How many people are you? Personally, I know I’m quite a few and always will be.
Some years ago at a conference on ways of treating trauma a speaker was challenged from the audience to define what ‘mental health’ was. She paused for a moment and then replied that a mentally healthy person was ‘comfortable with self, comfortable with others’.
I admired the way she met this challenging question with a clear definition that describes a state of true wellbeing. At the same time I wondered, which ‘self’ are we referring to here?
Being in Relationship
Underlying that speaker’s definition of mental health is the notion of relationship and the recognition that to be a person is to always be in relationship with others and, most especially, with ourselves. In fact this learning how to be with ourselves is a process intricately linked to how we come to be ‘our selves’ in early development through relationships with our primary caregivers and other family members.
This notion that each of us appears to have multiple selves – or at least multiple parts of our ‘self’ – chimes with the reported experience of most people. This sense can be most acute when we face a life situation where we cannot decide on something, as though different parts of us are conflicting with each other to determine what is best for us as a ‘whole’ self.
The Parent, Adult & Child Model of the Self
A radical and deceptively simple idea for accounting for our different selves first emerged in the 1960s in the modality of Transactional Analysis (TA) (1) . This proposed that we naturally relate to ourselves and to others through a constant interplay between three different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
We first learn how to be from our close observation of the all-powerful others we meet in infancy.
We borrow aspects of how they behave towards us and incorporate these into our own way of being. This has been termed our ‘Parent’ ego state, of which we can have many different ‘borrowings’ from the authoritative figures of our early years. Borrowing these parental ways of being is useful when it allows us to provide ourselves with parental comfort and structure to safely navigate the world, such as soothing ourselves by rubbing a bruised knee or remembering to stop and hold hands at the kerb. This becomes unhelpful when any borrowed forms of the parenting we received prevent us fully accepting and loving ourselves.
We also learn by actively storing as separate ‘Child’ ego states within us our earliest intense aspects of previous emotional experiences and imaginings about the world. By replaying these old experiences in different situations, they give us guiding models for expressing our innermost impulses or adapting in order to successfully maintain relationships with others. This is less helpful to us when previous fears overwhelm us in the present or we over adapt to the demands of others at the expense of our own needs.
Our third and probably most common way of being is to operate in the here and now – or our ‘Adult’ ego state – where we use our accumulated knowledge of the world to solve daily challenges and get our needs met. Problems can arise when our ability to function in the moment is compromised by us bringing our more unhelpful Parent or Child ways of being into our present.
Making sense of our multiple selves
So when we face times in our lives when we do become ‘uncomfortable’ or worse, it can be instructive to use this powerfully simplified model to explore how aspects of our Parent, Adult or Child ego states might now be limiting our capacity to live well.
Part of the process of TA Psychotherapy is to focus with compassion on how our borrowed and previous selves continue to serve us and to explore with care and curiosity those aspects of ourselves that are now no longer helping us to change or grow. For example, we might identify the origins of self-critical voices and practise liberating new nurturing parts of ourselves. Or we might explore those moments in our lives when we seem to be suddenly incapacitated by childhood vulnerabilities and work to resolve why this is so.
To return to our speaker, if the definition of mental health is indeed to be ‘comfortable with self, comfortable with others’, then I would like to suggest that the vitally important process towards this healthy state is of one of ‘compassion for self, compassion for others’, a process that TA and many other forms of psychotherapy can very effectively support.
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by Chris Horton –
(1) Berne, E. (1961). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. New
York: Grove Press.