In this essay, I will give an account of my understanding of Transactional Analysis, more commonly known as “TA,” and the Gestalt theory, as discussed in Faculty One, Year Three of the Chrysalis Counselling class. I will then use these approaches and demonstrate the methodology in a previous client case study, discussing what I could have achieved.
I will offer a brief outline of the case in question to allow for a clear understanding of the presenting issue and the potential outcomes that could be approached through counseling. I will consider what I have learned from this research and what I could take into my future work. I will conclude with a brief summary.
First, I will begin by explaining the meaning of Transactional Analysis (TA) and the dynamics behind it. Eric Berne was the founder of “TA” in the 1950s. “TA” is a theory of personality and social psychology within the humanistic tradition. Berne developed the theory and practice of “TA” as a method of psychotherapy.
“Transactional analysis (TA) means the exploration of all the constituent parts of psycho/social exchanges between people – in other words, finding out how people tick and what is going on between them.” (www.functionalfluency.com/what is transactional analysis?)
The approach is integrative and combines various aspects of counseling approaches, including psychodynamic, humanistic, and behaviorist. It looks at the cognitive effects of human experience, provides a framework for understanding different personalities, and offers insight into how people react and interact with each other and how our minds work.
TA is based on the notion that we have three parts, or ego-states, to our personality and that these interact with one another in “transactions.” When two people communicate, each exchange is a “transaction.”
Many of our problems arise from transactions that are unsuccessful, which can be due largely to the attitudes that are adopted at that time. There are four theoretical foundations: the ego-state, books, transactions, and games. We are compelled to play multiple roles every day, depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Our attitudes vary more or less consciously, depending on the situation and the people we encounter.
This is how we express our personality. We each have three ego-states – Adult, Parent, and Child – and we use these in varying forms throughout our normal daily lives, even within ourselves internally.
Within each self-importance, we also have “sub-sections.” If we present in the “adult ego,” we are being rational, sensible, and self-asserting, without seeking to command or respond sharply, much like the “ideal self” would be.
Whereas, if we are showing a “parent ego,” we could either be fostering, caring, or concerned, or instead commanding and possibly reassigning beliefs or values with a degree of “force.” If we present a “childlike ego,” we could be demonstrating a “natural,” “little professor,” or “adaptive child” approach. “All three aspects of the personality have high endurance and living value, and it is only when one or the other of them disturbs the healthy balance that analysis and reorganization are indicated.
Otherwise, each of them, Parent, Adult, or Child, is entitled to equal respect and has its legitimate place in a full and productive life” (Berne E, 2010: Games People Play, page 27). Our transactions are how we relate and interact with each other. Understanding these “transactions” and decoding them, analyzing our behavior, our words, and our feelings can enable us to avoid becoming entrapped in a particular type of reaction and constantly playing back the same scene.
Knowing ourselves better and how others feel about us can prevent us from falling into traps and from often reproducing the same mistakes and reliving the same situations in our relationships with others. The book is the preset way that we behave. We can change these books by positively changing the way that we behave. The game is based on our change from Parent to Adult to Child within given environments and situations.
Transactional Analysis (TA) is to move toward problem-solving, as opposed to avoidance or passiveness, remedy as an ideal, rather than simply making progress and learning new choices. The goal is to strengthen the adult state. Second, I will explain my understanding of the Gestalt theory. Gestalt therapy is a form of depth psychology originally developed by Laura and Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman in the 1940s.
Gestalt therapy suggests that patients must arrive at conclusions and awareness about themselves for themselves. Gestalt therapy works through interactive observation. A Gestalt therapist would keep track of gestural communication as a way of looking at the whole person, not just the subject the person discusses. It is useful for those who find it difficult to let go of their emotions. “Gestalt theory does not rely on the study of underlying psychological components but on what the completed psychological ‘shape’ is and does” (www.gestalttheory.com).
The procedure is based on the relationship between the healer and the patient, and the healer aims to bring the client into the present moment, the “here and now”. “Gestalt is an existential/humanistic approach to understanding what it is to be human. It regards the person as a whole of mind, body, emotions, and spirit who experiences reality in a way unique to themselves” (www.gestaltcentre.co.uk).
The past influences the decisions we make here and now, and in Gestalt therapy, the past is only used if brought forward into the present as a means to solve the problem that presents today. The client needs to fully accept themselves and address the issues that have influenced their past decisions and actions, and this, in turn, leads them to a full awareness of themselves. The development starts after the individual acknowledges the pain of the past, and only when the person becomes free from fear and anxiety.
It is common in Gestalt therapy for the healer to get the client to talk to an empty chair. The client can then express their concerns and bring their unresolved issues from the past into the present without actually addressing the person they have the issue with.
The aim of this therapy is to help the individual obtain greater independence in their actions and the ability to confront the obstacles that prevent them from developing naturally. The idea is to replace the concept of blame with responsibility. Gestalt healers will typically use five questions all starting with “What do you” – do, feel, want, expect, and avoid. This increases the patient/client’s self-awareness and understanding and helps them make sense of these answers and ultimately put their past “behind them”.
The case study that I would like to use is of a lady who will turn 40 years old at the end of this year. She has never been married and has no children. She would dearly love both, but has had issues with relationships and seems to select partners that continue to have similarities that make her family feel and become alienated from her.
However, she cannot see the issues that her family has with her partner, and the family does not openly voice the issues that they have, but rather chooses to ignore her or treat her with disdain and assumes that she will cope if they ignore or avoid her. She has been emotionally damaged by her family’s responses, particularly with her parents, who she felt would always be there for her, whatever her decisions in life.
Due to issues with a long-term partner in recent years that went wrong, she was left with immense debt problems and had to turn to her parents and ask for support to enable her to pay back the debt, which they provided by allowing her to move back into the family home without paying any rent. Her parents were clearly relieved that she had made the decision to leave her partner and at that time supported her. However, her new relationship appears to have upset her parents and made them uneasy.
There is a possibility that the parents believe this man will treat her in a similar manner to the previous partner and the new man has no job to support her financially, leaving her parents worried that she may fall into a debt situation again. She has two younger sisters, both with children, one of whom is separated from her husband and this sister will not speak with my lady. This evolved from issues with her husband’s jokes and my lady telling her sister what she had discovered.
The sister did not want to hear the accusations and fought for her marriage, to the hurt of her relationship with my lady, her sister. Subsequently, they have split up, but she still refuses to communicate with my lady, apparently blaming her for the breakup. My lady is very happy in her new relationship and has, in fact, gotten engaged with the intention of getting married in the coming months. She is also actively seeking a baby.
This situation is multifaceted and complex. My lady has issues with her parents and her sisters, which are not being openly discussed or resolved. The family does not like her chosen partner, and this is hurtful to my lady. She is offended that her parents believe she is silly enough to follow the same path as she had previously taken with her first partner. As they will not openly discuss all aspects of the issues, my lady is finding it difficult to move forward with her relationship comfortably and with happiness.
Even though her family is treating her poorly, she still has a strong emotional tie and does not want the strife. In Gestalt therapy, the therapist’s role is to provide a space for the client to experiment for themselves in a sufficiently protected atmosphere. So if I had been in a position to use Gestalt therapy with this lady, I would have approached it by first getting her to bring all of her past issues with her family into the present moment.
I would split these into separate areas: her mother, her father, and then each of her two sisters. I would then look at each area separately with her and discuss what she would like to change with each of the presenting issues. Generally, in a relationship with another person, we are each subject to a number of conflicts of interest, so there has to be a balance between our needs and the needs of others.
We would need to look at these needs and demands and discuss what she feels would be a reasonable compromise. I would ensure that she keeps to the present tense and speaks in the first person at all times. We would discuss how she handles the issues within herself and with them, how it makes her feel at the time and afterwards, what she wants to achieve from the encounter(s), what she generally expects to be the outcome of the encounter, what variations on the outcome might be, and also what she or they consciously choose to avoid. She needs to be encouraged to bring out any hidden feelings.
Once she has openly admitted all of these things, it may be possible for her to analyze her situation, become aware of her feelings, and to air her concerns, thoughts, and issues in the safe therapeutic environment, talking to her parents or sisters hypothetically through the “empty chair” technique. She could explain how she feels and what she wants from them without fear of any backlash.
We could also have her switch chairs and voice her own claims and feelings and explore how she feels about this and how she would respond to these. We could also explore her body signals, her posture, and other physical sensations, such as her breathing rate, to enhance her awareness. We would also need to look at the emotional impact that this situation is having on her. Such issues can often cause great emotional turmoil, and this would need to be handled carefully and sensitively.
She needs to be aware of how body language can affect a situation, and she needs to release negative and harmful internal messages that she harbors. We could then discuss whether she felt that her approach needed to be modified or whether her requests were reasonable and how she may approach someone, in a non-aggressive manner, to get her point across and to achieve a favorable change to her situation.
This would give her bravery, self-awareness, and belief in her positions and may assist her in applying that process or procedure to a real situation with her family. She needs to understand that she has a personal responsibility for this situation and has to take control of what is happening.
If, however, this lady had come to me, and I chose to use a Transactional Analysis (TA) approach to assist her in improving her current situation, initially, I would consider each aspect of her issue separately with her. We would need to look at the presenting issue(s) and how each party interacts with the issue(s). As her parents appear to be the primary cause for her concern, we should begin by examining the relationship between the lady and her parents.
We could then move onto her sisters’ and the further issues later. We need to identify the ego state and then evaluate and improve the way it functions. We need to recognize the games being played and help to stop them and improve what is, at the moment, a dysfunctional life book. My lady has deep-rooted emotional ties with her parents.
Her parents have concerns about her relationship with her new man. They fear that she is going to fall for the same type of character as before, and this had ended in a detrimental manner, both financially and emotionally, so they are looking to protect her.
However, they do not openly share their feelings with her, and neither does she with them. We need to look at what state each party adopts when they meet and how the lady can change that state to enable both parties to discuss with each other while in the ‘Adult’ state, to gain the most positive outcome.
Exploration of communication and contact between the therapist and the client is essential to allow the lady to realize where she is sitting in this relationship right now and how she can make the changes she requires to improve it. We need to understand and explore what triggers a ‘parent’ or ‘child’ state within the lady or her parents. Does she equally assign responsibility for the situation between her and her parents? Is she seeking to be in control?
Does she see herself as not being every bit good as her sisters? Possibly, for example, because she has not given her parents grandchildren. We should explore what is happening: is it repeating? How does it start? How does it make her feel, and does it ever change or stop? Once we have established a few details, we may be able to see how this has developed and how the lady can approach the situation differently.
She could consider asking for others in the family to step in and help. Appropriate support needs to be considered, and when this is decided, the lady needs to take the required actions. It may also be appropriate for her to complete an Ego-gram.
This would show the changing strengths of her ego states at any one time, which could be a useful indicator for her to review at a later date, the changes she may make, and how those positions may change, and for her to understand what she has achieved. The first step is to recognize the games being played out, halt them, and replace them with direct and honest interactions.
As the therapist, I would encourage her to be honest with herself and her family about what she wants to achieve from this. This may help encourage ideas on how she can discuss and resolve some of the issues that present themselves. It is essential that we establish a contract between us that will specifically state what is desired, why she wants to make a change, with whom, and what I am going to work on with her. She also needs to consider an end date or completion.
There need to be clear goals set that are achievable, motivational, and realistic, and they need to be written in a positive format. The lady needs to know that she has permission to change and that she should not be afraid of seeking to achieve these goals.
After all, the primary focus of transactional analysis is to empower people with the ability to achieve psychological well-being. In my limited experience as a student counselor, it seems that the Gestalt model is somewhat dated and is not commonly adopted in counseling environments in the same way that it would have been some forty years ago.
However, there are some aspects of this therapy, for example, the empty chair, that could be useful in certain situations, such as with my client and the issue of non-communication with her parents and sisters. She would be able to release her feelings without fear of retaliation from her family, and this could give her a sense of relief, and possibly even a kind of closure.
Transactional analysis is a complex therapy but seems very effective and easy to administer. I feel that the honest and direct approach, and assisting the client to understand where they are at and why, is a good structure that is positive and open in its presentation and results.
It is also interactive with other forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which focuses on moving the client forward and doing so in a constructive and positive manner. In summary, with my client, I believe that a combination of these two approaches would have helped her significantly to come to terms with where she is at and where she needs to go.
I think she would benefit from an honest dialogue with her parents in order for her to put their fears and concerns into context and also to be able to discuss this with them, and possibly still their fears. Moving forward with my training and working with my clients, I would seriously consider using ‘TA’ in my work, especially given the open and direct format that it presents. It seems to get to the core of the issue with the client and helps them to work through their issue and positively influence it.
- Berne, E. (2010): Games People Play; London; Penguin Books.
- Stewart, I. and Joines, V. (2005): TA Today; Nottingham and Chapel Hill; Lifespace Publishing.