematic life scripts, “games”, and other unhealthy dynamics. (Games is a common Transactional Analysis term that refers to the unhealthy “games” people play / things they do in an attempt to get positive attention from others).
One of the goals of the various Gestalt techniques is to help you experience the same emotional intensity that you experienced when the original decision was made long ago by reliving it in the present. This enables you to consciously redecide, effectively replacing the old beliefs and faulty assessments with ones that are more self-affirming and beneficial.
Examples of early decisions and assessments that cause problems later in life for many clients include:
- I am unlovable
- I am powerless
- I have no control over anything
- I’m not okay
Corresponding redecisions and new, positive assessments may include:
- I am lovable
- I am powerful
- I have control over many things
- I am okay
These new, healthier, and more affirming assessments of self, others, and the world shape and inform the way you interact and respond, and enable you to do so consciously.
Positive changes occur in Redecision Therapy as a result of these redecisions. The latter part of therapy focuses on trying them out, so to speak, and discussing ways to adapt them in your present life, outside of therapy.
Disorders and Problems that can Benefit from Redecision Therapy
Redecision Therapy can help individuals who are struggling with a wide range of psychiatric disorders, emotional challenges, and other problems that are causing distress. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Relationship problems
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Low self-esteem
- Self-defeating behaviors
- Low self-confidence
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Panic attacks
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- PTSD and unresolved trauma, particularly childhood trauma
- Suicidal ideation
- Grief and loss
- Chronic stress
- Marital problems
- Family conflict
- Eating disorders
- Behavioral problems
- Conflicts with authority
- Anger issues
- Work-related conflicts
- Communication problems
Benefits of Redecision Therapy
Those who participate in Redecision Therapy often experience a wide range of benefits. Some of the potential benefits associated with this therapeutic approach include:
- Significant increase in self-awareness
- Healthier, more satisfying relationships with others
- Improved mood
- Greater ability to love and fully accept oneself
- Sense of empowerment and personal freedom
- Ability to live more authentically
- Inner calm due to less internal conflict
- Improved communication skills
- Greater tolerance for negative emotions / less need to avoid or escape them
- Increase ability to live in the present
- Better decision making
- More effective coping skills / greater ability to handle stress
- More self-confidence
- Increase in self-esteem
- Greater capacity for success in all areas of life
- Less anxiety
- Ability to live more spontaneously
- Greater willingness to take risks and experience new things
- Improved ability to get your needs met in a healthy way
- Better emotional regulation
- Greater sense of control over your life and your future
Strengths and Limitations of Redecision Therapy
Like other forms of psychotherapy, Redecision Therapy has many strengths, as well as limitations and aspects that have been the focus of criticism and concern.
Some of the strengths of this therapeutic approach include:
- The ability to bring about profound and lasting change in a short amount of time.
- The model draws from two well-respected psychotherapies, combining them into a highly effective short-term therapy
- The approach is easy for most people to understand
- The process is empowering, enabling clients come to realize they are capable of making profound changes in their lives
- The experiential techniques and exercises are powerful and effective in helping clients gain self-awareness, insight, and new perspectives
Some of the potential limitations or weaknesses of Redecision Therapy include:
- Since therapy clients, are instructed to make a contract (at the beginning of therapy) with the therapist that outlines what they want to change, Redecision Therapy assumes that all clients know what they want to change. Many people who seek therapy don’t have a clear idea of what they want to change. This doesn’t necessarily mean Redecision Therapy isn’t appropriate, but it does mean it may take a bit of time to identify clear therapy goals.
- Therapists need to be very self-aware of their own ego states, especially the potential presence of the critical or controlling parent, who may be tempted to push an unmotivated client or impose his or her own agenda into the process (e.g. in terms of the redecisions the client makes).
- Redecision Therapy may not be the best approach for individuals who have trust issues. While these can be problematic in other types of therapy as well, the short-term aspect of this approach requires trust and rapport with the therapist to be established quickly (in order to proceed) than in longer-term therapies. Seasoned therapists may not have a problem in most cases, but it could be a challenge for an inexperienced therapist. In some cases, it may simply require a bit more time. However, clients with significant trust issues may fare better with a slower-paced therapy.
- This approach may also be difficult for clients who don’t like looking foolish or letting their guard down. Some of the exercises, such as the empty chair and parent interview, require assuming other roles. This can make some individuals feel uncomfortably foolish, eliciting resistance to the process.
- Clients who have a difficult time allowing themselves to experience and express emotions that make them feel vulnerable may struggle in Redecision Therapy. Many of the techniques naturally elicit intense emotions. The willingness to be emotionally vulnerable and process those feelings in therapy is an important part of the change process.
- Another assumption in Redecision Therapy is that clients are willing to change and to take responsibility for their lives. Some people, however, come to therapy expecting or wanting the therapist to do all the work. Redecision Therapy requires clients to take an active role in changing their lives, starting with the client contract.
Finding a Qualified Redecision Therapist
In order to become certified in Redecision Therapy, practitioners are required to undergo twenty months of training, pass a written exam at the end of training, and demonstrate their competency in the approach. There are a few places in the U.S. that offer training and certification, including the USATAA (United States of America Transactional Analysis Association) and The Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy.
If you have the opportunity to participate in Redecision Therapy it’s definitely worth looking into. One of the greatest advantages and most appealing aspects of this approach is that it has the ability to bring about powerful changes in a short amount of time.