Eric Berne Shaped Treatment and Counseling Without You Even Knowing it

Eric Berne (sometimes pronounced ber-nay) was a Canadian psychiatrist around the era of the late 1950’s. He is most popular for his Parent Adult Child (PAC) ego model. It complimented the works of Sigmund Feud very well (especially the ID-EGO-Super ego) .

A brief outline of transnational analysis is that when we behave in a parental way either to ourselves or to others, our lives will become less manageable and anxiety will increase. This the same for when when behave like a childish way to ourselves or to others . The more extreme those positions are, the more extreme our anguish or dysfunction becomes.

One the great landmark moves in counseling and psychotherapy that Berne brought to the field was the simplification of counselling language.

The 1950’s

It’s hard to imagine now what life actually was like in the 1950’s, mental health and approach to helping people is so massively different now. Sure it has it’s flaws but talking therapy has changed in leaps and bounds.

Back in the 1960’s Aaron T Beck – One of the god-fathers of modern CBT – described that when working in a veterans hospital of the 1950’s – 1960’s that psychiatrists had three golden rules of therapy:

  1. Don’t talk
  2. Don’t answer any questions
  3. Only answer questions with another question

The results of this style of therapy meant that people were in treatment for years (it was typical for someone with depression to spend 3-4 years in a hospital setting around the 1950’s) , they were just medicated, given some occupational therapy and psychoanalyzed. There were other types of therapy but it was all rather weak.

It’s worth noting that Eric Berne was a psychiatrist – meaning he was a medical doctor, not a counsellor or psychologist. Why I point this out is that it is an interesting phenomenal of this era around the 50’s – 70’s most of the landmark talking therapists were psychiatric doctors (Beck, Ellis, Burns, Berne, Bowbly, Bowen, Worden).

Today most of those who promote “talking-therapy” are not medical doctors. However, during the 1950’s outside the field of medicine anyone could call themselves a counselor or therapist. They weren’t really seen as professional roles, they existed in rather quasi-professional roles. Today most countries around the world have legal-conditions on calling yourself a therapist or counselor.

An advert from the 1950’s showing medicine for the “Frigid Wife Syndrome”

Layman’s Terms

One ambition and legacy that still exists to this day is that Eric Berne wished to shy away from terminology that prevented the average person from accessing treatment. Medicine and psychiatry was awash with with jargon that was completely incomprehensible to the average person (don’t forget it was the 50’s!) . Eric Berne felt that this was nonsense so he began to interpret scientific and psychology terminology into every day language. Pathological social interactions were called “Games”, pathological thinking was called “life scripts” (very similar to what is now called schemas, in a way). One of the other things Eric Berne coined was a “Behavior contract” .

Some people of the medical field were outraged by Eric Berne, they felt that he was dumbing down their work. There were many objections that empowering people to self-help was a dangerous move as people reading the book were not doctors or trained therapists.

Despite all the set backs the book went on to help millions of people manage themselves and their lives successfully.

Behavior Contract

Many people may work in the field of care or counselling may not know that it was Eric Berne who was one of the first therapists to bring about the Behavior Contract . I can very well imagine there are many institutions that use some form of Behavior contract as part of their standard intake who are completely unaware of the TA origins of this contract.

It was Eric Berne who brought this down to earth approach to treatment, it outlined the limitations of a therapist or institution and what was to be expected of those entering into treatment. Most – if not all – people entering into a rehab or treatment should sign some form of behavior contract. This is in fact a transactional-analysis intervention that was first started by Eric Berne. It was part of his down to earth approach to psychotherapy that we still see all over the world.

As Eric Berne saw it, most people understand what a contract is. it has two parties agreeing to a certain outcome, he saw this as an incredibly useful tool to help get people to focus in on what their concerns are.

It gives the counselor and client both a blue print of which to work from. It can also be used to help a client spot certain pathological behavior they may not be aware of – such as – antisocial behavior, sexual behavior, failing to attend appointments, turning up late…etc. Some issues may seem very surface level initially but they may be a big part of a person’s dysfunctional behavior.

Does it work?

Most people ask me about the effect of therapy upon an individual or a group of people. There are countless anecdotal accounts of how TA has benefited people, including entire movements to champion it’s value. However, we live in an age of reason and if something can’t quantifiable be proven then it doesn’t hold value.

Fortunately for TA it does still stand the test of time has been recently proven to work effectively in a group environment (Behavioural Science 2016) :

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5097343/

POP Psychology


The Games People Play became a huge success and it even became a New York Bestseller. It is still one of best-selling therapy books of all time.

Unfortunately for Eric Berne, great successes aren’t full-proof to being pulled apart. Some people reject the simplicity of some of his ideas. Some of the games have also been surpassed in terms of understand. It’s not unusual for someone to be snooty and dismiss Transactional Analysis as “Pop-Psychology”. The Games People Play was written for therapists as a means of helping analyze patients already in the clinical population, but it was mainly adopted as a self-help book. The term “pop-psychology” is an unfair term for TA, it is a well studied and highly regarded branch of psychology. In order to be a TA therapist most people have completed years of studying.

Personally, I find reading about TA very insightful and explaining it in either a group or 1:1 can be very beneficial to a person’s personal growth. However, I do believe that whilst the knowledge is mostly sound, it lacks practical tools to use on self and with others. Also despite being made to be simple and speak to the common person, it can actually look totally confusing on first glance.

The Shadow-side of TA

Unfortunately most therapies from pre-1980’s come with some form of dark-side. The 1950’s and 60’s were very oppressive and discriminatory. Lest we not forget up until the 1970’s the American Psychiatry Association had homosexuality listed as a psychiatric disorder. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4695779/). Prejudice was ubiquitous in many forms of psychotherapy, however, I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. Eric Berne was born before the first world war. There are some parts of his book “The Games People Play” that cite homosexuality as an game, there are also other parts that refer to women playing games by being frigid to their husbands. We can’t shrug off the discriminatory side of these beliefs, but there is still some worth from the therapy of Transactional-Analysis and Eric Berne.

About the Blog

My blogs are more my own musing in my spare time so they’re not always referenced, however you can find more about Eric Berne through these following links:

On the book Games People Play:http://www.ericberne.com/games-people-play/

Some more on behavior contracts: https://www.businessballs.com/building-relationships/transactional-analysis-eric-berne/

One of the first rehabs I ever worked at in 2007 was still using a Transactional Analysis model, the rehab has long since closed, but the company is still active: http://www.aquarius.org.uk

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