The Ego State Model

The ego state model

The ego state model was developed by Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis. It is one of the core models we use to make sense of people’s psychological insides.

However, it is only a model, so if it doesn’t fit your experience or you don’t find it helpful, don’t worry! There are plenty of other ideas which may be more appropriate for you.

The ego state model says that we can understand our inside world as consisting of three different areas which are called the parent ego state, the adult ego state and the child ego state.

We represent them as three circles, stacked upon each other with the parent ego state on top, the adult ego state in the middle, and the child ego state at the bottom. Each ego state is consistent within itself, so thinking feeling and behavior make sense and fit together within each ego state.

However, between ego states there may not be any obvious consistency and they may contradict each other. For example: I say I will go swimming tomorrow, because it’s healthy and good for me (adult ego state) but tomorrow I may feel rebellious and not want to stick to my own rules (child ego state).

As a convention we abbreviate parent, adult and child ego state to Parent, Adult and Child and write them with capitals to make it clear that we mean ego states and not people.

The Ego State Model

illustration of the ego state model by Eric Berne

Adult ego state

Let’s start with the adult ego state, which is the middle circle. In many ways this is the place to be on the inside, because when you are in Adult you are in the present.

You are aware of all your options as the person you are, and you are in contact with what’s going on in the here and now.

You may experience feelings as a response to what’s happening in the here and now – like feeling sad when a friend moves away – and your behavior patterns are consistent with how you think and feel. In Adult you are aware of what is real and what isn’t.

For example, you feel jealous, but that that doesn’t mean your partner is out with someone else right now, since you know that’s only an assumption or that maybe you are imagining your worst nightmare come true; in any event, you know it’s not real.

In Adult, you apply problem solving strategies if things get tough, and you can ask for help and make healthy decisions. Being fully present in the here and now also allows for spontaneity and intimacy.

Whenever you move out of adult ego state you move out of the present and into the past, either into Parent or Child mode. One can either move fully into another ego state and outwardly “be” it, or one can experience them as an internal influence that seems like an ongoing inner critical voice (normally Parent) or a constant sense of self doubt (normally Child).

We may spend a lot of time in Adult, but given enough stress or a particular trigger that reminds us of the past or is a raw point in some way, we tend to move out of Adult into Parent or Child. This is what we mean when we talk of someone “pressing our buttons”.

The ego state model gives our internal psychology a historic perspective: under stress we move into old patterns, either our parent’s patterns (parent ego state) or the ones we had as children (child ego state). The parent ego state may include different sets of representations – one for mother, one for dad and possibly others for other people.

Our child ego state will represent our historic development, so we may have a strong layer at age 2, lots of stuff from age 6, and some leftover issues from our teenage years, to mention but a few. Because of this, we also speak of child ego states in the plural.

Parent ego state

The parent ego state represents an internal picture of how we saw our real parents or care givers when we were children.

As kids we see our parents, grandparents or other significant others such as teachers and siblings from our own limited perspective (say, dad seems to be an angry person, but we don’t know yet that that’s because he has trouble at work and that he really feels worried about losing his job) and we tend to relate it to ourselves (as a child I may feel like dad is angry with me all the time, and it must be because of who or what I am or fail to be, rather than because he’s got problems at work).

This happens because children do not yet have the cognitive ability to de-center – in other words, not to see themselves as being the center of the universe. So, this limited perspective of our parents is taken in and becomes a blue print we keep on the inside.

In TA terms, we introject, or take in, our parents and keep a psychological copy of them for future reference. 

Often, this helps us to take in useful rules and regulations, knowledge about the world, how to look after ourselves and other people, etc. However, if our parents gave us the “wrong” information, or lived by not-very-useful rules themselves we end up introjecting something that doesn’t work particularly well for us later on.

For example, mother worked all the time and now as an adult you may still feel that it’s somehow wrong to take holidays or to relax at home. Parent material gets taken in wholesale and we often don’t consciously think whether we really agree with the rules our parents give us: we just tend to live by them without ever thinking about it.

Parent messages can be out of date, because society has moved on (like your grandma’s idea that women need to be pretty and quiet).

They can also be very damaging. For example, a message from a parent that “you’ll never be good for anything,” though spoken in anger, may still frustrate a person’s attempts to achieve his or her own success as an adult.

Or the parent ego state might be experienced as an inner critical voice constantly commenting on everything we do (such as: you’re no good, you’ll never make it, that wasn’t good enough, why didn’t you do it like this, you just can’t do it, you’re stupid, you’re useless, and so on, and on, and on, and on…).

Parent messages can be identified once you sit back and reflect on what is going on in your head. Any messages that come to mind, which start with “you ought…” or “you should…” are generally the Parent speaking. We tend to go into Parent mode especially when we evaluate things, make general statements about the world, or look after ourselves or others.

Additionally, we can also go into Parent mode completely and start behaving, thinking and feeling like our mother or dad. Our voices may change, together with our body language, facial expressions and internal experience. (Have you ever heard yourself come out with things your mother or dad would have said in response to your children’s or partner’s actions?)

Other people around us will notice this shift in ego states and may react to us accordingly.

If you feel the messages or behavior patterns from your parent ego state are holding you back as an adult, you can review this psychological material and update it. We call this process “decontaminating the Parent”.

Sometimes it is enough to reflect on all the automatic rules we live by and simply decide not to follow them any more.

For example, you might want to decide that you don’t have to follow the ideal view of women given to you by your granny, or adhere to the views she had about men, anymore and decide that it’s ok for you to do something different.

Sometimes the Parent messages can be very hard to get rid of, because they are linked to a lot of psychological angst in the child ego state, which you experienced for real during your own childhood.

In this case you might want to consider getting some help like psychotherapy. This would be the fastest way of detoxifying old messages and allowing yourself to set your own rules to live by.


Child ego state(s)

The child ego state contains all the behavior and thinking patterns, together with the emotions, which are left over from your own childhood.

One has to remember here that all the good day-in, day-out care we receive as children allows us to grow into functional adults and these experiences are integrated into our adult ego state.

But what is often left over in our child ego state is all the experiences that have caused us anxiety, sadness, anger, shame or other experiences which we haven’t quite digested yet. These leftover bits may be grouped along developmental lines or cluster around specific events.

For example, suppose you are still carrying feelings of jealousy and abandonment from when you were four years old and your little sister was born. Maybe this is because your mum shipped you off to your granny when your sister was born with medical problems.

These emotions and the related thinking and behavior patterns would be stored in your memory at the level of functioning of a four year old; today, however, they may get triggered whenever your partner goes out with friends, because this situation roughly resembles the one you experienced as a four year old.

As a result, whenever he or she goes out you start reacting like the four year old you were, trying to deal with a very threatening and bewildering situation.

Within our child ego state, there may be many different unresolved issues or developmental levels left over. Say, there is still the problem you experienced as a four year old. Later on you get into difficulties as you struggle to fit in and belong when you start school at age six.

Then, years later, as a teenager you again feel those issues about fitting in when it comes to making contact with the opposite sex (or which ever sex you are attracted to). And today you may still feel like an insecure teenager when talking to someone you are sexually attracted to, as well as showing the behavioral signs of shyness and telling yourself inside that they would never be interested in you anyway, so why even bother asking them or anyone else out!

Another example: today, when you walk into a new group at work, you go back to your issues about fitting in leftover from age six and you may feel unwelcome and unsure about taking part.

You may re-experience the same beliefs that you made up about your problems as a six year old and you might try and deal with the situation in the same way as you did back then.

For example, suppose when you were six you just gave up and withdrew.

This might still be your tendency today. Or perhaps you learned to be the class clown and get accepted that way? This strategy may still be useful today in some circumstances, but there are bound to be certain work places where it is highly inappropriate.

And of course, whenever your partner goes out, you still get jealous and think that they might run off with someone else!

The material which is left as your child ego state is completely individual and depends on your own personal history. It also depends on your temperament as a child and the resources and support which were available to you. Each child finds different solutions to what goes on for them.

Today, years later, you may experience yourself shifting completely into a child ego state due either to general stress or a specific trigger, or you may experience a low-level influence of the child ego state in, for example, your ongoing sense of insecurity in relationships, despite the fact that you know things are fine.

If you want to find out more about how this model can help you make sense of yourself and your relationship read the page on “Applying the ego state model”. Other related topics are relational needs, script, games and life positions.