How do I deal with day-to-day social situations that cause anxiety and conflict? A row with my partner? Coping with a domineering boss?
I’ve been asked this question by coaching clients, and there are a LOT of possible answers. But here’s one technique I’ve seen work.
It comes down to a combination of mindfulness and something called Transactional Analysis (TA) – the study of breakdowns in communication.
When we’re not paying attention to our thoughts and feelings in the present, we can inadvertently activate one of our ‘ego states’:
Parent ego state: This echoes the behaviour, tone and attitudes of our main caregivers – so you might speak to someone as your mum spoke to you. It could be a ‘critical parent’ out to scold and punish, or a ‘nurturing parent’ who acts in a loving way.
Adult ego state: This is where you’re thinking and acting based on what’s happening in the present, without a lot of emotional baggage from the past.
Child ego state: This echoes what we thought and felt in childhood. So we might behave like a ‘free child’ who is open and curious, or an ‘adaptive child’ who may be fearful or defensive.
Ego states just pop up without us being aware of them. One minute we might think we’re having a straightforward adult conversation. The next we could be in a blazing row or feeling we want to crawl away and hide.
It all depends which patterns we picked up as children. Think of your own parents. Were they mostly loving or critical? If it was mostly critical, you may have integrated this into your own behaviour. If, as a child, you felt under attack this may show up in your thought patterns now.
The key is to notice which ego state you’re in at any given moment – and which ego states those close to you may be experiencing.
With luck, they will match yours. You may feel vulnerable in your child ego state and your partner may respond in the nurturing parent state – so both ‘parent’ and ‘child’ are happy. In TA, these are called ‘complementary transactions’.
But what if your child ego state wants sympathy but instead of taking on the nurturing parent role, your partner respond by saying your problem is not worth worrying about? You feel hurt because you’re not getting what you want. The transaction is ‘crossed’ and you’d better buckle up for a row.
So how can we tame our out of control ego states?
Firstly, we can notice them by staying mindful. When you feel conflict or anxiety start to flare, try to stop and breathe deeply for a few moments, noting what you are thinking and feeling, and the sensations in your body.
Recognise that these thought patterns do not define you. You can choose whether to act them out.
But we can’t escape from ego states completely. We all have an ego, like it or not! It’s a useful evolutionary tool and without it we wouldn’t get much done. So we have to choose, which ego state do we want to be in charge at this moment?
The answer, my clients have told me, is the adult ego state.
Eric Berne, the creator of Transactional Analysis, described it like this: “The Adult ego state is characterised by an autonomous set of feelings, attitudes, and behaviour patterns which are adapted to the current reality.”
So if you can access this state, you gain AUTONOMY over how you respond and are rooted in the present REALITY – not behaviour patterns from childhood.
Better still, the ‘adult’ can draw on elements of the parent and child ego states where they are useful. So you could stay in the adult ego state and still access your nurturing parental side to help defuse conflict.
To activate the adult ego state you have to stay present. Just be aware of what’s happening right now. It may seem hard at first but with practice it can be the key to happiness.
So next time you’re facing a difficult social situation, slow down, breathe deeply and notice what ego state you are in.
By staying in the here and now, we can free ourselves from patterns from the past.