Introduction to Ego States
When you step into the realm of Psychology 101, you inevitably encounter Freud’s ego states of id, ego, and super ego. These concepts attempt to describe our self-identity, and the childhood influences on our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions. But it doesn’t stop there. Understanding ego states really flourished when, in the 1950s. Eric Berne, an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, pioneered Transactional Analysis (TA), making psychological concepts accessible to the public.
Berne shed light on the idea of compartmentalizing thoughts in our heads. He emphasized the role of caregivers or parents in shaping our internal dialogue, that is our self-talk. Whether you were raised by parents, grandparents or other caregivers, their voices persist in your mind.
Of note, is that ego state work is often referred to as Inner Child work or healing.
In the 1970s my hubby Les and I attended several personal development retreats with Clark Read a Transactional Analysis (TA) and Gestalt Therapist. Our experience was helpful, healing, and powerful. We discovered that understanding and utilizing ego states minimized family conflict and miscommunication. Here are brief descriptions of Berne’s proposed primary and different states, each serving different functions:
Parent Ego State
This Ego State is comprised of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are copied or adapted from the individual’s parents or other authority figures. It represents the learned and internalized lessons and values from childhood caregivers. The Parent Ego State can be nurturing and supportive (Nurturing Parent) or critical and controlling (Critical Parent).
Adult Ego State
The Adult Ego State is the rational and objective part of an individual’s personality. It processes information, makes decisions based on current data, and is responsible for problem-solving. It is essentially the part of the individual that operates in the “here and now.”
Child Ego State
The Child Ego State consists of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are remnants of an individual’s childhood experiences and emotions. It is divided into two further subdivisions:
- Adapted Child: This aspect of the Child Ego State reflects behaviors and feelings that have been adapted to please or conform to parental expectations or societal norms.
- Natural Child (Free Child): This part of the Child Ego State represents spontaneous and unaltered emotions such as creativity, curiosity, and joyfulness. It embodies the more genuine and less adapted aspects of an individual’s personality.
Ego States are used to analyze and understand interpersonal dynamics, communication, and the underlying thought and feeling patterns that influence our behaviors. By recognizing and working with Ego States, individuals can gain insight into their own behaviors and relationships, fostering personal growth and more effective communication. That was certainly Les’ and my experience. We affirm that navigating your inner world can help heal past wounds, and promote self-awareness and self-discovery.
Ego State Quotes
These quotations highlight the transformative potential of Ego State Therapy.
“The Parent ego state consists of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are copied from parents and other authority figures. The Adult ego state is focused on processing information in a rational and objective way. The Child ego state is made up of feelings and behaviors that are replayed from early childhood.” Eric Berne in Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy
“Exploring the depths of our ego states can reveal the hidden wounds and strengths that shape our lives, leading to profound transformation.” Dr. Janina Fisher, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation
“Recognizing and understanding your own ego states can be a powerful tool for self-awareness and personal development. It allows you to choose how you respond to situations rather than reacting automatically.” Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward in Born to Win: Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments
You can see why the term inner child is often associated with Eric Bernes’ work as well as therapists such as John Bradshaw and Alice Miller. While ego states are a fundamental concept in Transactional Analysis, Inner Child Work is a therapeutic approach that can be incorporated into various therapeutic models. The alignment between the two concepts is based on their shared focus on understanding and healing the inner child, as well as promoting emotional healing, self-awareness, and personal growth.
IFS: A Current Ego State Model
Currently Internal Family Systems (IFS) is popular in therapy circles. Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, it gained credibility in the 1990s and is designed to address a wide range of emotional and psychological issues, including trauma, anxiety, and depression.
Like Berne’s framework, IFS therapy is based on the idea that individuals have multiple inner parts or subpersonalities. However, it has a different structure of identifying ego states. Schwartz, in his book, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems, describes our parts and gives them names such as Firefighters, Managers, and Caretakers. IFS emphasizes the importance of self-leadership, the compassionate exploration of inner parts, and the healing of internal conflicts to promote emotional healing and personal growth.
Recommendations for Therapists
I found Robin Shapiro’s book, Easy Ego State Interventions: Strategies for Working with Parts, published in 2015 a helpful guide. My own book, Return to Center: Simple Strategies for Navigating Distress, Depression, and Disconnection has a helpful section relating to ego states.
The Ego States of Big Me and Little Me
For practical self-help practice an alternative ego state model can be helpful. Here we introduce the concept of Big Me (Wise Me or Grown-up Me) and Little Me
(Emotional Me or Child Me). The Big Me represents the wise, compassionate, understanding voice within us, reassuring us that it’s okay to make mistakes and that we are inherently lovable. The Little Me, on the other hand, embodies emotions, vulnerability, and self-doubt.
Messages from Big Me to Little Me
Here are some messages you can give your Little Me from your Big Me:
- “You are lovable, no matter what you do. The day you were born, you were lovable and that has not changed. You are lovable.” –
- “You are capable. You demonstrate you are capable when you use your strengths, when you use your humor to lighten the atmosphere or organize a meeting or help someone with compassion.”
- A third “you are” statement: “You are resilient. You can bounce back from any challenge, any error, any sort of big change, loss, grief, and feelings. You can bounce back.”
These truths provide the foundation for a healthy, balanced self-identity.
May you continue to deepen your understanding of ego states, remain curious about parts of yourself that show up in unexpected interactions, and continue to develop self-compassion.