Three years ago, while waiting for a prescription to be filled at the drugstore, I picked up a copy of the current Scientific American. I scanned through an article by Meinard Kuhlmann, a theoretical physicist, who was offering in non-mathematical terms a way that a ‘quantum particle’ might be understood.
He suggested that a quantum particle could be conceptualized as a bundle of statistical probabilities and only when that particle encounters another particle is one of those possibilities actualized and thereby be observed in the ‘real’ world. What is thereby created depends in part on the characteristics of the particle it encounters.
That is a great description of exactly how we experience ‘personality’. I believe that this metaphor offers insight into why TA can be such an effective psychotherapeutic technique for bringing about change.
Although TA offers many possibilities for helping change to occur, to me the most important aspect of TA is that it is based on empirical observations. Using the quantum particle as a guide, the theory and practice of TA is built on the observation of what is created when two particles (here, personalities) interact. Freud’s ego, id and superego are hypothetical constructs describing an individual personality. The identification of an ego state in TA, on the other hand, is based on what is can be observed when two personalities transact with (encounter) each other. Their identity can be confirmed by independent observations. The ego states are learned ways of responding to the world during the developmental process from the womb to adulthood by experiencing and responding to those who are already adults around them. Such situations can be observed (or remembered) and their outcomes can be predicted.
Such independent observations are required for establishing a true scientific discipline. The scientific method also uses metaphors which guide the scientist in organizing the data which he or she is observing. From such observations, they can then theorize and predict.
Using the metaphor of the personality as a quantum particle, one’s personality can be characterized as a bundle of statistical possibilities. And the particular possibility which is actualized (observed) depends on the characteristics of that which it encounters—that is the ‘transaction’. The cluster of characteristics which is identified as a rebellious Child, for example, can only be observed by observing what is created as it encounters a controlling Parent. Water cannot be understood by studying oxygen or hydrogen independently. Only by examining the new substance they create as they are interacting (transacting) can water be understood.
Likewise, the personality. Once I took the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory in two different situations—once at work and once in my faith community. In the former, my scores were ESTJ but in the latter, they were INFP–the complete opposite. My day job was as a clinical statistician analyzing drugs studies to present to the FDA; my faith community was an experimental church exploring spiritual aspects of life in a communal context. The contexts actualized different possibilities in my ‘personality’.
Those who use the 12-step program of AA realize the danger of putting themselves in a situation where their addiction might be energized (actualized). The antidote is not to try to struggle with that experience—that would tend to strengthen it. They know that by calling their mentor they can help control their behavior because their encounter with their mentor actualizes a different aspect of their personality.
One of the reasons there are so many different theories of personality and therapeutic techniques is that they focus on an individual—whose personality has an almost indefinite number of possibilities. The theory of personality one develops depends on what questions one asks. And they are all true! They are trying to understand the sound of one hand clapping. One must study the sound that two hands make—like Berne did; like the Gottmans did; but like very few therapists do.
When considering the possibility of change, the statistical aspect is critical. The statistical probability is largely set as one figure out how to respond to the world he or she is experiencing. Everyone is born with an almost indefinite number of possibilities. I would claim that every diagnosis in the DSM is one of the indefinite possibilities of every human being (unless one is severely brain damaged). If an appropriate ‘other particle’ encounters them, one of those diagnoses is created. And therein is the opportunity for a therapist to help create change in a client.
As you use the various concepts of TA to transact with a client, consider the quantum particle—what new creations are actualized as your process goes forward? What is being actualized between you and your client? In order to become autonomous, certain probabilities might need to be increased as you and your client transact. The ‘Ego-Gram’ looks very much like a traditional histogram in statistics suggesting what statistical probabilities need to be increased.
It seems to me that Milton Erickson was often so unique but effective because he sensed which of the possibilities of his client needed their ‘statistical probability’ increased so that their life would be freer, more balanced and more autonomous. Then he gave his clients specific orders to do unique things that would actualize those possibilities so they could experience them by encountering that ‘other particle’ —other experience, other person, other entity.
The bottom line for TA practitioners:
Always be skeptical of studies of one hand clapping. Study of body parts can give some information about what a person has been doing and is, therefore, more likely to do in the future, but only when both hands clap, can the sound itself be experienced.
In using TA, always observe the sound of two hands clapping, and consider what might be hindering a full sound from being produced.
Never forget that your client and you are both bundles of infinite statistical possibilities “waiting” to be actualized.
How ‘givers’ can avoid the midwinter burnout blues Jamaica
Each time I arrive at Frenchman’s Cove, Jamaica, for our USATAA Gathering, I breathe in the warm, scented, tropical air, and am reminded of how much effect a place can have on our overall experience. Time seems to slow as we become present to the sounds and images of jungle, ocean, and birds. Nurturing is the word that describes this place.
By the time we enter our circle of stimulating and diverse colleagues on Sunday morning, we are already at ease. From there we design our “un-conference” so that presentations and discussions flow smoothly through our schedule for the week.
One of the aspects that I most enjoy is the self-awareness we bring to how we organize. Using what’s called “Open Space Technology,” the community follows the energy, and works together to create an educational and transformative program. What occurs is both planned and emergent.
The learnings from the process itself feed my work as a consultant to self-managing organizations, as well as helping me understand my own impact and feelings. As someone who tends to give emotionally and otherwise (I’m guessing you know something about this too!), this conference is a restorative practice that feeds all three: mind, body and soul.
You can still register; you don’t need prior experience with transactional analysis; you’ll meet people from Europe, the US, and Jamaica, from various professional fields; you’ll relax at the beach; and you’ll learn about Jamaica and its culture, in the most affordable week-long residential program you are likely to find anywhere.
When? Feb. 4-11, 2017. Where? Port Antonio, Jamaica.
So, what’s stopping you from signing up right now? Follow the link for fees and registration form. Direct your questions to me, Lucy Freedman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are two TA’s: the one we care trained to think in and use in understanding our clients, which is not simple, and the direct language we use in speaking to clients, which is simple.” – William Cornell
How can I teach TA to new clients?? That is a challenge. Even though TA is simple and effective, there are so many definitions and diagrams that clients (and new therapists) can get confused or overwhelmed.
When I was an organizational trainer, I learned three elements were necessary to convey new information in an effective way. 1. Good visuals 2. Simple definition/diagrams 3. A good story. These 3 elements help clients and students absorb the new data, and gives them a system and structure for continued learning, and relates the information to their lives.
1. Good Visuals
“A picture is worth a 1000 words.” When I drive to a new location, I need a road map. I need to see how I am getting to my destination. I need to see the journey as a whole, ‘the big picture’. Unless I get the big picture, I don’t grasp simple concepts.
But since principles for personal growth are abstract and conceptual, how can I put those concepts in visual form? I came up with a visual tool that includes seven basic TA principles—belief systems and behaviors—that contribute to an authentic life. I put it in an electronic book, called “The Seven Principles for Creating an Authentic Life.” I use the picture (and metaphor) of a flourishing tree to represent an authentic life.
Most people can understand the principles of nature. They know a healthy tree needs two things-a good root system, and strong branches. The root system requires good, rich, nourishing soil ( in order for the roots to grow deep into the soil). A good root system provides stability and strength. As a result, the tree emerges with strong, healthy, flourishing branches.
A flourishing tree is a metaphor for a flourishing life. This diagram shows two TA belief systems and five behaviors that contribute to an authentic, flourishing life. The Seven Principles helps clients see how belief systems (root system) and behaviors (branches) come together to create an authentic life.
2. Simple Definitions and Diagrams
I teach my clients and students seven basic TA concepts using short, concise phrases. So Principle 3 “Understanding Self and Others” represents a BIG, complex subject, but it is summarized in simple, easy-to-remember terms. I explain that each principle has a corresponding TA diagram that we use to understand our belief systems and behaviors.
And as in nature, I gently remind them that change and growth takes time.Changing ones’ belief systems or learning new behaviors requires persistence and patience. The TA Tree is a simple reminder of the tools they can employ to work on these area of their life.
3. A Good Story
This is the story I tell my clients/students about using The Seven Principles with an actual client.
A few years back, a physician came to see me. She was recently divorced, depressed, and desperate. She also was impatient, and wanted good results now.
I said “When you see a new patient, how do you proceed on the first visit?” She said, “I take a history. I rule out what does not apply to the patient. Then I come up with a treatment plan”. I told her we would do the same process.
After explaining the Seven Principles, I asked her to identify areas she was already doing well, and areas she needed work. She said “My childhood was fine. I think I have good foundational beliefs about life. But I have been told I talk down to people. And I work too much.” Together, we identified 2 areas for work— good communication (principle 4) and Time Structuring (principle 5). We made a contract to address these 2 behaviors and skills (treatment plan).
As we continued our work, other principles came into play. But she was very clear on what she wanted, and how she could get there.
The Seven Principles Tree helps clients can see the ‘big picture’. They can choose the areas on which they want to work, and ‘rule out’ areas they are already doing well. In my experience, most clients want to focus on 2-3 areas. This clear direction for the counseling process gives a client confidence and hope. Throughout the process, they can refer back to the flourishing tree, and remind themselves what it takes to have a authentic life.
For TA teachers, The Seven Principles Tree and The TA Tree gives them a visual tool to teach TA belief systems and behaviors. They can post a copy next to the dry erase board, and refer to it during sessions. It makes their task to teaching TA easier, and can be taught to individuals, couples, families, businesses, and groups. It serves as an introduction to TA. It is my hope that is it is a springboard for more TA exploration.
The Seven Principles for Creating an Authentic Life is available through iBookstore. For more information about the TA Tree, or other tools, contact Catherine M. O’Brien at theTAteacher@gmail.com
Practitioners of Transactional Analysis were interviewed on their use of and appreciation for TA during the 2013 USATAA conference. USATAA proudly re-posts this wonderful video that features highlights from several of those interviews.
***Blog posts on The NET represent the viewpoint of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by USATAA.***
Eric Berne is known for coining the term ‘strokes’. He explained it as a basic unit of recognition. It was believed that human beings were born with an innate stimulus hunger. Experiments in the 1940s suggested that infants failed to thrive in environments where physical stimulation was limited. This hunger for touch develops to become a hunger for recognition in social and intimate relationships.
These were the types of strokes that Eric Berne described.
Internal strokes (strokes we give ourselves)
External strokes (strokes we give to others)
Unconditional strokes (strokes for being)
Conditional strokes (strokes for doing)
Positive strokes (strokes that communicate okayness)
Negative strokes (strokes that communicate not-okayness)
Claude Steiner is known for theorizing the ‘stroke economy’. He suggests that we can be restricted by the parent ego state in five main ways:
don’t give strokes when we have them to give
don’t ask for strokes when we need them
don’t accept strokes if we want them
don’t reject strokes when we don’t want them
don’t give ourselves strokes
These five ‘rules’ reinforce a culture of scarcity as opposed to how limitless strokes can be given and received. I once encountered someone from a chaotic household and that led to him making an early decision to “trust no one to care.” His script beliefs were entrenched in ideas of stroke scarcity and that happy interactions were close to impossible. I invited him to take on a little experiment for the week. He would try for 7 days and every morning to smile at one person on the way to work on the bus. To his astonishment, people smiled back! There were no threats, exchanges or bartering. The strokes were limitless.
TA literature describes the ‘stroke filter’ as a contaminated Adult ego state process where the person chooses to interpret positive strokes as negative ones. This maintains their particular life position.
What are STROKE PROCESSORS?
This write-up suggests a clear way to facilitate for clients to understand how their life scripting (early decisions about themselves and the world) might affect their Adult ego state functioning. The Adult ego state might be processing strokes in 4 different ways:
Processing the intended stroke as much more important or significant than intended. An individual could take a simple greeting smile from another as a sign of sexual flirtation. Or an individual could take a piece of Adult negative feedback as a Critical Parent insult.
Brian was regularly playing some ‘kick me’ games at dance night clubs. His eyes would scan the room for attractive women who would respond to his smile. He would interpret each smile as a green light for close contact dancing or an invitation for intimate conversation. Often the women would interpret his behavior as inappropriate.
Processing the intended stroke as less important or significant than intended. An individual could downplay a compliment or ignore the significance of a negative complaint.
Sam had an ‘under-achieving’ life script. His early decision to not succeed led to him to perpetually discount his personal intelligence and abilities. Each time a colleague complimented his ability he would minimize its significance in his mind. “They are just being nice.”
An individual could take a negative stroke and interpret it as positive or take a positive stroke and interpret it as negative. For example, an individual could take a compliment as a reminder of how they are not-ok.
Susie was constantly nervous about her appearance. Nothing ever felt enough for the world- even if she was told otherwise. She always had makeup on even when she went to bed. Her husband tried to tell her he loved her but all she could think was- “he wouldn’t love me without the makeup.” “Don’t be you or else…”- she continually told herself. Her husband’s unconditional positive strokes were converted as conditional strokes and further processed as negative strokes.
An individual could select the strokes they want to absorb and the ones they want reject.
Grace, an employee, got her first employee appraisal and all she chose to hear were the negative strokes. She decided she was a terrible worker even after her manager had a ton of positive feedback to offer.
Bringing these ‘stroke processors’ to the awareness of the client can be effective for decontaminating the adult ego state. It can allow for an exploration of the life script, early stroking patterns and early decisions. It can more importantly, be an invitation for clients to make new autonomous decisions about how they want to ‘process’ strokes in the here and now.