ACA Blog

Jan 29, 2013

Will the Real Self Please Stand Up?

During the holiday season our counseling supervisory group had a small celebration. In our discussions I had one of those ‘Oh, WOW!’ insights. I was describing my work with AA and its ‘spiritual dimension’—‘a Power greater than ourselves’ or ‘God as we understand Him’. I said I found the phrase ‘that which is beyond’ more descriptive and useful.

One counselor from Denmark agreed and said that for her there was a connection with that which was ‘out there–beyond’. Another counselor, for whom Christianity was an important part of who she was, said she felt a connection with something out there as well as within herself.

Something ‘within herself.’ I can relate to that which is beyond—out there that is beyond me. But I have no referent for that which is within—a “self”. Transactional Analysis (TA) with its description of ego states helps me understand my experiences more clearly than any other psychological theory I have run across. For although I don’t know what would count as my ‘self’, I can recognize when I am my Child ego state responding and whether it is the Rebellious (RC) or Adaptive (AC) or Free Child (FC); or my Parent ego state whether it is my Controlling (CP) or Nurturing (NP) Parent (and where I learned them); and my Adult (A) ego state which is still learning about how the world works. But I don’t know which one my ‘true Self’ might be. Each ‘ego state’ is a description of a whole personality—a whole person-I respond to a stimulus from world and others. My thinking, feelings, behavior, speech, IQ, vocabulary, etc. are all different depending which ego state I am—it’s like a board of directors. Hopefully my Adult ego state is the primary decision maker, but my Child must not be discounted lest I feel depressed.

TA has been described as a social psychology—i.e., it is a description of how we interact with each other—how we converse with one another. Which ego state I am ‘in’ depends on who I am responding to and what they are saying: my wife, my brother, a friend, a client, a policeman, a teacher, or even memories of individuals from my past—each of these brings forth in me different ego states at different time—different selves.

So when I was studying different psychological and counseling and developmental theories, or multicultural issues or even counseling techniques, I had difficulty fully understanding them. I had to identify which ego state they were talking about. And my RC wanted to scream out, ‘Don’t you realize what you are saying is not true about much of what I am experiencing—you are discounting much of my own experience and much of my own power of choice.’ I find that true all across the board: when I read about ‘evidence based’ CBT, Motivational Interviewing, ‘open ended questions are better than closed questions’, the defiant client or teenager, et al., I want to ask about the roles of those self’s are not being acknowledged.

The emphasis throughout US culture is on the reality and importance of an individual ‘self.’ This self is embodied in most current trends in the counseling profession in the US. This might explain the inexplicable interest in brain scans for identifying psychological constructs. It also explains why TA does not have the same respect here as it does in the rest of the world. My own hunch is that this is a product of influence of Christianity with its emphasis on ‘saving your soul’ or ‘what will happen to you after you die?’—without ever defining ‘soul’ or ‘you.’ For such statements to have any meaning or any force, the ‘you’ has to be defined in a very narrow, basically linguistic or religious, sense. Debates about abortion imply such hypothetical assumptions. That separated ‘you’ (of the I-you dialogue) is also brought into the counseling room and thereby into psychological theories, without realizing it is a hypothetical construct necessary for us to interact with each other as we communicate with each other.

Predictably, the counselor above who had a sense of the divine within herself prefers the CBT technique; the other one was not so sold on CBT but said that TA really made a lot of sense to her when she had encountered it early in her life in Denmark.

I still don’t know what about “me” would count as my “self” and what doesn’t, apart from a specific context. Note that while counseling a client, it is critical that I recognize which ego states are involved at each linguistic exchange to know who I am talking to and which ‘I’ is doing the talking. Is it his Adaptive Child saying he tells me he wants to stop drinking (because he wants to please me) or is it his Controlling Parent who says he should stop drinking or is it his Adult which has considered the consequences of not stopping? As a therapist, I need to respond differently to each individual while realizing that he has to deal with all 3!

I would like counseling theory to develop further the fact that we hope to help our client through conversation and to help us learn to identify the various ‘selves’ that we and our clients use during that conversation.


Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in ‘spirituality beyond religion’ and veterans ‘beyond PTSD’

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