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I remember the first time I co-facilitated in a class in which the Parent-Adult-Child model was on the docket there was a huge amount of confusion and resistance among facilitators.  Why are we talking about ego states in this way?  What does it have to do with mindfulness?  Doesn’t it just confuse the already muddy waters of “the ego” which we often consider our nemesis?  Meanwhile, the traditional diagram with the parent ego state on top seemed to create even more “huh?”   In most things we tend to think that “the top” is where we’re supposed to be, but in this model we’re striving for the middle spot– below the parent– which at first glance feels a bit odd.

As I continued to work with the material though (and had to draft a description of it for the new workbook) it all started to make more sense.  I found in classes that it was actually useful to reference our initial discussion of Parent-Adult-Child throughout the Drama Triangle, and Empowerment Triangle sessions (and sometimes even in Conflict and Art of Communication).  Also, along the way we began to use the term “mindset” instead of “ego state”, which helped to keep confusion about the “ego” at bay.  But this past Friday (in a class on Holding Your Seat that got cut short by a 1/2 hour and was generally a bit confused and chaotic), I finally landed this concept right on the nose.

As noted above, I’ve always found the Parent-Adult-Child diagram from Transactional Analysis less than helpful.  It’s designed the way it is (at least this is my guess) because a central feature of that work is the relational (between two people) aspects of the model.  Hence, the Adult to Adult relationship shows up in the middle spot, eye to eye.  But in the Path of Freedom we talk about the model in the context of the individual and in the context of past conditioning vs. now.  Last year when we were working on the Path of Freedom workbook I played around with different diagrams but never settled on anything I really liked.

But pressed for time last Friday, I found myself drawing up a different diagram– with Adult (“set of thoughts, feelings and behaviors based on now”) on top and the other two branching to either side below.  I asked the class for positive and negative qualities of both parent and child, writing the more functional ones above their “mindset” and the less functional ones below. It was then easy to bracket the whole bottom part as “past conditioning” with the parent side as “what we saw, heard and experienced” and the child side as “how we learned to survive, adapt to and navigate the world.”  I then explained that when we’re triggered, we tend to gravitate to the bottom, to one side or the other.  The discussion was still a bit flat up until this point.  Then I asked the women, “which of these states do you tend to go to when you are triggered?”  The two dimensional model immediately sprung to life as they shared their tendency to “yell” or “cry” or “flee” or “judge”, etc., whenever things got rough.  Energy and clarity, which had been lacking up until then, filled the room.  More importantly, it was perhaps the first time many of these women had ever considered that perhaps these tendencies were not a fixed aspect of “who they are.”

As we were talking, I looked back up at the board and then suddenly I saw it: we had just foreshadowed the above the line/ below the model that is to come in a couple of weeks.  In my mind’s eye I could see a line between the functional aspects of parent/child and the dysfunctional aspects below.  Above and below that line I could see the two distinct worlds– one of possibility, accountability and relationship and one of blame, self righteousness, helplessness and fear.

It was also obvious how the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer of the Drama Triangle (below the line) emerge out of the dysfunctional child and parent mindsets.  Similarly, the Challenger and Coach of the Empowerment Triangle (above the line) show up as a natural outgrowth of the functional parent mindset.  Meanwhile, the Co-creator visually shows up in the same spot as the Adult, and gets to draw from the positive functional qualities of both mindsets.

It’s worth noting that in the diagram I drew above, I just used the qualities noted in the PoF workbook.  However, in class the lists came from the women and among other traits included “clear boundary setting” above the parent mindset and “open minded” above the child mindset– both of which I think are really important, especially as we start to think in an “above the line” kind of way.

I also like the way the diagram offers hope even if the functional aspects of the parent/child mindsets (nurturing, mentoring, protecting, clear boundary setting / creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, open mindedness) were absent from one’s past conditioning.

Of course, it doesn’t get real until it gets personal. This weekend I found myself thoroughly triggered by a particular behavior of my partner’s and just as I was about to totally lose my cool, I saw the model I had drawn up on the board in my head and for the FIRST TIME IN 13 YEARS I saw that my internal judgments and sense of fury toward him around this issue was just a replica of the parental reactions I saw and experienced as a kid.  Duh.  What a difference a little bit of clear seeing makes: all of a sudden it was easy to just to let… it… go…

There are lots of reasons I’m drawn to this work.  While I am still in the process of disentangling myself from some of the more dysfunctional (rescuer) nuances, I am ever grateful for the continued opportunity to explore this material in depth, to keep unpeeling the onion as it relates to my own life, to bear witness to the struggles and growth of others, and to hopefully be of service in that process.

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