How to Use TA When Your Client is Stuck

A long-term client came back to see me after many months. She had been doing very well in counseling, and I was glad to get an update from her.  When she arrived, she plopped down in the chair, she said loudly “What is WRONG with me???  Why do I keep repeating the same stupid mistakes with my BFF???  Have I learned NOTHING in all these months of work??”

This kind of opening statement isn’t unusual.   I took a breath and replied “I understand your frustration.  You have learned and applied many TA tools in the past several months.  But in the situation with your BFF (best friend forever), you feel stuck.  Am I right?”  She nodded.  “Do you want to use TA to figure it out?”   She nodded again.   

In my practice, I use TA throughout the session.  TA definitions give me and my clients a common language to talk about their issues. The TA diagrams can help people ‘visualize’ and analyze their problems. 

In my office, I have 4 posters on display.  I created these posters to help clients remember TA tools and concepts. My clients find these posters very helpful in focusing in on their specific issue.

I use the metaphor of a growing tree as a metaphor for a flourishing life. “The Seven Principles Tree” (left) shows seven positive Beliefs and Behaviors for Authentic Living.  The TA Tree shows the corresponding TA Tool or concept used for each one. 

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When a client is stuck, confused, or ask “What’s WRONG with Me??” I use different posters.  “The Seven Beliefs & Behaviors That Keep People Stuck in Life”(left)  depicts an ailing tree. It has brief statements with beliefs and behaviors that don’t serve authentic living.  The ‘STUCK’ TA Tree shows the corresponding TA tools or concepts to analyze and resolve issues and problems.

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I said to my client (I’ll call her Sue) “I know you understand the Seven Principles well.  Today let’s start by talking about beliefs and behaviors that keep people stuck in negative beliefs or poor behaviors.  We will briefly review each statement, and then ‘rule out’ the ones that don’t fit the situation with your BFF.”  Sue agreed.

We talked about each statement.  Sue quickly focused on ‘Poor Communication and Negative Strokes’. She said “For years, I knew my relationship with my best friend needed work.  She’s very bossy with me. When I do everything her way, she’s happy. When I don’t, she is really critical with me. I’ve come to realize I’m getting almost all negative strokes from her.  That hurts.”

I said “Let’s look at this situation from a TA perspective. “We turned our attention to ‘The Stuck TA Tree,’ and looked at Crossed Transactions and Negative Strokes. We decided to analyze her pattern of Transactions and Strokes with her best friend.

Analyzing the Transactions: In TA, we analyze communication, or transactions, using the PAC diagram.  We drew the PAC-PAC diagrams on the dry erase board.  We reviewed the three types of transactions: Complementary, Crossed, and Ulterior.

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Sue said “My best friend always talks down to me like I am a child.  She is critical most of the time”  I feel like I am always doing something wrong”  Then she said “I act like a Child around her. I do everything she tells me to do. I let her call the shots just so she won’t get angry with me.” She drew the arrows from P to C and reverse—a Critical Parent to an Adapted Child transaction.

For months, Sue had been practicing complementary, Adult to Adult transactions.  She was getting good results at work and with her family. But not her BFF. She said “When I talk Adult to Adult to her, she gets angry!  She ignores me or ridicules me. She doesn’t want to hear my thoughts or opinions.” 

Analyzing Strokes: We reviewed the definition of strokes. Strokes are ‘units of recognition one person gives another’. They can be positive strokes (smiles, compliments, and hugs) or negative strokes (frown, rejection, and slaps).  Eric Berne said we need positive strokes—but we will settle for negative ones if that is all we can get.

We analyzed the strokes Sue received from her best friend.  Sue observed that when she was a compliant Adapted Child (“Of course we can do it your way”),  Sue received positive strokes. The BF was agreeable, smiled at her, and complimented her.

However, when Sue expressed her own thoughts and opinions(from her Adult ego state), she was quickly discounted, rebuffed, criticized, or ignored by her best friend. This pattern had gone on for many many years.

Sue said “I don’t want to lose her friendship. Even though I’m getting only getting negative strokes from her now, it’s sad to think how long I tolerated negative strokes.  And I don’t think she will ever change. It may be over.”  Together we sat with the sadness awhile.

When Sue was ready, we began to assess the pros and cons of keeping the relationship. Sue realized that she could keep the relationship with her friend —and accept negative strokes. She could look for other sources for positive strokes.  Then we assessed the pros and cons of letting it go. She would accept the risk that new friendships were unknown.

At the end of the session, my clients’ mood had improved somewhat.   While she was sad about the situation, she was pleased to successfully use TA to analyze her communication and stroke patterns. She accepted that she had a choice to make. She left the session appearing more confident. She had used her TA to ‘analyze’ her problem and used TA to come up with a few possible solutions.   

Sue has not returned since this session—but I know she is using TA Tools to create a more authentic life.  Well done!