Behind the Social Mask (Understanding Social Transactions)

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”


We all wear masks in our social lives and play multiple roles in our social interactions with others. Regardless of our age, we have all played the roles of the child (dependent and intuitive), adult (rational and realistic) or parent (nurturing or critical) in different situations.

For instance, an adult may play the role of a child when he throws a temper tantrum and another adult may take on the role of a parent in response. Our behaviour may fall into certain patterns of drama as though we were acting out our roles based on a life script.

Transactional analysis, developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne, is a form of analysis that examines the social transactions we make. Here, I summarise key principles of transactional analysis presented in the following books:

  • The Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne
  • I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas Harris
  • Born to Win by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward


Transactional Analysis

  • According to Eric Berne, the unit of social intercourse is called a transaction and includes the transactional stimulus and response.
  • Transactional analysis is concerned with 4 kinds of analysis:
    • Structural analysis: the analysis of individual personality
    • Transactional analysis: the analysis of what people do and say to each other
    • Game analysis: the analysis of ulterior transactions leading to payoff
    • Script analysis: the analysis of specific life dramas that people compulsively play out
  • Types of transactions:
    • Complementary transactions: when a message sent from a specific ego state gets the predicted response from another person
    • Crossed transactions: when an unexpected response is made to the stimulus
    • Ulterior transactions: when an ulterior message is sent, it is disguised under a socially acceptable transaction. This type of transaction involves more than 2 ego states.

The 3 Ego States – Child, Adult, Parent

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The Child Ego State

  • The child ego state: when we feel and act as we did as a child. This ego state may be activated if someone else comes on like a parent or during times of dependency like illness.
    • This contains all the impulses that come naturally to an infant. It contains the recordings of the child’s experiences, responses and the position taken about self and others. It is expressed as old behaviour from childhood.
  • The child ego state develops into 3 discernible parts:
    • The natural child: this is the part of the child that is young, impulsive, untrained and expressive
    • The little professor: this is the unschooled wisdom of the child. It is the part of the child that is intuitive and responds to non-verbal messages and playing hunches.
    • The adapted child: this is the part of the child that exhibits a modification of the natural child’s inclinations. The adapted child is the trained child who develops social awareness but sometimes feels very not-OK e.g. when we are compliant, avoid confrontation or procrastinate.

The Parent Ego State

  • The parent ego state: when we act, think and feel as we observed our parents to do.
    • This state contains attitudes and behaviour incorporated from external sources, primarily parents.
    • Outwardly, this is expressed towards others in prejudicial, critical or nurturing behaviour. Inwardly, it is experienced as old parental messages which continue to influence the inner child.
  • The egos states within the parent: a person’s own parent ego state is likely to incorporate his/her parent’s 3 ego states and the babysitter’s 3 ego states and so forth.
  • Inner influence of the parent ego state: people not only incorporate their parents’ behaviour but also incorporate a set of parental messages that are later heard in their heads like tapes.
  • Types of parents:
    • Nurturing parent: children who have nurturing parents develop parent ego states that contain nurturing behaviour
    • Prejudicial parent: parents with opinions that may be irrational and have not been evaluated by the adult ego state
    • The incomplete parent ego state: when a child loses a parent and does not have a substitute

The Adult Ego State

  • The adult ego state: when we deal with current reality, gather facts and compute objectively.
    • This is not related to a person’s age. It is oriented to reality and the objective gathering of information.
    • It is organised, adaptable, intelligent and functions by testing reality, estimating probabilities and computing dispassionately.
    • Reality testing is the process of checking what is real, separating fact from fantasy, traditions, opinions and archaic feelings.
  • The adult as executive of the personality: each person has the potential to put the adult in executive control of the other ego states if freed from the negative influence from the parent and child.
    • Placating the parent: when the inner child feels pressured by the parent ego state which is critical, with the adult as an executive, a person can throw a crumb to the parent to alleviate the discomfort.
    • Pleasing the child: the adult can act as referee, arbitrate, find compromises and make new decisions for the expression of the inner child.
  • Activating and strengthening the adult ego state:
    • Education: education which strengthens a person’s ability to gather, organise and evaluate information contributes to more accurate adults judgements.
    • Contracts: a contract is an adult commitment to oneself or someone else to make change. A contract involves:
      • A decision to do something about a specific problem
      • A statement of a clear goal to be worked towards in language simply enough for the inner child to understand
      • The possibility of the goal being fulfilled
    • Raising the right questions: a question that activates the adult ego date
    • Learning from projections: people who are aware use their adult to learn about alienated personality fragments from their projections.
  • Autonomy and adult ethics
    • Autonomy: achieving autonomy is the ultimate goal is transactional analysis. Being autonomous means being self-governing, determining one’s destiny, taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings and throwing off patterns that are irrelevant to living in the here and now.
    • Awareness: awareness is knowing what is happening now. An autonomous person is aware and can hear, see, smell, touch, taste and study independently without the influence of old opinions and distorted perceptions. The person perceives the world through personal encounters rather than how he was taught to see it,
    • Spontaneity: Spontaneity is the freedom to choose from the full spectrum of parent, adult and child behaviours and feelings. An autonomous person is spontaneous and flexible but not foolishly impulsive. This person sees the many options available and uses the appropriate behaviour to respond to the situation.
    • Intimacy: intimacy is expressing the natural child feelings of warmth, tenderness and closeness to others. Autonomous persons risk friendships and intimacy when they decide it is appropriate. This does not come easily to people who have restricted their affectionate feelings and are not in the habit of expressing them. In the process of developing the capacity for intimacy, a person becomes more open and learns to let go. The person learns to drop some of the masks with the awareness of the adult. The person refrains from transacting with others in ways that prevent closeness and avoids using discounts or crossed transactions. The person plays games only if it is a conscious decision.
    • Adult ethics: to establish an adult code of ethics, both parent and child opinions and feelings must be scrutinised objectively with the adult. An adult ethical system is based on an adult I’m OK-You’re OK position.
  • The integrated adult
    • People moving towards autonomy expand their personal capacities for awareness, spontaneity and intimacy. As this occurs, they develop integrated adult ego states.
      • The person in the process of integration takes responsibility for everything he thinks, feels and believes and develops an ethical system for life – ethos.
      • The person also gathers information and computes objectively – technics.
      • In addition, the person develops social graciousness and experience the emotions of passion, tenderness and suffering – pathos.
    • The integrated adult appears to be similar to what Erich Fromm calls the fully developed person and what Abraham Maslow calls the self-actualising person.

The Games People Play

  • Psychological games are games that have an ulterior purpose. Three elements must be present to define a transaction as a game:
    • An ongoing series of complementary transactions which are plausible on the social level
    • An ulterior transaction which is the underlying message of the game
    • A predictable payoff which concludes the game and is the real purpose of playing
  • Games that are played from the child’s ego state
    • Blaming others – if it weren’t for you, look what you made me do
    • Saving others – what would you do without me
    • Finding fault – blemish corner
    • Getting even – now I’ve got you
    • Provoking put downs – kick me
    • Enjoying misery – poor me
    • Copping out – harried
  • People collect stamps to reinforce old childhood feelings. One way to collect stamps is to play games. Game players get stroking (though it may be negative), structure their time (though it may be a waste), reinforce their psychological positions (though it may be irrational), further their script (though it may be destructive), feel justified in cashing in old resentments (though they overindulge themselves) and avoid authentic encounters.

Psychological Positions

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Psychological positions fit into 4 basic patterns:

  • I’m OK, You’re OK: this is the mentally health position.
    • If realistic, people with this position about themselves and others can solve their problems constructively.
    • Their expectations are likely to be valid. They accept the significance of people.
    • People in this position feel “life is worth living.”
  • I’m OK, You’re not OK: this is the projective position
    • This is the position of people who feel victimised or persecuted, hence victimise and persecute others. They blame others for their miseries.
    • Delinquents and criminals often have this position and take on paranoid behaviour.
    • People in this position feel “your life is not worth much.”
  • I’m not OK, You’re OK: this is the introjective position
    • This is a common position of people who feel powerless when they compare themselves to others.
    • This position leads them to withdraw and experience depression.
    • People in this position feel “my life is not worth much.”
  • I’m not OK, You’re not OK: this is the futility position
    • This is the position of those who lose interest in living, exhibit schizoid behaviour or commit suicide or homicide.
    • People in this position feel “life isn’t worth anything at all.”

The Drama of Life Scripts

  • A script is a life plan that an individual feels compelled to play out. It is related to early decisions and the positions taken by a child. It is in the ego state and written through transactions between the parent and the child.
  • According to Frederick Peris, each person has two stages – the private stage for thinking, rehearsing and preparing for future roles and the public stage which is observable and verifiable.
  • Types of scripts
    • Cultural scripts: these are accepted and expected dramatic patterns that occur within a society. They are determined by the spoken and unspoken assumptions believed by the majority.
    • Subcultural scripts: when a culture is large and complex, many subcultures exist within it.
    • Family scripts: when cultural and subcultural scripts are perpetuated, it is usually done through the family. Naturally, all families have dramatic patterns which contain elements of the cultural scripts.
    • Individual scripts: in daily life, most people experience or observe in others a compulsion to perform in a certain way, live up to a specific identity and to fulfil a specific identity.
  • Roles and themes in life drama: roles may be legitimate or illegitimate and consist of a persecutor, a victim and a rescuer.

© nightdawnday
p.s. Leave a comment if this resonated with you. I love to hear your stories!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. jlue says:

    Describes the human condition rather well…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Needed to read this today, excellent breakdown!

    Liked by 1 person

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