Use transactional analysis and adult/parent/child to figure out yourself, your spouse, your family, your in-laws, etc. (Honestly.)

Eric Berne Adult Parent Child

Been going to therapy recently — because, I mean, why not? — and my therapist gave me two books to read/look at. One was called The Games People Play; it’s by Eric Berne and is fairly famous. (By some estimates, it sold over five million copies.) The other one is called I’m OK, You’re OK; it’s by Thomas Harris and also somewhat popular. I’ve now read the first one and am about to read the second one. This post is related to the broader ideas therein.

Let’s get something awkward out of the way first: when I was 9-10, my mom actually wanted me to read that latter book — because she had read it. I’m not sure I was really read to process said book at 10, but at 34 I’m willing to give it a try. (24 years represents an approximate period of emotional growth, eh?)

Both these books reference what’s called “transactional analysis.” When I first heard that term, I thought negatively of it. First off, the word “transaction” has a negative connotation for most people; when you get asked to do something at work and you think it’s ‘transactional,’ you’re probably pretty pissed off. You want to be doing something with purpose, right? That’s the whole idea? (Very few people even understand this part, though.)

There’s kind of this broad idea with “transactional analysis” that all human interaction is basically a series of transactions — so, for example, your relationship with your mother is the same as your relationship with a car dealer, just at a more intense level. In some ways, this is true. You go through a series of movements/dialogue points with a car dealer. Each of you has a goal. You go through a series of movements/dialogue points with your mother most of the time. Each of you has a goal (usually). It’s really not that different.

I’ll lay out the cornerstone idea of “transactional analysis” and then relate it back to my own worlds a little bit. 

The heart of a lot of Berne’s work is this idea of “adult/parent/child.” You can read a little bit about the ideas here.

Here’s a mock-up of what it looks like:

Berne Parent Adult Child

Alright, so here’s the basic idea.

At any given time, you can be operating as an adult, a parent, or a child.

When you’re operating as an adult, that means you think and determine things in the now, external and internal factors, all that. You’re putting things together and contextualizing. This is good.

When you’re operating as a parent, you’re essentially acting or using behaviors that your parents gave you (or some parental figure gave you). Your “parent” is basically the external factors of your childhood writ large. There’s a lot of stuff here like “always” and “never” and “these are the rules.” (Point being: you can run from your childhood as much as you want, but it’ll always be somewhere nearby.)

When you’re operating as a child, you’re expressing feelings and thoughts from when you literally were a child. So if someone criticizes you at work, you get petulant instead of understanding it in the bigger picture of things (as an adult would).

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Most conversations between two adults start out that way: A — > A, as you can see above.

So let’s say you say to your wife, “Hey, where are the cufflinks?” That’s an adult to an adult discussion.

She can say, “On the counter over there.” That’s also A — > A.

But if she says “I don’t know. It’s your stuff, so it’s your responsibility,” now we’re in A (how you talked) to P (how she talked). 

Now we have a schism, you see?

So you can respond and say “Jesus Christ, always with this shit!” (Now it’s no longer A — > A anymore at all.) Or you can respond and say, “Well, that’s not the issue right now, but we can talk about that later.” (You stayed at “A,” even though they went to “P.”)

See how this all works? You can drop a level, drop two levels, and then the other person has to respond accordingly. It’s all a series of transactions, essentially.

Everyone, to some extent, has a fucked-up childhood (I did to some extent as well; topics for other posts). Your child (“C”) always needs something. When you’re operating at full adult (“A”), you’re basically managing your child. If you can’t manage your child at all, think of … well, think of a drug abuser. The child wants/needs something to make up for what they didn’t have as an actual child. They chase the drug. The adult can’t reconcile the two behaviors. See how it’s dicey?

The second layer is “games.” Berne invented (or worked with others) on a lot of games, stuff like “Alcoholic” (about how people drink destructively) and “I’ve Got You Now, You Son Of A Bitch” (which is the essence of a lot of nitpicking and whatnot in marriages).

Here are some common games.

It’s literally impossible to read these books and not see someone you know.

For example, here’s the full PDF of Games People Play. This passage is basically about my in-laws:

NIGYSOB is a two-handed game which must be distinguished from “Ain’t It Awful?” (AIA). In AIA the agent seeks injustices in order to complain about them to a third party, making a three-handed game: Aggressor, Victim, Confidant. AIA is played under the slogan “Misery Loves Company.” The confidant is usually someone who also plays AIA. WAHM is three-handed, too, but here the agent is trying to establish his pre-eminence in misfortune and resents competition from other unfortunates. NIGYSOB is commercialized in a three-handed professional form as the “badger game.” It may also be played as a two-handed marital game in more or less subtle forms.

“Establish pre-eminence in misfortune” is basically my mother-in-law in a nutshell (side note: love my in-laws, but when you marry someone, you also marry their family; and because you don’t know all the rules of that family initially and have to blend into them, it can be a challenge from time to time).

I know people like this too (my parents fit in here a little bit):

Briefly, a woman marries a domineering man so that he will restrict her activities and thus keep her from getting into situations which frighten her. If this were a simple operation, she might express her gratitude when he performed this service for her. In the game of IWFY, however, her reaction is quite the opposite: she takes advantage of the situation to complain about the restrictions, which makes her spouse feel uneasy and gives her all sorts of advantages. This game is the internal social advantage. The external social advantage is the derivative pastime “If It Weren’t For Him,” which she plays with her congenial lady friends.

As with any psychological (or really any social sciences) theory, you can take a bunch of this stuff with a grain of salt. Theories become popular (especially in the social sciences) because it’s easy to relate to them. If it’s too hard to understand what’s happening, chances are your book doesn’t sell five million copies. If you want your book to sell five million copies (as most people probably do), then it’s for the best if you create simple, relatable theories.

The No. 1 thing I’ve learned from this idea of transactional analysis is that I can (mostly) operate as an adult, but I drop down to child a lot (due to things I probably lacked there) and sometimes drop to parent (in situations where I feel I need more control). I’m basically always stifling my true opinion (especially at work) because I don’t want to come off like an asshole. (Probably a bunch of you do that as well.) So sometimes I see an area where I can control something, and I dive head-first into the opportunity to control it. That’s a “P.” Then again, sometimes I want to quench some type of thirst, so I dive head-first into “C.” (I have that issue with drinking sometimes.)

What I did as a result of therapy and reading this stuff was to come up with a plan to put my “A” in control of “P” and “C” more, which involves not drinking during the week, going on a South Beach diet, working out every morning, and making the focus of my professional side more about building relationships than always hitting deliverables at work. (I still try to hit deliverables, obviously, but relationships is the essence of everything.) I feel like this can help me use my “adult” more. I’ll continue to report back.


Ted Bauer