I want to grow up. In my 50s I’ve decided to finally become an adult! This sounds ridiculous but being fully adult despite the number of years we’ve clocked is harder than we realise.
That’s because we keep regressing to Adapted Child and morphing into Critical Parent. And these states are not just generic concepts but specific ways of thinking, feeling and behaving hardwired into the brain in childhood.
I’ve been studying Transactional Analysis (TA) at the Wealden Psychology Institute in East Sussex and what a revelation! I thought it would be fun to learn this system. I didn’t realise it would be so challenging to dig deep and gain awareness of parts of me I don’t like!
TA is a theory of personality developed by Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in the heady sixties, which is still flourishing today around the world.
This insightful Jewish doctor, who grew up in the poor, migrant district of Montreal, developed a model of the psyche that marked a radical departure from the pioneering work of revered father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.
While Freud’s famous ‘Superego, Ego and Id’ are theoretical, abstract concepts, Berne’s Parent, Adult and Child ego-states are very real mental states we enter based on our own unique childhood experience.
According to Berne’s ‘PAC’ structural model, the Critical or Controlling Parent (CP) contains the thoughts, feelings and behaviours we have absorbed from parents and parent-figures growing up (and continuing throughout life).
There’s lots of positive, useful content in your CP like how to cross the road, using nice table manners and keeping your room tidy but there is also some nasty stuff too; your parents’ narrow beliefs and harsh admonitions like “Do as you’re told”; “Keep quiet” and “Work Hard” “Don’t Cry” and memories of your parents’ behaviour at their worst.
I discovered a domineering, aggressive, self-righteous ‘Dad’ in me who comes out in arguments with my husband. Your CP usually makes an appearance when you feel threatened and defensive to protect your vulnerable Child.
Berne’s Adapted Child is an ego-state containing the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of the way you were growing up trying to adapt and follow the rules of your family. The AC also has a rebellious side!
You can access your AC by doing a visualisation and remembering how you were as a child at different ages.
I remember desperately trying to please and be liked, being obedient at home and clever at school; Teacher’s Pet, first with my hand up to answer questions and win approval.
At times in my childhood I also felt disconnected, isolated and unloved, ignored, unimportant and helpless and I can go into these intense Child feelings when triggered.
In an Adult ego-state I am functioning in present time using the full powers of my intellect and skills to engage with the here and now, feeling calm with moderate emotional responses appropriate to the current situation.
At first glance the PAC model might seem simplistic but as I study more I discover it‘s as complex as a set of Russian dolls. The CP contains the PAC of your parents, that contain the PAC of their parents going back generations. Likewise your AC contains a PAC.
In fact the Parent ego-state of your Adapted Child can be a potent force in your psyche responsible for bizarre and destructive behaviour. The Child’s distorted thinking can be both magical and punitive; giving yourself magical powers such as ‘I can use my charms/looks/sex to get what I want’ while
the negative part of the Child’s Parent might believe you deserve to be punished, which explains self-sabotaging, masochistic behaviour.
Psychologists have developed Berne’s theories in the last 50 years. The Functional TA Model includes two other ego modes: the Nurturing Parent (NP) and the Free Child (FC).
The Nurturing Parent is the kind, caring, understanding, empathic and compassionate part of the psyche that nurtures yourself and others.
In my view, NP is a combination of the innate biological maternal/paternal instinct, role modelling on the loving acts of our parents, triggered when we become parents ourselves toped up by what we consciously learn in adulthood. For example it’s possible to learn how to Active Listen and cultivate empathy and compassion throughout life.
The Free Child is the uninhibited part of the child that lives in the moment, with all senses firing, is creative, spontaneous, playful and full of joy in being alive.
I remember riding my bicycle really fast with the wind in my face, feeling euphoric at the sight of spring daffodils, singing at the top of my voice and playing silly games with giggly friends on the front lawn when the grown-ups were not around.
So now at this mature age, with this new awareness, I want to strengthen my Adult, Nurturing Parent and Free Child and minimise time spent in Adapted Child and Critical Parent.
The constant shifting between ego-states and ego-modes usually happens unconsciously, out of our awareness. By bringing the psychological dance into awareness, we can manage our internal states and behaviour leading to autonomy and freedom from the past.
PAC mastery gives me power to be the person I want to be, a grown-up with the capacity to be mature, strong and capable, kind and compassionate, playful and full of joy.