In 1992 I began to refer to the behavioural manifestations of ego states as our personal styles. I use the metaphor of imagining that people are radios, with arms and legs, and that as we move around we are tuned into a particular wavelength and emitting signals accordingly. Each of us has preferences so we tune in to our own choices, and we do not expect to get along with people who are emitting signals of a very different style of radio programme. For example, are they playing classical music while we like pop, or tuned into a documentary when we prefer news bulletins. These different wavelengths are metaphors for our ego states (which are of course also metaphors!)
Skilful communicators are those who quickly and accurately identify the wavelengths of others and then choose a complementary wavelength. Unskilled communicators fail to do this, or fail to change their wavelengths at all, or perhaps they change so frequently that others are confused, or they do not tune in properly so that they emit garbled signals that cannot be distinguished.
I went on to point out that although Berne had identified three ego state systems, when we are talking about behaviour it is more useful to distinguish five wavelengths. I used the normal three stacked circles to diagram this, and I called the wavelengths Controlling Parent, Nurturing Parent, Adult, Adapted Child and Natural Child. Since then, I have changed the Adult label into Functional Adult (Hay, 1998) to avoid the confusion that has arisen because we were using the same label to mean acting like a computer and to mean being in the here-and-now. Functional Adult is a label that represents logical, problem solving behaviour, which may or may not be evidence of someone who is in the here-and-now.
In 1992, I wrote that we arrived in the world in Natural Child, letting people know that we have needs and acting on our impulses. As grown-ups, this is the appropriate ego state for letting others know how we feel, showing our genuine pleasure, friendliness, excitement, and when appropriate our disappointment, anger or sadness. It is also the ego state needed for brainstorming. Too much of it and we risk being labelled immature, childish, over-emotional.
Next comes the Adapted Child, where the grown-ups help us to understand that we need to fit in with our family and wider society. We recognise the messages early through non-verbal behaviour and then later we are told how we should be behaving. We pick up the expectations of our culture, often including gender-specific messages, and as we grow older we automatically respond in ways expected of us. If we adapt too much, we are seen as overly submissive; if we refuse to adapt we are seen as aggressive and rebellious – but when Adapted Child is exhibited appropriately we are seen as polite and courteous.
We learn Nurturing Parent behaviours from our role models – hopefully the grown-ups who are using this type of behaviour to look after us when we are children. As grown-ups, this ego state is appropriate when someone needs to be taken care of, reassured or encouraged. However, when it is overused, the effect is to smother people with concern and deny them the opportunity to develop their own skills.
We learn Controlling Parent behaviours in the same way – hopefully because the grown-ups are taking care of us by setting rules and boundaries to keep us safe. When we are ourselves grown-ups, this is the ego state to use when it is appropriate to be firm. However, overdo this and we come over as bossy and overbearing.
The final part of the set is the Functional Adult, which is when we are behaving in ways that are logical and rational. As children, this is when we begin to understand cause and effect. We also learn about compromise, the skills of problem solving and decision making. We learn to take into account our own feelings and those of others, whilst still remembering objectives and practicalities. A word of caution. If we spend too much time in Functional Adult we will seem to be boring and pedantic – no one likes the person who insists on analysing jokes instead of laughing at them.
When I introduced the idea of personal styles, I also suggested that we have a set of internal ego states. Sometimes the behaviour does not represent what is happening inside us. I will describe the internal ego states in my next blog.
Hay, Julie (1992) Transactional Analysis for Trainers Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill (currently published as 2nd edition, 2009, Hertford: Sherwood Publishing
Hay, Julie (1998) Transactional Analysis part 2: Breaking the cycle of destructive game playing (with Andy Knott) Internal Communication Focus Issue 38 Sept 11-14
© 2018 Julie Hay
Julie is a fan of open access publishing so feel free to reproduce any of these blogs as long as you still attribute it to her.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.