Transactional Analysis (TA) is an approach to psychotherapy, which offers a coherent model of intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics and a corresponding methodology. It draws on a variety of psychological theories – including both psychoanalytic and cognitive behavioural - which are integrated into humanistic philosophy and grounded in the therapeutic relationship.
Eric Berne, TA’s founder, was an innovative and creative thinker who brought together some of the most effective ideas in counselling and psychotherapy (analytic, cognitive behavioural, social, phenomenological) into a powerful body of theory and practice. Although trained in psychoanalysis, Berne espoused the values of the humanistic movement, believing that change is possible and that human beings have a natural aspiration to take responsibility for themselves and live in harmony with themselves and others. Perhaps his most significant contribution was that he sought to de-mystify psychotherapy. He therefore employed concepts, language and methods, which were understandable to everyone, developing theories which have both simple immediacy and subtle depth.
Some of TA’s theories and models clearly have echoes in the psychoanalytic traditions. Its central concept, ego states, emerged from the work of Federn and Weiss. It proposes a tri-partite model of personality that has, in a broad sense, three aspects – a ‘parent part’ that is the manifestation of environmental and parental ‘introjects’ or learned ways of being, a ‘child part’ comprising feelings, attitudes and corresponding behaviour that is the result of patterns of childhood experience, and an ‘adult part’ which represents ‘here and now’ feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Each of these ‘parts’ corresponds to one type of ego-state.
Other concepts, such as strokes, are influenced by the behavioural approach, which was gaining strength in the U.S. when Berne was developing his ideas. Indeed, ground-breaking concepts such as rackets, script beliefs and so on, (Berne, 1961, 1963, 1964; Erskine and Zalcman, 1979) were forerunners of many cognitive behavioural ideas. Despite this, TA is generally known as a humanistic approach to psychotherapy because of its philosophy of human beings – that we aspire to and are capable of taking charge of our lives, making changes and living in harmony with ourselves and others.
One of Berne’s most revolutionary innovations was the treatment contract by which he invited his clients to choose their own goals and agree with him a plan for their therapy. Research has since shown that this agreement of goals is one of the vital factors in effective psychotherapy. Indeed, research into psychotherapy outcome and also into brain function, directly supports many of the core TA concepts.
TA is thus an integrative approach and its strength is its versatility: it can be used as a brief-term, cognitive behavioural intervention that helps to adjust social functioning, and it is also a depth psychotherapy, that can lead to transformational change.
In recent years, transactional analysts have developed and expanded the approach, and new trends such as constructionist TA and relational TA have emerged as creative and effective approaches to working with individuals, couples, groups and communities.