At the same time (Hay, 1992) that I was writing about Personal Styles, or behavioral ego states, I also introduced the notion of Internal Ego States. I pointed out that Eric Berne had, rather confusingly, used the same diagram of three stacked circles to show what he referred to as structural and functional analysis. To provide a distinction between diagrams, I opted to show the internal ego states as drawn with dotted lines, following on from Berne’s way of using dotted lines for ulterior, and therefore unobservable, transactions.
Using a heading of ‘What happens inside us’, I pointed out that often it will be enough for us to analyse the observable behaviour and choose a corresponding ego state. However, there will be times when this is not so - it will sometimes seem as if the person is in two ego states at once, or the behavioural aspects will feel somehow out of line with our intuitive sense of what is happening. At times like this, we will need to speculate about what is happening on the inside.
We arrive in the world with the beginnings of the Internal Child already in place. It is our experience of ourselves. We have needs, wants and feelings. These include hunger and thirst, fear, curiosity, anger, wanting to be loved, and a whole range of other feelings that occur as we grow.
All of these seem to be recorded. It is as if our Internal Child is a computer disc on which we file everything away. We are continually adding new data. We also refer back from time to time to the old files. We may do this consciously, as when we are aware that we are remembering. We may feel as if we have lost the file, as when we try unsuccessfully to recall something we used to know. We may go back without realising, as when an incident in the present triggers an emotional response from the past.
A common example of reverting without intending to is when we meet someone who treats us as a teacher used to. Perhaps they say our name in a way we no longer expect – and then we feel like we are a small child again back at school. Even more problematic, if we meet one of our teachers when we are grown-up, we may find it very hard to continue to behave like a grown-up ourself because we feel as if we are still the little person that we were.
Internal Parent might be thought of the storage system where we put the copies of the big people that we have known. These copies will include the opinions, beliefs and value systems that went with the behaviours that we were observing other people displaying. As with Internal Child, at any moment we may pull out an old recording and replay it or we may lay down a new recording.
Old recordings emerge when we catch ourselves repeating what our parents or caregivers told us years ago. This may be a problem if things have changed since then. Beliefs about nutrition, for example, are very different nowadays. Politics, economic policies, racial and other prejudices, all tend to be things that change significantly as time goes by so it is problematic if we are still running with the same beliefs that previous generations had.
We need to pull out the contents of the file for scrutiny. Then we can archive those aspects that are no longer relevant. As we meet more people, we can observe and copy the things they do that are effective. We can then add these new options to our filing system so that they will be readily accessible.
Our Internal Adult is like a computer program that we use to access our disks and to process and store new data. Internal Adult takes in information from the outside world, such as who is talking to us and how. It monitors our reactions in Internal Child and checks whether they seem relevant to the situation. It scans through our Internal Parent for any recorded ways of responding that would be appropriate now.
When our Internal Adult is functioning well, we are continuously making choices about what to do. These selections may take only fractions of a second, yet we manage to weigh up probabilities and make balanced decisions. During this does not prevent us from behaving instinctively; rather it paves the way for more spontaneity by ensuring that we have considered the consequences first.
You will see from the above that in 1992 I was using the metaphor of a computer and talking about how we had disks. The previous metaphor used within the TA literature had been of likening these ego states to a tape recorder, and pointing out that often the Parent tapes and the Child tapes were linked in some way. This gave an explanation for how people would sometimes feel bad when someone acted towards them in a parental style – they would regress and feel as if their original caregiver was now telling them off and so they would re-experience the same bad feelings that they had felt as a small child.
Nowadays, with the benefits of neuroscience, we probably need to update the metaphor of the computer as well, or at least use it more accurately. The neuroscientists tell us that we do not have memories as such; instead, we re-construct our recollections and believe that we have remembered them. The computer analogy can still work provided we realise that the documents we look at are actually contained within the computer in a form of coding so that when we call them up, the computer automatically collects together what we need and presents it in a form that we can comprehend.
Over the years, I have also developed more metaphorical ways of thinking about internal ego states, such as the rings of a tree, a filing system, and a computer program – more about these in my next blog.
Hay, Julie (1992) Transactional Analysis for Trainers Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill (currently published as 2nd edition, 2009, Hertford: Sherwood Publishing)
© 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.