Ego States

The Basic Idea

You’ve likely experienced a communication breakdown before. When interacting with someone, something inevitably goes wrong and results in conflict. When you later reflect on the interaction, you don’t even know why you reacted a certain way. ‘That doesn’t seem like something I would do,’ you think. If our communication patterns improve as we mature, why do we sometimes act so out of character?

Transactional analysis is both a theory of personality and a form of psychoanalysis for personal growth.1 Essentially, it studies our social interactions and focuses on how we can improve them. We all have transactions with other people, during which we unconsciously activate one of our three ego states. Ego states refer to the ways that we think, feel and behave, changing across time and contexts. According to the theory of transactional analysis, people have three ego states:

  1. Parent: Parent is a state in which people behave, feel, and think in ways influenced by their parents. It involves either interpreting or responding to situations similarly to how one’s parents did, rooted in the past.
  2. Adult: Adult is the ability to think and act based on the present: the ultimate goal of transactional analysis in the context of therapy is to strengthen the Adult.
  3. Child: Child is a state in which people behave, feel, and think similarly to how they did as a child, rooted in the past.

Awareness requires living in the here and now, not in the ‘elsewhere,’ the past or the future.

– Eric Berne, psychiatrist and creator of transactional analysis

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Key Terms

Psychoanalysis: A set of theories and therapeutic techniques to study the unconscious mind, coined by Freud. Tenets include the ideas that development is determined by forgotten events from early childhood, attempts to be aware of instinctual drives can result in repression, and that conflicts between conscious and unconscious material can result in mental disturbances.

Ego: One of three concepts of Freud’s psyche model, the ego attempts to find a balance between between impulsive desires - especially those related to sex and aggression - and morality. The ego attempts to satisfy basic drives in a rational manner.

Parent (extropsyche): Contains the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors incorporated from our primary caregivers, whether they were nurturing or controlling.

Adult (neopsyche): Our ability to think objectively and act based on the present.

Child (archaeopsyche): Contains the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of our childhood, whether they were natural (i.e. curious, open, and creative) or adaptive (i.e. guilty, afraid, and prideful).


You may have heard the term “ego” in psychology before, likely associated with Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis.2 Freud suggested that the ego, along with the id and the superego, made up a human’s psyche (the human mind, both conscious and unconscious). In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the ego is responsible for satisfying the id’s impulsive desires in a way fitting of the superego’s moralistic standards,

Similar to Freudian psychoanalysis, transactional analysis emphasizes the importance of ego states as a basis for understanding behavior. However, while Freudian psychoanalysis focuses on talk therapy to gain insight into unconscious thoughts and memories, transactional analysis analyzes a patient’s social interactions to gain insight into their ego states and help them solve their emotional problems.

Transactional analysis was influenced by Freud’s emphasis on gaining insight from ego states and developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s.1 Berne published two papers in 1957: “Intuition V: The ego image” outlined his separation of Adult and Child ego states, while “Ego states in psychotherapy” further distinguished between Parent, Adult, and Child as known today. It wasn’t until Berne’s 1958 paper, “Transactional analysis: A new and effective method of group therapy” that transactional therapy became a permanent part of psychotherapeutic literature. Published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, the paper restated the three ego states and new features of transactional analysis: games and scripts.

For Berne, “transactions” referred to interpersonal interactions, “games” referred to certain patterns of transactions that were common in everyday life, and “scripts” referred to the specific games that were common for a specific individual.1 Specifically for transactions, Berne distinguished three parts: what someone says, the response someone expects, and the response that is actually received. Transactions are thought to be influenced by the “life positions” that people hold, which can be influenced by childhood scripts. These life positions are based on whether we think of ourselves and the person we are interacting with as “OK” (i.e. good and worthy). Berne held that everyone is born being OK, but every transaction can take on one of four life positions:

  1. I’m OK and you’re OK. This is the healthiest position, allowing for comfortable and happy transactions.
  2. I’m OK and you’re not OK. The person views themself as superior to the other, resulting in negative transactions (i.e. contempt, disrespect).
  3. I’m not OK and you’re OK. The person views themself as inferior and will unconsciously accept abusive transactions, seeking approval.
  4. I’m not OK and you’re not OK. People in this position do not have hope for support to improve their transactions.

Berne also believed in making a commitment to “cure” his clients, so he created a therapeutic “contract” for transactional analysis: an agreement between client and therapist to pursue specific communication changes.1 Berne thought that everyone had something problematic about their ego states, so negative interpersonal behaviours could not be cured by only addressing the patient’s interactions with another “problematic” individual. Rather, it was the patient’s communication styles as a whole that should be targeted.

Expanding on the games introduced in his 1958 paper, Berne published Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships in 1964.1 He defined these games as transaction patterns that appear normal, which actually conceal true motivations and usually lead to predictable and counterproductive outcomes. The “winner” of each game is the person who is first able to return to their Adult ego state, since games tend to evoke Parent- and Child-led reactions. There are general life games, marital games, party games, and sexual games, to name a few.

In 1964, Berne and a group of transactional analysts created The International Transactional Analysis Association: a research and professional accrediting body of transactional analysis.3


Eric Berne

Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne attended McGill University Medical School before moving to the United States in 1935.4 He completed his psychiatric residency at Yale University School of Medicine, and despite years of training, was refused admission to the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute as a psychoanalyst in 1956. His background allowed him to draw from his knowledge of Freud’s ego states to influence his model of transactional analysis. As he developed transactional analysis, Berne taught psychiatric seminars and was an editor for Transactional Analysis Bulletin.


Based on Berne’s model of transactional analysis, contemporary analysts have developed overlapping and integrative models for therapy.5 Notably, some transactional analysts highlight its similarities to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which holds that psychological problems result from unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior.6 According to CBT, if people can recognize and reframe their distorted thoughts, they can improve their behavior and interactions. The use of contracts with clear goals, attention to cognitive distortions and focusing on the past through Parent or Child ego states, as well as the deconstruction of interactive behaviors are all elements of transactional analysis similar to tenets of CBT.

As a result, there are now cognitive-based transactional analysts who focus on identifying ego states and their associated cognitive distortions, which expectedly influence communication.7 8 Some make additional contracts specifically focused on patients’ relational scripts, turning away from a wholly cognitive approach, and are thus known as relational transactional analysts.9 Others highlight the importance of defining and addressing subjective well-being in the context of healthy Adult transactions, and may do so through practicing mindfulness.10 As a whole, transactional analysis has developed from its original conception into a set of focused practices that address specific client needs, all of which hold Berne’s tenets at their core. Transactional analysis has been applied to the fields of therapy, medicine, education, communication, and child rehabilitation.11 12 13 14


Transactional analysis has been criticized for its simplification of relationship patterns, as it focuses on analyzing the transaction without input from the other party and can only infer the other party’s thoughts and feelings.15 It’s possible that transactional analysis would not be able to fully address the troubling situation without input from the other side, and therefore fail to improve the patient’s relationship, even if communication patterns are addressed.

Another criticism is extended to the usability of transactional analysis. The practice rests on the assumption that untrained clients are as competent as trained professionals when it comes to understanding their behavior and acting toward change.16 The goal of transactional analysis is to provide patients with a strong foundation moving forward in their social interactions, but this would rely on patients continuing to analyze their communication patterns and adjusting them accordingly. Transactional analysis can offer a useful framework for understanding human behavior, but researchers doubt that any single theory would be able to provide a comprehensive understanding of all complex behavior. To this end, transactional analysis could not effectively analyse all communication patterns, as some practitioners have claimed.

Case Study

Female sex work

Since the 2000s, researchers have identified a need for mental health treatment for female sex workers - specifically, prostitutes - due to their experiences with life-long patterns of abuse, exploitation, and degradation.17 In fact, childhood sexual abuse and childhood abandonment are commonly reported precursors to adult prostitution. An exposure model holds that psychological characteristics such as alienation and feeling worthless, along with traumatic events such as sexual abuse, predispose some women to prostitution. Once involved, drug addiction, continued abuse, and poor physical and mental health are not uncommon, yet counselling services available to such women are lacking.

Two American researchers, Carter and Dalla, used a series of therapeutic sessions incorporating transactional analysis with a woman previously involved in prostitution.17 The therapists identified that the client’s childhood games with her parents involved obedience, manipulation, and sexual assault from her father. There was no appropriate affection or parental protection: her sexual experiences with her father informed a script that her Child was free to be exploited for sex. Her Parent ego state became one of dismissal, lack of regard for herself, and disapproval. As the researchers worked through the transactional analysis with the client, she was able to recognize her ego states in her daily transactions and relationships.

By the end of seven sessions, the client identified and gave up playing many of her negative games, and replaced them with more satisfying and direct relationships.17 She strengthened her Adult, which allowed her to let go of her Child ambitions of sexually satisfying powerful men and using such experiences to buffer against the disapproval from her Parent. The client realized that following childhood scripts was under the control of her Adult.

Although only the case of one client, the researchers highlighted the importance of making counselling treatments available for sex workers. They also showed that, despite clients’ detachments from their ego states, clients can become more aware of how such experiences and scripts impact their Adult transactions, and they can therefore improve their social and personal behaviors.

Student teacher development

As evident from the Child and Parent ego states, transactional analysis highlights the importance of influential figures during development. Aside from a child’s parents or primary caregivers, one could argue that teachers are the most influential adult figures during childhood. Research has defined teachers’ professional and personal development as an integration of pedagogical ideals, knowledge of teaching theories, and their practice as they work with students in the classroom.18 If adopting a transactional analysis approach, pedagogical values would include promoting children’s personal and social development.

In 2004, two researchers studied student teachers’ professional and personal development as a result of transactional analysis training.18 They assessed self-awareness and motivations for self-development, as well as understanding of basic psychological needs and how transactional analysis could be used to meet those needs for student teachers and students alike. To do this, student teachers underwent training sessions on transactional analysis and participated in transactional analysis studies themselves.

For the 36 English and Finnish student teachers in the study, training in transactional analysis resulted in development of increased self-awareness and a strong motivation to use what they learned in practice.18 The student teachers gained greater understanding of human needs for attention and possible reactions to certain games. The study’s results support a need for educational transactional analysis training in teacher education, to help teachers recognize their power, understand their students’ needs, and address transactional responses as needed.

Related TDL Content

Communicating During The Coronavirus

There’s no doubt that communication is an essential part of our daily lives. Berne clearly recognized that, making communication the basis of his model of transactional analysis. But could he have predicted 70 years ago the impact of COVID-19? Take a look through this article to find out how our communication styles have changed during the pandemic.


  1. Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. Grove Press.
  2. Steiner, C., & Novellino, M. (2005). Theoretical diversity: A debate about transactional analysis and psychoanalysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35(2), 110-118/
  3. About the ITAA. (2014). International Transactional Analysis Association.
  4. Eric Berne, Founder. (2014). International Transactional Analysis Association.
  5. Van Rijn, B., Wild, C., & Moran, P. (2011). Evaluating the outcomes of transactional analysis and integrative counselling psychology within UK primary care settings. International Journal of Transactional Analysis Research, 2(2), 34-43.
  6. American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
  7. Sterrenberg, P., & Thunnissen, M. M. (1995). Transactional analysis as a cognitive treatment for borderline personality disorder. Transactional Analysis Journal, 25(3), 221-227.
  8. De Luca, M. L., & Tosi, M. T. (2011). Social-cognitive transactional analysis: An introduction to Pio Scilligo’s model of ego states. Transactional Analysis Journal, 41(3), 206-220.
  9. Fowlie, H., & Sills, C. (2018). Relational Transactional Analysis: Principles in practice.
  10. Žvelc, G., Černetič, M., & Košak, M. (2017). Mindfulness-based transactional analysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 41(3), 241-254.
  11. Wills, T. A., & Dishion, T. J. (2004). Temperament and adolescent substance use: A transactional analysis of emerging self-control. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 69-81.
  12. Lynch, M., & Cicchetti, D. (1998). An ecological-transactional analysis of children and contexts: The longitudinal interplay among child maltreatment, community violence, and children’s symptomatology. Development and Psychopathology, 10(2), 235-257.
  13. Bugental, D. B., Shennum, W. A., & Shaver, P. (1984). “Difficult” children as elicitors and turrets of adult communication patterns: An attributional-behavioral transactional analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 49(1), 1-81.
  14. Frazier, T. L. (1971). The application of transactional analysis principles in the classroom of a correctional school. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 1(4), 16-20.
  15. Shapiro, S. B. (1969). Critique of Eric Berne’s contributions to subself theory. Psychological Reports, 25(1), 283-296.
  16. Pitman, E. (1982). Transactional analysis: An introduction to its theory and practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 12(1), 47-63.
  17. Carter, D. J., & Dalla, R. L. (2006). Transactional analysis case report: Street-level prostituted women as mental health care clients. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 13(1), 95-119.
  18. Lerkkanen, M., & Temple, S. (2004). Student teachers’ professional and personal development through academic study of educational transactional analysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 34(3), 253-271.

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