The most important factor in regard to the effectiveness of counselling and therapy is the quality of the relationship between the client and the therapist. If you are looking for a therapist, it is important to find someone who you feel like you can trust, as you will be sharing very sensitive and personal information with them. However, it can also be useful to know a bit about the approach to therapy that they are trained in and thinking about whether this will be the right fit for you. With this in mind, I thought I’d give a brief overview of the approach that I’m training in, Transactional Analysis, and what you might expect from engaging in this kind of therapy.
Transactional Analysis (TA) is an approach to psychotherapy first developed by an American psychiatrist by the name of Eric Berne in the late 1950’s. He developed his theories in response to the failings of conventional psychiatry as he perceived them, and formulated some key principles on which he based his treatment: that everyone is fundamentally ‘OK’, that we all have the capacity to think, and that we can take control of our lives and our destinies through the decisions we make.
The ‘transactional’ part of TA refers to our interactions with others, recognising that we are social beings who develop, grow, and adapt in response to our social environment (the people, places, and things that we come into contact with). TA provides tools to help understand these interactions and discover what’s really going on when we’re communicating with people. Are we speaking to that person as if they were a child and we a parent, or vice versa? Is our body language communicating something different than our words? Are there hidden agendas at play that we’re not aware of? What does our way of communicating say about us? TA suggests that analysis of these interactions or ‘transactions’ can yield helpful insights into our psychology and personality, and can give us clues regarding the story of our personal development from children into adults.
A TA therapist will be particularly interested in the decisions we made as children about who we are and how we should live, and whether these decisions are supporting us or causing us problems as adults. The idea is that we all make profound and fundamental life decisions as young children in response to the treatment, attitudes, and behaviours of our parents, care-givers and authority figures. These decisions are extremely important to us as when we are children we are dependent on adult care-givers for our survival, and responding to the instructions of the significant adults in our lives can play a positive role in our development and adaptation to our social environment. However, it is rare to find a perfect care-giver, and their frustrations, confusion, fear, anxiety, neglect and cruelty can lead us as children to make decisions that cause us harm later in life.
To take a simple example, a young boy that expresses sadness may be told by his parents that ‘big boys don’t cry’ and that it is a sign of weakness to display your emotions to others. The young boy then decides that as his parents disapprove of him displaying sadness, and he really wants his parents to approve of him because he needs their protection in order to survive, he learns to suppress feelings of sadness when they arise and to keep his emotions to himself. The young boy then grows into an adult who is unable to feel sadness, and so finds it very difficult to process loss in his life, and so starts to feel very anxious and confused when he suffers a bereavement, comes to the end of a relationship, or loses his job.
This is a very simplified story, but it illustrates the basic idea. It is this simple premise which is most meaningful to me as a foundation for developing self-awareness, but there has grown over the years a rich and diverse body of TA theory covering an extensive array of topics such as life scripts, emotions, personality adaptations, ego states, psychological games, relationships, methods of communication, and psychological drives and hungers, among many others. It is my view that this body of work provides many extremely useful tools to help understand why it is we act, think, and feel in the ways that we do, and that developing self-awareness of these things can help increase our autonomy and choice in the world, and lead to positive healing and development towards a life of joy, spontaneity, and true happiness.