Transactional Analysis and Psychoanalysis:Writing Styles

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Claude Steiner



    The author compares the languages of transactional analysis and psychoanalysis and argues that in his break with psychoanalysis, Eric Berne took leave, primarily, of the linguistic and therefore conceptual style of psychoanalysis. He sought to write, speak, and think about observable phenomena with the use of verbs and concrete nouns instead of adjectives and abstract nouns, which he characterized as “jazz.” This initial linguistic transformation profoundly affected transactional analysis methodology.



    In the first Transactional Analysis Journal (TAJ) issue dedicated to psychoanalysis and transactional analysis (Hargaden & Cornell, 2005), there appeared an exchange of letters written by Michele Novellino and myself. In that exchange, Novellino wrote, “You seem to be concerned about language and I worry about methodology” (Steiner & Novellino, 2005, p. 117). In fact, I do believe that language is the most fundamental difference between psychoanalysis and transactional analysis—language that reflects concepts and ultimately determines the practitioner’s methodology.


Wittgenstein and I

    One of the reasons Berne was interested in me when we first met was that Ludwig Wittgenstein, the celebrated philosopher, was my great-uncle by marriage. Wittgenstein was one in a long logical positivist tradition started by Auguste Compte, a tradition pursued by members of the Vienna Circle to which Wittgenstein belonged. All of the members of that circle shared the idea that a statement has meaning only if it can be shown to be verifiable through experience.

    Wittgenstein pointed out that philosophers, in their search for abstract “truths,” had lost sight of the fact that the mere existence of a word does not guarantee that it has any basis in reality. “Wittgenstein saw himself as a therapist curing us of the desire to raise metaphysical problems” (Osborne, 1992, p. 152).

    The positivist notion found a friendly reception in the United States with the pragmatists, including Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Willard Quine. Even though there is no evidence that Berne read any of these philosophers, he was at heart a pragmatist. He tirelessly reminded us that transactional analysis writings were to be crisp, understandable, and economical and that they should address what could be observed, using verbs and concrete nouns instead of adjectives and abstract nouns. The title of Berne’s last public address on 20 June 1970, “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation” (Berne, 1971), was a satirical comment (“Away from . . .” as opposed to “Toward a Theory . . .”) on the opaque, overcomplicated, indefinite psychiatric style of the times, full of what he called “towarding” and “jazz.”

    Berne believed in using “Occam’s Razor.” (William of Occam is supposed to have said in the 1300s that “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity,” meaning that the simplest form of statement is the best.) Berne had a positivistic, pragmatic, empirical bent. When a colleague once accused him of oversimplifying, he was heard to quip, “Well sir, I’d rather oversimplify than overcomplicate.” This honest, straightforward, and simple approach was what initially attracted us to transactional analysis. But we were equally attracted by the sophistication and efficacy of his method, which is why we stayed.

    As for myself, while I did not completely understand the complexities of my great-uncle’s theories, I did receive a simple but decisive injunction from Wittgenstein via my uncle Felix Salzer, the eminent musicologist, who told me that his uncle’s dictum to him had been, “Boil it down!”

    I remember when, as a graduate student of psychology and an avid reader of Freud and other psychoanalytic writers, I began to write my clinical reports at the Ann Arbor Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital. I enjoyed elaborating on the esoteric “insights” provided to me by the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). I soon realized, however, that no one was reading my long, arguably entertaining reports except perhaps my supervisor, who was forced to. When nurses, social workers, or psychiatrists were handed a patient’s file, they would usually glance at the first few lines, which listed all the basic data (name, age, marital status, etc.) and then, ignoring the elaborately written middle pages, go to the end of the report and check the psychologist’s diagnosis.

    At first I thought this was an indication of those other professions’ philistine inferiority, but I eventually came to see that those reports, at which I, incidentally, excelled, were nothing more than psychoanalytically fueled flights of literary fancy that no one took seriously. Their only asset was that they were, at times, quite well written. We were junior Sigmunds imitating the master and his writerly genius.

    So, remembering Wittgenstein’s dictum and emulating Berne’s “Martian” style, I took the VA staff’s covert message seriously and made their work easier. From then on, I wrote streamlined reports in which I fit everything I had to say, including basic data and diagnosis, onto one page so that anyone reviewing the report could see the whole thing without having to flip any pages. This endeared me to the hospital staff (though not to my psychoanalytically trained teachers) and saved all of us a lot of writing and reading time while communicating important basic information. The challenge was to inform, not fascinate.

    This may sound like I was a callow, irresponsible young man, amusing myself with my writing style rather than caring about my patients. In fact, I did care. Yet I believe it is true that the complex and esoteric vagaries of the psychoanalytic writing style led me in a self-indulgent direction, with the rationalization that I was doing something vitally important. Only when I saw how effective contractual transactional analysis can be—as I watched patients who had been depressed, alcoholic, and isolated become joyful, sober, and connected—did I fully realize the crucial difference.

    In his adolescent, premedical studies, Freud had been a voracious reader and prolific correspondent. His writings reveal his youthful character, his education in literature and history, his high ambition, and his brilliant, ironic, and idiosyncratic writing style. He took pride in his wide-ranging knowledge, and employed much name-dropping, allusions to works of history and literature, and foreign language phrases. In a dense and lengthy letter to his friend Emil Fluss, the 17-year-old Freud proudly ended, “You can see how the words pour from my heart and the letters from my pen” (E. Freud, 1969, pg 425). When Freud began writing about psychoanalysis, he quite naturally wrote in a mixture of medical and literary style that found great favor in the psychiatric and lay world alike.

    Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Freud and also Viennese, was in revolt against what I would call the European style of writing, which was lustily pursued by Freud and his disciples as well as by Sartre, Focault, Derrida, Lacan, and many others. When writing in that mode, one is not concerned with the precise meaning of words or whether the reader will understand what is being said; that is the reader’s problem. The concern, instead, is to make one’s thinking process conscious, to put it into words, a sort of writer’s talking cure, if you will. Thus it is perfectly OK to write sentences, paragraphs, articles, and even armfuls of books that are largely indecipherable and infrequently read.

    Reading such material is very different from reading a scientific paper in which everything written aspires to be maximally clear or a piece of detective fiction that lays out neat scenarios with logically connected clues. It is rather more like reading poetry, wherein no sentence can be methodically plumbed to its ultimate meaning, and the meaning of the material accrues almost by osmosis. The idea is to read, never mind if everything makes sense or not. Surrender to the material, go with the flow, savor the luscious words and sentences the writer constructs; in the end you will get the idea. And, in fact, thanks to the mind’s amazing synthesizing functions, it is possible to read in that manner and come away with a complex of fascinating ideas, even if those ideas do not correspond to the ideas the writer had in mind, let alone to reality.

    That is not to say that all that is written in that style is incomprehensible or lacking in objectivity. Some such authors are able to write very understandable material, but that is a secondary, serendipitous outcome, a fortunate accident, if you will. Freud was a master stylist and often brilliantly understandable, even if, objectively, his assertions were frequently fictional. Subsequent psychoanalytic writings in that style have not been nearly as comprehensible as Freud’s.


Berne’s Break with Psychoanalysis

    Eric Berne was a tireless, prolific writer, initially inspired no doubt by Freud’s writing style. When Berne broke with psychoanalysis, it was on the basis of a self-admitted incapacity to logically, objectively deal with the abstract aspects of it. He was not able to see the id and superego, he later explained to us, but he was able to see the Child and Parent ego states. This need to be able to see, or vividly intuit, what he was discussing was probably the most significant distinction he drew between his work and psychoanalysis. From then on he was dedicated to being understandable, which noticeably changed his writing and treatment styles while he made frequent, irreverent references to “all that jazz” of his psychiatric colleagues.

    Berne was also on a campaign against what he called the “neurotic writing style.” He advised fledgling writers simply to discard the first few pages of any piece because it was sure to be full of irrelevant, defensive, neurotically inspired items. In a humorous moment, he speculated that it would be just as effective to tear off the top third of the whole paper (rather than the first third) and then rewrite it (E. Berne, personal communication.)


Language and Treatment Goals

    One thing that is common to the origins of both psychoanalysis and transactional analysis is that they were a response to people who needed treatment for mental and emotional problems. Berne was passionately invested in being effective or, as he put it, in “curing people,” and not in just endlessly and esoterically writing and talking about them, which he viewed as irresponsible. Moved by the same positivistic perspective that inspired his writing, he believed that clients’ problems should be clearly and precisely defined. He especially wanted the objective of the treatment—the point at which those problems are no longer present—described in an objective manner.

    In arriving at the indispensable treatment contract, consistent with his positivist attitude, he wanted us to replace adjectives such as depressed with verb phrases such as “cannot sleep, cries inconsolably, overeats, attempts suicide” and so on, and he wanted us to preestablish the conditions for a cure: “Sleeps well, is cheerful and rarely cries, is happy to be alive.” On that basis we could, if successful in bringing about these conditions, claim a cure.

    Some have argued that this is a soul-killing process that reduces the complexities of life to simplistic, deadening categories. As an example, Hargaden writes that “emphasizing measurable contracts can lead to denying the existence of the contents of the vulnerable self and in so doing to make transactional analysis into a type of happy pill. . . . a theory that contains a fear of what is not readily comprehensible, concrete, tangible and therefore controllable” (Hargaden, 2003, p. 6)

    Berne was interested in contracts, not because he was afraid of the vulnerable or the uncontrollable, but because he was intensely interested in ensuring that transactional analysis, unlike psychoanalysis, be an effective psychotherapy with concrete results. And he believed, as do I, that the endless, repetitive “jazz” that invades psychotherapy journals and, alas, recently, our own TAJ, has no relation to the solving of people’s problems. People need to resolve their problems so that they can be free to contemplate the incomprehensible, the vulnerable self, or any other unfathomable aspect of human existence on their own, with their friends and family, instead of under the tutelage of the expensive and often self-serving, and not necessarily wisdom-soaked, ministrations of “depth” therapists.

    This said, I do not mean to deny the value of soulful, deep-reaching conversations, which can no doubt be highly inspiring, educational, and sometimes healing between two people, even if one of them is paid for participating. I would certainly never object to such an exchange—so long as the remuneration is understood to be for just that: soulful, heartwarming conversations with no implied promise of healing or alleviation of life-dulling symptoms.

    Let us not forget, as well, that transactional analysis is not just about psychotherapy any longer and that our educational, counseling, and organizational colleagues would not tolerate undisciplined psychoanalytic or transactional analytic ramblings in their work. Try to explain to a busy manager in a factory that her angry reaction to you is a transferential phenomenon of unconscious-type, primary intersubjectivity based, founded on the splitting and subsequent projection of an introjected object, and see how far that gets you.

    Try instead to speak in plain words from your Adult with the Nurturing Parent in the wings and an occasional Child infusion of humor. Draw and explain Karpman’s drama triangle and suggest to your manager that her response to you could be part of a game (“Why Don’t You, Yes But”) and that you may have inappropriately promoted the game by playing the Rescuer and eventually the impatient Persecutor and she is now playing the angry Victim. After drawing a diagram of her ego states and yours, you might suggest optional transactional alternatives for both of you, and that these transactions to what delete to what might be lifelong relational patterns acquired in her childhood interactions with parental figures. Then with your Nurturing Parent, you might suggest, by way of permission, that both of you rehearse alternatives. This approach may seem dry and soulless, but please remember it is a sketch; the reality, according to the therapist’s personality, could be far more juicy and soulful.

    If, after all this, you decide that it is appropriate to have two languages—transactional analysis for your clients and the other for you and your like-minded colleagues—then you should know that Berne was very clear as he repeatedly insisted that we use one language overall.

    The fact is that there is less and less place in today’s widening world for the esoteric raptures of continually mutating psychoanalytic conceptualizations except, it appears, in the expensive and easily colonized pages of the TAJ and in transactional analysis training programs. Here are some tests of good language usage and writing. When reading this issue on transactional analysis and psychoanalysis:

       Do you understand the abstract that is provided?

   Does the abstract reflect the content of the article?

   Does the article reflect the mandate of the issue, in this case to contrast and compare transactional analysis and psychoanalysis, or is it just about psychoanalysis with a cursory tip of the hat to transactional analysis?

       Remembering that this is a transactional analysis publication, how much of the article is devoted to analyzing transactions?

       Are psychoanalytic or transactional analysis terms used without clear definitions?

       Do the references show a balance of psychoanalytic and transactional analysis writers?

       Do sentences or whole paragraphs fail to make sense to you even after several readings?

       Are the diagrams in the article simple and clarifying?

       How many articles did you start and not finish? Why? Boring? Too long? Hard to follow? Irrelevant? Made you feel not ok; stupid or lazy?



    I am concerned for readers who are interested in transactional analysis and are reaching to our journal for information. Whatever one decides about this or that theoretical debate within transactional analysis, I hope we can agree that TA thrives on crispness, clarity, objectivity, and good writing. Readers of the TAJ who find that they cannot understand what they read half of the time—my recurrent experience as well—might be tempted to decide that it is their defect rather than the defective use of language that is the cause. A good test of that question might be to put oneself in Berne’s place and decide whether what is being offered is good writing or a lot of “jazz.”


    Claude Steiner, Ph.D., ITAA Teaching Member, is a clinical psychologist and one of the founding members, with Eric Berne, of the ITAA. He lives with his wife and editor, Jude Steiner-Hall, alternately between Berkeley and Ukiah, California. He has developed a stroke-centered approach to transactional analysis and is the leader of an emerging emotional literacy training movement centered in Europe. The author of eight books, including Scripts People Live, The Other Side of Power, and Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart, he is finishing his book Confessions of a Psycho-Mechanic; my long life of love sex and psychotherapy in five continents and has started writing his next book, The Heart of the matter; Love, Information and transactional Analysis. He can be reached through e-mail at or at .



Berne, E. (1971). Away from a theory of the impact of interpersonal interaction on non-verbal participation. Transactional Analysis Journal, 1(1), 6-13.

Freud, E. (1969). Some early unpublished letters of Freud. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50, 419-427.

Hargaden, H. (2003). Then we’ll come from the shadows. The Script, 33(5), 3-6.

Hargaden, H., & Cornell, W. F. (Eds.). (2005). Theme issue on transactional analysis and psychoanalysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35(4).

Osborne, R. (1992). Philosophy for beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing.

Steiner, C., & Novellino, M. (2005). Theoretical diversity: A debate about transactional analysis and psychoanalysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35, 110-118.

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