When It Comes To Relationships, Are You a Parent, Adult or Child?
The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 (16-22 May) was ‘Relationships’, as it is recognised that an important factor in promoting mental wellbeing is a good support network of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.
However, on the flip side, those relationships can equally be a factor in poor mental health, and this is something that is commonly discussed in counselling, whether it is arguments between partners, bullying by colleagues at work or difficult relationships with parents and siblings. In fact ‘Relationship issues’ was the second most searched for term on the Counselling Directory website in March 2016.
Our everyday lives are filled with multiple relationships of differing degrees, in which we relate to each other not just verbally but also through body language and facial expressions. During the 1950s Eric Berne developed a type of therapy known as Transactional Analysis based on the idea that all our interactions are a series of ‘transactions’ in which there is a stimulus and a response. So I might ask my husband “Do you want a cup of tea?” (the stimulus), to which he replies “Yes please” (the response).
Berne identified that in every transaction, we may act in one of three ego states: the Parent, Adult or Child, but that these vary from transaction to transaction. These have a particular meaning in Transactional Analysis which is different from the way they are used in everyday language, as described below:
Parent – This ego state is based on external childhood experiences of parents and parent-like figures which tend to be recorded in the brain without any form of filtering or analysis and include such messages as:
• “Don’t talk to strangers”
• “Remember your manners”
• “Always chew with your mouth closed”
• “Look both ways before crossing the road”
Child – In contrast, this ego state is based on internal perceptions of events experienced, e.g. childhood emotions and feelings, for example:
• “The nightmare was really scary”
• ” I feel happy when playing with my friends”
• “I feel sad when I hurt myself”
Adult – This ego state is concerned with data-processing and making sense of both what has been observed (external) and felt (internal), particularly the validation of data from the Parent, for example:
• ” I burnt my finger. Dad was right, I shouldn’t play with matches.”
These ego states (Parent, Adult and Child) influence all our transactions (as well as our internal conversations with ourselves) and affect the response that is evoked by the other party. For example, if I act as a Parent then the response that is likely to be evoked is one from the Child ego state and vice versa. The simplest transactions are those between Adult ego states, for example:
Adult stimulus: “What time is it?”
Adult response : “It’s six o’clock”
However transactions can become ‘crossed’ when the response does not correspond to the stimulus, for example:
Adult stimulus: “What time is it?”
Child response: “Why are you always rushing me?”
The tone of voice, choice of words, body language and gestures also vary depending on the ego state we are acting from, so a soft, soothing voice may be a nurturing Parent or a wagging finger may come from a critical Parent.
Relationships are complex and there are often multiple factors that contribute to our experience of relationships, but having an understanding of our own ego states can help us to learn to adapt our responses, thereby improving our interactions and relationships. So the next time you are in a conversation have a think about what ego state you are acting from!