One of the ways that counselling works is by offering a framework for you to make sense of yourself, your life and your difficulties. Finding out about yourself can help you feel better about yourself, which is often one of the main aims of people coming for counselling. Most people also find that the better able they are to understand themselves, the more sense they can make of their relationships with other people too.
One framework that I find particularly helpful is a model for understanding human interaction called TA or Transactional Analysis (literally named after its development out of the analysis of thousands of transactions or moments of communication between people).
You are OK, even if you don’t feel it
One of the basic tenets of TA is that everyone is OK. That means that you are good enough, worthwhile, able to think, and important, simply because you exist.
When you were first born, you were OK. You had great worth, just because you were. Some of the stuff that has happened to you since might have left you feeling like you are not OK, but each event is separate from the last and you can always make a fresh start with how you think about yourself. (And counselling can help if that’s what you want.)
It can help to understand how you got to be where you are now if you think of yourself as one person with three separate people inside of you: your inner Parent, Adult and Child. These three Ego States take it in turns to control how you think, feel, act and decide things, and each represents a very different way of thinking, feeling and believing.
Say for example you you reverse your car into a lamppost and your initial reaction is to feel really angry – that’s coming from your inner Child. If your next thought is that you’d better phone the council about the lamppost, that’s your inner Parent. Then if you decide to assess the damage to your car and work out how much it will cost to get it fixed, that’s your inner Adult.
So your inner Child feels, your inner Adult thinks, and your inner Parent guides (or is concerned with what you “should” do).
Your Inner Parent
The actions, beliefs values and judgements that you picked up from your parents or other People In Charge when you were little all become part of your inner Parent.
Many of those things were and still are helpful to you, helping you make good choices, keeping you alive, safe and secure. (You’re probably grateful to whoever taught you not to stick your hand in a fire!)
We take a lot of these guides into our heads to protect us even when the people we learn them from aren’t around. Before we know it, we forget where the ideas even came from.
The inner Parent actually does two jobs – it both supports and guides us. The supporting part is called the Nurturing Parent and it looks after you, helping you feel confident even when things get difficult. It is loving (to yourself and others), protective and helpful.
Your Nurturing Parent is an excellent part of you. It knows that it is right and good for you to love yourself and know that you are OK. (And you won’t really love anyone else till you do!)
The guiding part of your inner Parent is called the Critical Parent. This is the part of you that tells yourself whether you’re doing things “right” or “wrong”. It’s your critical parent running things when you are self-critical, telling yourself you’re not good enough, and when you’re judgemental, or give yourself (and others) a hard time.
Your Inner Adult
You are acting from your inner Adult when you’re dealing directly with the reality you see in front of you right now. When you’re seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. When you’re being honest, accurate and making sense. The inner Adult doesn’t place values on behaviour.
People with healthy, strong inner Adults have got their shit together. They think before they act, make sensible decisions, and avoid hurting themselves and others.
Your Adult works things out. But it doesn’t act alone – it needs information about how you feel from your inner Child and what the rules are from your Parent before it can make good decisions.
Your Inner Child
Words and actions from your inner Child are usually labels for your feelings, attempts to express or gain satisfaction from pleasant feelings or relief from unpleasant ones.
Fear, worry, anger, hurt, excitement, tension and resentment are all in your inner Child. Your Child gets jealous (angry and afraid), and envious (wants what other people have). It’s your Child taking over when you show off, argue, give up, cheat, or seek revenge.
These feelings are important and valuable – we can learn a lot from them. But they also take up a lot of energy, not leaving much for the powerful thinking your Adult needs to do to make good decisions. This is why it’s best when your Adult uses them as information, rather than your Child acting directly from them.
People-pleasing happens when the inner Child always says yes in the hope of getting rewarded for being “good”. This is called being in the Adapted Child (Passive) because it involves adapting to your own or someone else’s Parent.
When being very agreeable like this doesn’t work out for you, you might find yourself switching and doing the opposite of what’s been asked or expected of you. (“When he tells me to stop drinking, it just makes me drink more!”) This is your Adapted Child (Rebellious) taking over.
The other side to your inner Child is the Free Child. This is the fun-loving part of you, but also your most impulsive side, that may be angry, very loving, playful, hurt or fearful.
Hopefully it has become clear that the healthiest way of being – most of the time, and especially when you’re struggling with something – is to act from your inner Adult, using information from your inner Parent and Child. If that’s your goal (and it’s a good one!) your first step might be to practice noticing when you’re coming from your inner Parent (be it Nurturing or Critical), Adult, or Child (Adapted or Free).
When you feel something, work on labelling the emotion so your inner Adult can use it as information, rather than acting directly from it.
When you find yourself thinking or saying “I should…”, ask yourself where the idea is coming from, and whether it’s what you really want or think is best.
Sometimes it can be difficult to see our own selves clearly, in which case you may find it helpful to talk to a counsellor. If you’re interested in understanding yourself and your relationships better, please get in touch.