Transactional analysis (TA) is a form of psychotherapy, counselling and education, based on cognitive and personal values. Its aim is to lead clients through pre-determined steps to achieve personal growth and change. Transactional analysis was pioneered by Eric Berne (1910-1970) and it has developed into a strong theory of personality and communication. The traditional psychoanalytic approach was challenged through Berne’s introduction of the concept of three ego states – Parent, Adult and Child. TA uses these symbols to analyse social relations and communications with individuals, groups, couples and families.

TA also offers a theory of child development using life scripts to explain how adult life patterns have originated in early childhood. The philosophy of TA is that people are OK and everyone has the capacity to think and make choices. TA is a contractual psychotherapeutic approach where both the client and the therapist take joint responsibility for achieving positive outcomes. TA keeps open communication between a client and a therapist by both being fully informed about what is going on in their work together.

Eric Bern

Eric Bernstein was born in 1910 in Canada to Polish/Russian immigrants. Both parents were university graduates. His father was a medical doctor and his mother a writer/editor. Eric used to accompany his father on medical rounds until he died, age 38, of tuberculosis. (Eric was 11 at the time).

As a result of this, and due to his mother’s encouragement, Eric followed his father’s professional path and in 1935 graduated from McGill University Medical School with degrees in medicine and surgery and then moved to the USA where he began medical residency at the Psychiatric Clinic of Yale University School of Medicine. Just before the Second World War, Eric shortened his surname to Berne.

As most psychiatrists from the mid-century, Berne had started his psychiatric practice as a psychoanalyst, influenced firstly by Freud and later by Paul Federn and Erik Erikson. They strongly shaped his theoretical development and ideas on ego states. Between 1943 and 1946 Berne served as an army psychiatrist and rose to rank of a major. After the War, Berne resumed training in psychoanalysis under Erik Erikson.

Origins of TA emerged in 1949 in a series of articles on intuition, which contradicted Freudian concepts of the unconscious. In 1950s Berne began clinical seminars where he and other colleagues tested out his new ideas. In 1956 Berne’s application for a psychoanalysts’ membership was rejected as he “was not ready.” This rejection encouraged Berne to develop a new approach to psychotherapy which nonetheless has a psychoanalytic influence.

In 1957, the Transactional Analysis idea was born and from that year TA gained popularity in international therapeutic community. San Francisco, Berne’s home town, is still the headquarter of the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA). Berne published and presented theory, outlining his new model of diagnosis and therapy, originally focused on group work. Main concepts were outlined such as:

  1. Tripartite ego-states of Parent, Adult, Child.
  2. The 3 circle model of ego-states.
  3. Illustrated contaminations
  4. Featured games and scripts.

During his later life, Berne maintained a heavy writing schedule until he died of a heart attack in 1970. During his lifetime Berne was married 3 times and had several children of his own.

Berne was a prolific writer and had published many books and articles relating to psychiatry, psychoanalysis and Transactional Analysis including popular books such as “Games People Play” and “What Do You Say after You Say Hello?” These books popularised and made accessible the basic concepts of TA to the general public in language they could understand.

The Games People Play (1964) has been an international bestseller which has altered the way people think and how they understand relationships. The ideas of the inner Child, Games, Strokes and Life Scripts are now widely used terms far outside the TA community and have entered everyday language. A final book, published after his death, “What Do You Say after You Say Hello” summarised much of his theory and its final development. The book opens with 4 questions:

  1. What do you say after you say hello?
  2. How do you say Hello?
  3. What do you say after others say hello?
  4. Why do we and others spend so much of our time not saying hello?

Eric Berne left behind him a profound and systematic theory of personality and a range of tools which have been used throughout the world to promote health and growth.