Parent Ego State

One of the models I like most in Transactional Analysis is the ego state model.  I generally find that the concept is useful in helping people understand themselves and their relationships better. This is the first of three posts about the ego state model.

Structure of personality.

I will begin by explaining what an ego state is.  Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, described an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.  He identified that we each have three ego states, which he named Parent, Adult and Child.   So, for me, what Berne was saying was that we organise our experience into three different types, and that each of these types has a recognisable  pattern of thinking and  feeling with corresponding  behaviour.   Another way of saying this is that when someone is observed behaving in a way that can be identified with one of the ego states then they will be experiencing the feeling and thoughts that go with that experience and this is consistent.

Parent Ego State

The Parent ego state is a collection of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are “taken in” or copied  from significant adults during childhood.  Significant adults can mean our parents, it can also mean aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters and teachers, for example.  It is an external experience, so we have observed someone else’s responses to a situation –  their thinking, feeling and behaviour and we have “taken that experience in” so  it then becomes part of how we respond in a similar situation.  Another way of explaining this is to say that we identify with or internalise another’s experience.

Here’s an example of how this might work. You are five years old going away on a family holiday.  As you are driving down the motorway someone cuts in front of your Dad, who is driving.  He swears and shouts, gesturing fiercely at the driver responsible.  Thirty years later you are driving on the motorway and someone cuts in front of you.  You swear, shout and gesture fiercely.  In fact if we could run  DVDs of both events, one of  you and one of your Dad side by side we would proably see that your voice tone,  language,  gestures were virtually identical.  Not only that, but your thoughts and feelings will probably also be the same as well.

Responding from the past

So, how does this help us?  Well what this says to me is that when I am in my Parent ego state I am likely to be responding to a situation or stimulus using thoughts, feelings and behaviours from the past and that I have taken in from someone else.  This response just may not be relevant or appropriate to the present.  I may want to revisit some of the messages and  experiences I have taken in and up date them with how I think, feel and want to behave.

I invite you reflect on a time when you think you might have responded to someone from your Parent ego state.  Did that exchange get you what you wanted.  How else might you have responded?



Two things have been happening in my life over the last few weeks that have prompted me to think about what Eric Berne wrote about our needs and drives in terms of Hungers. I’ve been tweeting on Twitter, connecting with lots of great new people and unfortunately one of my lovely dogs has been quite seriously ill, so I have been unable to get out and about as much and doing a fair bit of dog nursing.

You may be wondering how this is all connected.  Well, Berne described four hungers:

  • Stimulus-hunger : as the need for mental and physical stimulation, variety, challenge and touch.
  • Structure-hunger: the need to structure time and space.
  • Recognition-hunger: as the need for acknowledgement from others of our existence.
  • Position Hunger: The need for an overall framework for interpreting self, others and reality.

What he also said was that if each of these hungers are not satisfied we will often try to make do by substituting one of the others.


I’ve been finding Twitter a great source of acknowledgement from others – strokes if you will (see blog entry Appraisal Blues for explanation of strokes). And this has been really helpful for me whilst I have been unable to get out and about as much so I think have been substituting my stimulus hunger needs with more recognition. And this has helped me deal with short term changes in my life.

Different Needs

What motivates each of us is different of course, the mix of hungers for each person varies greatly.  So for example,  I am self employed because my need for stimulus in doing the work I have chosen is greater than my need for structure  – to be employed doing it.  Some people love acting spontaneously – stimulus hunger, others prefer to plan – structure.  What I think it can be useful to have an awareness of these needs and drives in ourselves and consider how we meet them.  Make adjustments if we need to and be aware of how the balance between hungers may change if something happens in our lives to impact on how we get these needs met.

What motivates you? How are you meeting your needs for structure, stimulus, position and recognition?



Take your time.

I recently submitted some paintings for the Great Sheffield Art Show and the night before the submission date  I was rushing to finish a final painting.  I had originally decided to put forward just five pictures and then as the date approached I thought  – I can try to get another piece completed if I “hurry up”.  Needless to say the picture was not accepted and looking at it when I got home I could see why.  As I look back I know as  I was “hurrying” my ability to critically evaluate it was affected.

Messages in Childhood

One of the key ideas in transactional analysis is that we take in messages as children from parents and significant adults.  These messages then become strategies, ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that we use, both to be ok in the world and as ways of adapting to get our needs met.  There can be many different messages that we take in and doing things quickly – or “Hurry up” is a common message that people carry and one that I often talk about with people I am working with.


One of the ways that I come across a “Hurry up” message when I am providing counselling or therapy is with the person who is impatient to make changes in their life.  We live in a society where so  much is almost instantaneous – emails, text messaging, entertainment, 24 hour shopping – that sometimes there is an expectation that we can make personal changes at the same pace, forgetting that some of the thinking, feeling and behaviours we want to be different may have been with us for a long time and will take time to change.

Along with this of course is what happens when we hurry – like me with my painting we don’t always think as  clearly and our capacity to evaluate a situation may be affected as our primary drive is to hurry and in so doing  we may miss important aspects of our experience that we can learn from.  All in all it really is ok to take our time.



I’ve just returned from a a great trip to Krakow in Poland.  Part holiday, part work  I’m feeling invigorated by the experience.  The work aspect involved my taking part in a workshop that will mean I can work as a Transactional Analysis supervisor and trainer of other psychotherapists;  an important and exciting career development for me.  What impacted on me most from this experience were two things: having a sense of the truly international membership of Transactional Analysis and secondly, that in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, there are often ways that we can communicate with others.

Transactional Analysis

The European Association of Transactional Analysis has over 8000 members and there were people from Germany, Belgium, England, Scotland, Ireland, Russia, Italy and the Ukraine on my workshop.  Some speaking English, others communicating through a translator. What struck me was, that in spite of the language and cultural differences, we had a common framework that we could use to communicate through Transactional Analysis (TA).  In some ways that does make this a unique experience, and even with TA there are national and cultural differences and I found it fascinating to explore this with my colleagues.

Cultural Differences

Since I’ve been back I’ve been thinking about this experience and how we communicate in a more general sense with others.  Are we aware of the similarities and differences between us?  How often do we make assumptions about others?    On this workshop there were people from 8 different countries where cultural and language differences were very clear: every day in our interactions with people, at work and out and about, we make contact and are communicating with people whose “culture”  is likely to be different to ours.  Sometimes because of a difference in country of origin and sometimes just because they were born in a different part of town.

Nesting Instinct

Psychological Well-Being

I love watching the birds at this time of year.  Blackbirds, blue tits and robins grappling with twigs and long strands of grass as they fly off to build their nests, making a safe place to raise their young.  I think that our “nests” are also really  important, not just for those of us with families, but for all of us.  Sometimes we  may not fully account how important the space where we live is to our psychological well-being.

Feeling Peaceful

We recently had an extension built to our house.  The builders did a great job, in spite of this, it was still a disruptive and unsettling experience for me as our space was filled with noise, dust and dirt.  So I’ve been thinking a lot about how important our own “nests” are, not so much in terms of expensive decor or labour saving gadgets, more about the connection we have to ourselves and the space around us.  How we can be  impacted and unsettled by a disturbance in our environment, whether at work or at home.  And of course the opposite is also true – having a space that is nourishing, that helps in the process of feeling connected to ourselves and our environment can be an important element in feeling well and being peaceful.

Supportive Homes

In the hectic busy activity of our lives we don’t always see this link and perhaps where we live is just somewhere to eat and sleep.  Yet my recent experience showed me how much more significant  the place where we live can be.  So an invitation to reflect: the next time you walk through your front door pause for a moment on the impact coming home has on you.  Is this how you want to feel? If not, what can you do that might make a difference and make coming home a positive and nourishing experience that supports you and your well being.

Appraisal Blues?

Salary Reviews

For lots of people this time of year is often salary and appraisal/personal development review time, a time when it’s possible to receive lots of what Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis, called Strokes.
Stroke is the word that Berne used for the very early needs we have as babies and children for touching, cuddling and physical contact with people. As adults we still have these needs for contact and we learn to substitute other forms of “recognition” in its place. So a stroke can also be called a “unit of recognition.” There are different kinds of strokes. They can be verbal – “I like your jumper” or non verbal – A hug. They can be positive or negative, and conditional or dependent on the receiver doing something – “That’s a great report well done!” They can also be unconditional “Thank you for being you.”


Unfortunately in today’s more difficult employment climate there may not be so many “strokes” available as organisations are cutting back, in some cases making redundancies, there is less security and many of us are being asked to do more.
For lots of us work can be a hugely important source of recognition and strokes and when these are not so readily available we might feel de motivated, stressed and our mood may suffer. So here are five suggestions to help you keep up your stroke quota by freely giving and receiving strokes:
1. Give and receive a big hug from a family member or close friend at least once a day.
2. Notice every stroke that comes your way – even the smile from the person you pass in the street. You may want to keep a note of them in your diary or a notebook.
3. Fully account for the strokes you are receiving. Sometimes we shrug them off or dismiss them. Take a moment to allow yourself to fully experience the recognition you have been given.
4. Say something appreciative to a work colleague every day.
5. Take a break at least once a day and do something for yourself. It may be something like a cup of coffee and a 10 minute read of your favourite magazine, or a walk in the fresh air.
I think that it’s when life is more difficult that we can forget to do the simple and obvious things that can help us keep our equilibrium and maintain a positive state of mind.