Transactional analysis was developed by Erik Berne in the 1950’s. Whilst its origins lie within the psychoanalytic tradition, rather than exploring the sub-conscious, TA looks at the interactions between people and what the style and flow of the interaction reveals about their mental state. It is also significant to for those who are otherwise mentally “healthy” who interact with narcissists because it highlights the way in which they are being manipulated through their interactions with them.
Transactional analysis 101
We spend our whole lives interacting with others verbally and non-verbally. Some of these interactions occur between two people who behave as equals. Those interactions are pleasant and rewarding. Sometimes we interact with people other than our family who treat us as if we are still children even though we are an adult. These communications are frustrating especially if we approach that person as an equal and they don’t “match” our expectations.
According to Berne there is a third type of interaction and that is where an adult approaches an interaction and treats you like they would a parent. They adopt a subservient role and don’t accept adult responsibility in the interaction. This too can be frustrating in that you have to take responsibility for them. These states can vary, depending on who they are interacting with and have nothing to do with a person’s chronological age or their mental capabilities.
Berne gave these states names: Adult (equality in an interaction) Parent (adopting a superior position) and Child (inferior position). It is important not to confuse these with actual life roles. When transactions are reciprocal there is a degree of symmetry so adult to adult works as does parent to child or child to parent. When there is symmetry no transactional “rules” are broken although the interaction may not be mentally healthy and one of the partners in the transaction may feel coerced into adopting a role they are not comfortable in.
Berne also suggested these interactions could be analysed at different levels in order to elucidate the mental state of a person.
Game : an analysis of the sequence of interactions between two parties and looking at the “pay off” which one or both achieve. Virtually an intelligent person with a basic knowledge of TA can do this.
Script: An analysis of an individual’s habitual patterns over the long term
Structural: a therapist’s perspective from a psychoanalytic approach looking at how the transactions of an individual are a reflection of their psyche.
TA proper: applying the structural analysis to observed transactions to be used in a therapeutic context
Berne suggested that we learn the parent and childhood roles through our own experiences and there are subtypes for example:
- The nurturing parent
- The judgemental parent
- The scolding parent
The child state can be free (more like childhood innocence) or adapted (more like a child who has been abused in some way)
A goal of therapy is to move more of the transactions experienced into the adult to adult domain.
So how is a knowledge of transactional analysis useful to narcissists and their family, friends and work colleagues?
Application To The Narcissist
Firstly, let’s consider its application to the narcissist. At the centre of a narcissistic psyche is a wounded child who is driven by shame. The shame hurts. The only way to reduce the pain from the shame/wound is to constantly seek improved self-worth. This can be achieved in several ways. Firstly, by bombastic displays of superiority, grandiose gestures. Typically, a narcissist in this groove will see themselves as superior and therefore will use the “parent to child” mode of interacting. A narcissist in attention seeking mode would operate as an adapted child. We can see this often in Donald Trump where he uses infantile descriptions of people who upset him as “very bad man” etc..
Secondly, an application of transactional analysis may help a therapist develop a clear and accessible model of the particular narcissistic attributes of their client and by analysing their interactions and the scripts which a particular narcissist runs they may be able to help the narcissist to a better understanding. Teaching a narcissist in therapy about TA may help them develop greater self-awareness and help them to move away from game play to honest social interaction.
How does a knowledge of transactional analysis help a person caught in a narcissists web?
In this case knowledge is indeed power. A narcissist can derail the attempted assertive communication of anyone they choose. The reality is they will never use and adult to adult conversational style because they don’t see anyone as equal. Either others are superior, a person for whom they have genuine admiration and feelings of inferiority toward, for example a parent. Or they feel superior to them and demonstrate it by the style of communication they used toward them.
This can then derail and attempted conversation on an adult to adult level. For example this conversation between two friends:
Belinda: I am sorry Petra, I won’t be able to meet up for drinks as we usually do on Fridays, I have to go and visit my mum in hospital. (ADULT)
Petra: Awe, it is my only night out and I was really looking forward to it. You are my only true friend and I need some outlet or I may sink back into loneliness. I don’t suppose there is any chance you could come out for a quick one and go straight to the hospital from here since it is on your way. (MANIPULATIVE CHILD)
Belinda reluctantly agrees knowing she will have to miss out on eating and will have to take spare clothes to work and change there rather than at home.
Knowing you are being manipulated is the first step to taking back control
Understanding and applying TA gives a choice to the narcissist’s victim. They can still rescue the Narcissist if they wish but understanding means they are less likely to be forced into the narcissists choice. The TA model enables a person to stay in the Adult mode and work for a “Win/Win or no deal!”
So an understanding of Transactional Analysis can be a formidable tool for narcissists and their victims.