What is Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis is a psychoanalytic system developed by Eric Berne. It includes a set of principles and models associated within social intercourse, measured in social transactions. Transactional analysis seeks to understand the ego states that people take on during interchange and different ego states interact in activities such as games and pastimes.


Ego states

Observation of social interaction has shown that people show changes in their behaviour, attitudes and states of mind that display contrast with one another. Transactional analysis calls these ego states

Transactional analysis involves three main ego states

  • The Parent Ego State: This state is emulative of the mindsets of our caregiver and teachers. It involves two subset ego states; the nurturing parent and the critical parent, giving care and critical feedback respectively. The parent can be protective, caring and helpful or overbearing, scolding and controlling
  • The Adult Ego state: This state is rational ego state. It deals with facts and rationally observe its environment and situation. It is directed towards the objective analysis of present experience. Much of transactional analysis therapy involves the strengthening and improvement of this ego state
  • The Child Ego State: this state is reflective of the behaviours exhibited by young children. It contains another two subsets ego states; the free child and the adapted child. The free child is creative, spontaneous, silly and rebellious. The adapted child, however, has learned to change their behaviour to complement the demands of the parent/caregiver.

People will adopt different states at different times and will interact with other people by appealing to the other person’s ego states. For example, someone in need of help and guidance may approach another for help in the child ego state and appeal to the parent ego state of the other, a transactional stimulus. Then the other may respond by assuming the parental ego state to either nurture or criticise the presenting child, a transactional response. This would be known as a smooth or complementary transaction. Both players, agent and respondent, are assuming the positions requested from one another. However, sometimes the agent will receive a response from the other player that does not correspond with their stimulus and this can result in a crossed transaction. For example, the stimulus could be Adult to adult and the response could be that of a Child-Parent.

Transactional analysis also recognises that what occurs on a social level does not always match what is happening psychologically and so identifies these within transactions as separate levels. This is called an ulterior transaction


Games are a set of patterns that we engage in, both emotionally and physically. There are many different types of games and are repetitive by nature. Each game is a set of predictable ulterior transactions that lead to a certain set of payoffs, motivated by a person’s gimmick. In many cases, people are often unaware that they are even playing these games as the patterns are learned from a maladaptive childhood. By understanding the payoff to a game, we can start to understand why games are played by people

Here are two of Berne’s games that he outlined:

  • “If it weren’t for you” game: When describing this game, Berne gives tells a story of Mrs And Mr. White. Mrs White (Agent) complains that her husband (Respondent), being restrictive on her behaviours, is the reason she has never learned to dance, even though she has always wanted to. However, she later finds that she has a lot of fear surrounding the activity. Mrs White, realising that she has married a domineering man, begins to use ‘If it weren’t for you’ as a way of not facing her fears. This gives her the payoff of both not having to face a fear of her and as well to defer responsibility for this, and Mr. White gets the payoff of having his wife around more. The game will come perpetuate until one player stops playing the game and Mrs. White will then have to face her phobic situation
  • ‘Why don’t you – Yes but’ game: this game was the first game outlined in transactional analysis and is very common. It involves an agent stating a problem for the respondent to solve, but upon each suggestion, the agent responds back with a ‘Yes but …’ answer, stimulating the other to continue to try and solve the agent’s problem. On a social level, this would appear as an Adult-Adult transaction, but on the psychological level, the agent is get the respondent to play the role as parent. Here, by logically rejecting any suggestions put forward by the Parent, the agent gets to keep their child from being vulnerable. The payoff here, is the silence which follows the end of these suggestions, demonstrating that the parent is inadequate. However, in Why don’t you – Yes but, the parent never wins.

Life Scripts

A life script is an idea that a person may have for their life. Seeing our lives and experiences as narratives, we often have it set out in our mind; who we are, where are we going, why we are here etc. This narrative will affect how we view the world and, how we interact with it. Understanding someone’s life script can show us where some of our attitudes and feelings may come from. Our life scripts are influenced greatly in childhood and is adapted as we experience life and grow and individuals. Our life script will also influence our life position.

Life positions

A life position in a viewpoint on our beliefs on ourselves and others. Life positions are used to justify and contextualise our thoughts and behaviours. In Transactional Analysis, there are four life positions:

  • I’m not okay, you’re okay: This is a position held in childhood. Children see themselves as dependent and in need of help and nurturing to survive. This is true for very young children. This life position however leads to a sense of inadequacy for the Child and an undervaluation of the child’s worth.
  • I’m not okay, you’re not okay: This life position will have people in despair. It will make people feel helpless and will struggle to find motivation to do things. They will feel stuck in their own inadequacies and will feel that people will not be able to help them progress either.
  • I’m okay, you’re not okay: This position will have people holding superiority over others. People in the position may show a smugness and may knock others down, belittling their efforts and commenting on other people’s inadequacies. This putting down of others can lead to a rejection from peers.
  • I’m okay, you’re okay: This position is a winning position. We see both ourselves and others as basically good and that we are making good progress towards the future. People in this position will be cooperative and helpful to others.

Strengths of Transactional Analysis

  • Transactional analysis challenges clients to be more aware of their decisions. This will in turn lead to more competency with future life events. It also provides a working models and strategies for clients and therapists alike to approach their improvement
  • A core philosophy of Transactional analysis is that people have the capacity to think, and therefore can take responsibility for their scripts and positions, and can therefore decide their own destiny

Limitation of Transactional Analysis

  • The concepts in transactional analysis while communicated with quite simple language, deal with complex ideas. Effects of the work within the transactional analysis environment may be dependent on one’s own ideas of the concepts and how deep one can go with them

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