Human interactions rarely happen along a single dimension. Even simple, everyday conversations require significant context and cultural knowledge to be understood. Who is saying the words, what is the manner of expression, where are they being spoken, and why? Yet, even these rarely reveal the speaker’s inner state and deeper motivations. While we can guess something of their psychological state, much of it hides from us. What we believe to be a conversation between two reasonable adults on a mundane topic may be nothing of the sort! And, this can lead to all kinds of relationship difficulties, both professional and personal because hidden psychological states are at play.
The psychiatrist Eric Berne used the word games to describe a certain class of human interaction that are “superficially plausible but have a concealed motivation”. The fundamental insight of his work developed in the 1950s and 60s, known as Transaction Analysis, is that such interactions — or “transactions”— supposedly happening between two Adults, often involve hidden psychological states that are Parent-like or Child-like.
Berne proposed that a person’s inner state during an interaction can fall into modelling their parents’ habits — relating and behaving in the way mother or father would (e.g. ‘You listen to me!’ or ‘I don’t know what to do’). Or, that the person may fall into behaving like they did as a child (e.g. ‘Please protect me’, ‘I don’t want to be punished’ or ‘I will rebel’).
Berne’s model of characterising interactions has many variations around the three states. For example, one person may hold the Adult-state while the other falls into Parent or Child hidden psychological states. Alternatively, both parties may fall into Child, or one might act the Parent, while the other neatly complements as the Child. Everyone has the potentiality to be in each state. See Figure 1 below.
The superficial and the hidden
The key point is that while superficially an interaction happens between two adults, one or both persons may be operating from a non-Adult psychological state motivated by a hidden goal. For example, Parent may seek to affirm that they are ‘in charge’, or Child may seek any excuse to rebel. Ordinary workplace or personal interactions can thus be hijacked by hidden motivations at any moment. What’s more, the different games people can play within this 3-state model are almost infinite because every Child or Parent state will be informed by unique life experiences. The model is a useful tool to help us dig deeper into hidden patterns.
Patterns within hidden psychological states
These games are usually played without those involved being aware of what is going on at a deeper psychological level. If A and B are interacting and B has slipped into either Parent or Child mode, A will not know B’s inner state, unless she is particularly astute. An even bigger challenge is that B may not himself be aware of his own Child state! Unsurprisingly, this becomes a recipe for confusion, frustration and repeating relationship difficulties.
Some common patterns have helpfully acquired names and entered public discourse. The Drama Triangle is one such pattern useful for understanding certain conflict situations. Stephen Karpman’s drama triangle sets out three mutually reinforcing roles: the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer. The Victim spends more time complaining about matters than seeking solutions. The Persecutor, ‘bad guy’, reinforces the Victim’s helplessness by attacking them. And, the Rescuer constantly intervenes, usually without anyone asking them to, and sometimes without having the ability to help.
People may repeatedly find themselves in the same relationship difficulties, whether changing jobs or making new friends. The movie has changed, but the role is the same. Models like the Drama Triangle can help in figuring out, if you, or another person, is constantly playing a particular role. Once you have become aware of the drama, a model such as Berne’s can help deepen the enquiry. What psychological state is at play? Is it the Parent, Child or something else? Who or what is triggering this psychological state?
Triggers and baselines
Different models like Berne’s and Karpman’s are very useful for noticing hidden patterns and investigating relationship difficulties. What’s more, they can be used complementarily as different lenses on the same situation. Whatever model we use to dig into a situation, there is usually a deeper principle at play in most relationship difficulties. And, that has to do with what I call triggered and untriggered emotional states.
Whether we are in Berne’s world or Karpman’s world, the problematic behaviour involves unconsciously reacting with scripts internalised from the past, in response to some trigger in the present.
The ‘trigger’ may be a particular situation, type of person, or both. The ‘unconscious reaction’ is a whole way of relating — feeling and behaving — that jumps into action. The trouble is that the reaction is inappropriate for the situation. Yet, what’s appropriate and inappropriate is a matter of judgement and context. This is why establishing a baseline is so important. And, that baseline is your way of being in an untriggered state across different situations.
Case study: Hidden psychological states in the workplace
If you hate your manager’s guts and fly into a fit of internal rage that becomes visible externally as irritation and non-compliance, what might be going on? Well, there are many possibilities. Perhaps, the manager really is an ignorant, intolerable bureaucrat and any sane person would be justified in their anger. Or, perhaps you are reacting in a wholly unjustified manner simply because he reminds you of someone who wronged you in the past? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, or something entirely different.
Whatever the case may be, getting to the truth of the matter requires you noticing your own inner state in general interactions inside and outside the workplace. Do similar situations (e.g. working to a tight deadline) but with a different type of person lead to an untriggered response? Do interactions with a particular type of person (e.g. male or female authority figures) trigger certain feelings within you, regardless of the situation?
Investigating your behaviour in this way is part of establishing your baseline inner state. Remember too that your baseline isn’t some singular, fixed thing — rather, it’s something you develop a good feel for based on noticing yourself over many interactions. A bit like a driver knows when they are putting their foot on the pedal without looking at the speedometer. What you will likely find is a variety of baselines for different contexts.
Self-knowledge shines the light on hidden psychological states
While you can only guess at the hidden psychological states of others, you have ready access to your own. Through noticing and investigating your own baseline and reactions, you develop greater awareness of your mind. How much of your response is a reactive script that jumps into action in certain instances? How aware are you of this happening? What is this script trying to achieve?
Greater self-knowledge will also help you notice when others might be triggered into reactive scripts. By understanding yourself, you understand others, for the human condition is but a mirror. Ultimately, such deeper understanding becomes the basis for skilful living by giving you more choice in how you respond.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.