A fresh look at Transactional Analysis
I sit by my 96-year old mother-in-law's bedside in the nursing home near where we live. It is the same story: "What am I meant to be doing? I don't know why I am here...what does the Lord want me to do?" I try to reassure her that there is nothing to do now, she can just rest, but that unsettles and confuses her. All her adult life she has been busy "working for the Lord", ceaselessly sharing the gospel with everyone from her girl guides group to the bemused cold-caller asking about mis-sold PPI...
But now she can't see well. Her hearing is poor and she is bed-bound. Her hands cannot knit, and she no longer recognises passages from the Bible she used to recite by heart. Her brain is tired, she holds fast to a hope of heaven, but she cannot let go.
I come home and turn on the TV to catch up with the Olympics. Jessica Ennis-Hill is distressed - she has won the silver, but it wasn't the coveted gold. The interviewer presses her for more information: "Is this your last Olympics?" The tears spill over - "Don't make me cry!" The sense of loss is tangible.
When confronted with the loss of health, position or relationship, we become aware with raw reality of how much those things defined us. Whether we were an athlete, a top manager, a husband, a wife, a mother… once that label has been removed we can be thrown into major crisis: so who am I now? There is a familiar truism that we are not human doings, we are human beings. It doesn’t bless me greatly; it doesn’t help when you feel bereft.
I found myself thinking of the superwoman in Proverbs 31. It’s quite interesting that verses 10-31 form an acrostic poem – they each begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They paint a picture of an amazingly busy and dynamic woman who is widely respected and admired as businesswoman and entrepreneur. She barely needs any sleep, is a domestic goddess and somehow still finds time to minister to the poor and needy.
So how come she gets loads of Brownie points and a poem, and poor old Martha gets chastised for being too busy (Luke 10)? Although, please note she is the only person who told Jesus what to do!
Who would you rather have in your counselling room? Martha or the Proverbs 31-lady? And what feelings would it evoke in you?
Psychiatrist Eric Berne came up with the concept of Life Positions, as part of his Transactional Analysis (TA) theory, where early developmental deficit can leave us feeling one-up or one-down in relation to other people. The secure person can accept both themselves and other people in a balanced way that claims, “I’m ok, you’re ok”, even if we don’t agree on everything. If your life position happens to be “I’m not ok, you’re not ok”, then you definitely need to find yourself a good therapist.
Presumably our Proverbs 31 lady is totally balanced and completely sorted psychologically. But what about Martha, the Patron Saint of Stress? She’s definitely comparing herself with Mary but does she feel one up (I’m doing all the work here) or one down (how come my lazy sister still gets to sit next to Jesus…)? I wonder what sibling scripts were operating here.
I like TA, even though some people are a bit sniffy about it being outdated. To me it continues to provide a really helpful way of exploring interpersonal dynamics and it is easily grasped by clients. I don’t know anyone who is unable relate to early injunctions, childhood directives that get hard-wired into our brains and continue to plague us well into adult life.
“Don’t make a fuss! Keep your mouth shut, just put up with it.”
“Don’t be late… be two hours early, but never be late.”
“Be a good girl/boy. Don’t get it wrong.”
Don’t Break the Rules!
The Ten Commandments show us that God approves of rules and in themselves they are essential in every community, large or small. Right from the Garden of Eden they have been there: don’t eat that fruit…
Certainly we need structure and stability in our lives. Without this, “Chaos would ensue and we would suffer from unmanageable anxiety. In our everyday lives, when we are in situations where there are insufficient boundaries and unpredictable structure, anxiety arises and Adult functioning suffers.” (Fowlie & Sills, 2011, p. 130)
Students on training courses want to know: how many words? What if I get sick? What can I say in the PD group?
In my childhood church rules were some of the most powerful: attend services every week, commit to home groups, read your Bible, tithe, share the gospel.
Most counselling agreements have a stack of rules – they even have a formal contract: make sure you pay on time, don’t contact me in the middle of the night, I can’t be your Facebook friend, you’ll be charged if you cancel…
Childhood families are brimming with regulations: don’t be loud, don’t eat with your mouth open, don’t contradict your father, don’t cry, don’t show off…
Along with external and internal rule systems we also need equal amounts of loving kindness, nurture, warmth, emotional connection and soothing. If that balance is lacking, our narrow, scary world becomes all about “get it right or you’re in trouble”. Berne suggested that we manage this fearfulness by developing tactics which he termed ‘counter-injunctions’. It’s all quite straightforward, really:
Dynamics in the Counselling Room
I’ve had clients who have wanted to prove that they are the best client I’ve ever had (be perfect). Others have been desperate to assure me they really are doing their best to get better (try harder). The desire to please me can be seductive: what a nice client! We need to have our driver-radar out to spot these messages and not take the bait. The fear in the client that we will reject them underpins much of this kind of behaviour and that’s where the work has to be.
Supervision often reveals the counsellor’s own need to be perfect, to please her clients so that they’ll stay in therapy, or to hurry up with the answers they are pressing for. This is particularly true for trainee counsellors, but I have also met more mature therapists who still haven’t let go of their own scripts and drivers and they are close to burnout. So if both counsellor and client drivers are out in force we can end up with a perfect neurotic fit.
Psychiatrist Donald Winnicott maintained that the client comes into therapy looking for both the “feared and the longed-for relationship” (Fowlie, 2005. P.195). Heather Fowlie (2011) reflects on this: “The feared relationship [is] that you are going to be just like the person that hurt me, and the longed for, that you are going to come and fill this gap in me.” If, as the counsellor, my internal script is Please always then I am in danger of seeking to satisfy my client’s needs by trying to be exactly what he or she is looking for. “I will be the perfect mother you never had, your unconditionally loving parent, the means of filling that huge void you feel inside.” For a time, many years ago and before I was formally trained as a counsellor, I was very vulnerable in this area. Working more within the context of prayer ministry I had very poor boundaries; I felt my role was to make up for all the deficit in the person’s life, single-handedly bringing them to a place of healing and restoration. Of course I prayed fervently, calling on God’s power, thereby demonstrating how spiritual I was as well. It was only when I engaged in two years’ of intensive therapy that I realised I was still working out the pain of having a mother who was quadriplegic. I could never be enough for her, no matter what I did to try and alleviate her suffering. But bring me a client in pain, and this time I would be everything they needed. Sadly, I gradually became more and more exhausted and burnt out, and I began to deeply resent the demanding neediness of people I was seeking to help. With shame and confusion, I watched as the relationship broke down and I was brought to my knees in every sense.
Letting go of unhealthy scripts and drivers is without doubt a process, rather than an overnight decision. One of the problems is that these belief systems are deeply interwoven with attachment dynamics. When I keep the rules, I belong. When I do what you want me to, I win your approval and feel better about myself. If I seek to be my true self, shedding the do’s and don’t’s of the false self programme, will I still fit in? If I don’t do what everyone else wants me to, will I be asked to leave the group? Well, sometimes the answer is yes. We might not fit in any more to a group that insists the rules are kept and cannot contain anomalous behaviour. The clients I have seen change most dramatically have shown great courage in being willing to challenge their own belief systems and risk losing everything that has been so pathologically comfortable. I am in awe of some of the journeys they have been willing to undertake.
It requires motivation and commitment to move towards better mental, emotional and spiritual health. The rewards are many, including a more balanced way of being, where we find ourselves both Mary and Martha, equipped for both action and contemplation. We become compassionate rather than competitive, less concerned with constantly placing ourselves one up or one down.
But not everyone is prepared to do the work required to let go of old scripts.
And of course the greatest challenge of all is: am I?
TA principles can help clients identify unhealthy ways of being, and offer the potential for change and autonomous living. Pauline works creatively and will be exploring some practical ways of working with TA at the National Conference in January, along with similar interventions for Attachment and Gestalt. There will also be an opportunity to discuss some of the issues this article explores.
Fowlie, H. (2005) Confusion and Introjection. A model for understanding the defensive structure of the Parent and Child ego states. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35: 192-204
Fowlie, H. and Sills, C. (2011) Relational Transactional Analysis: Principles in Practice. London:Karnac Books.