Have you ever tried to portray in your books a misunderstanding between two characters and found yourself wondering if others would think it was feasible? If you've got two people dialoging with one another, there is always a chance for miscommunication.
According to Transactional Analysis (TA), we communicate via three different Ego States (parts of ourselves):
[I know what you're thinking, but no, this is not Freud's Id, Ego, and Superego, although they have been compared. Freud's theory says that each state is one type of behavior: Id=feeling, Ego=thinking, Superego=judging. TA says that each Ego State above has all three.]
Every person has a trio of P-A-C, and we constantly shift back and forth between them in our interactions (a.k.a. transactions) with others. I'll break them down.
The Parent ego state is a set of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we learn from our parents (or caretakers). It's almost like we unconsciously mimic them, incorporating their values, morals, and core beliefs into our outer communication. We express these ideals by being either critical or nurturing.
The Nurturing Parent is soft, loving, and quick to give permission. The Critical Parent is the other side of the coin. When in this state, a person will react as they imagined their parent might have reacted, or they act toward others the way their parents acted toward them. It's uncanny, but we might use some of the exact same phrases we head from our parents, or strike the same postures, use the same mannerisms or gestures...we become our parents.
The Adult ego state is our data-processor. This is the objective, non-emotional part of ourselves, using all of the resources we have as an adult human being with many years of life experience to influence us. It is factual, responds to situations without passionate convictions, and simply uses what it hears, sees, and thinks to come up with solutions to problems. (Think Mr. Spock.) The Adult is situated in the middle circle of the diagram to orchestrate and mediate between the Parent and the Child.
The Child ego state is who we are at our most natural. This is when we behave like we did in childhood. There are two parts to the Child ego state, both of which have positive and negative aspects. The first is the Natural Child, which is much like my three-year-old. On the positive side, she is spontaneous, playful, lovable, and charming, and experiences the world in a direct, authentic, and immediate way. On the negative side, she can be impulsive to the degree her safety is compromised.
The Adapted Child is the part of our personality that has learned to comply with the parental messages we received growing up. The positive aspect of the Adapted Child is that we respond appropriately in social situations. The negative aspect is that we overadapt and give up our power and discount our value, worth, and dignity.
Dr. Carol Solomon (2003) gives a good example of how each of the above Ego States would respond to the simple action of a child playing in the sand.
Nurturing Parent: Go ahead, play and have fun!
Critical Parent: Now, don't you dare get yourself all messy!
Adult: This sand looks really interesting. I can make a castle.
Natural Child: WOW! Look how tall my castle is!!!!!
Adapted Child: I better not get my clothes all dirty.
At any given moment, our characters (and us) will volley amongst each of these ego states when interacting with others and our inner selves. Depending on which Ego state the person with whom we are communicating is operating from, signals can get BIG time crossed. And this usually is where we have misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and less-than-satisfying communication.
Next week, I'll go into how you can know which Ego State your character is using. Hopefully you find this as fascinating as I!
Q4U: Have you ever stopped mid-sentence, repeating verbatim something your parents said to you? What was it?