Well, it’s that time of year again—the month where we’re either brimming with hope, resolutions, and energy. Or, we feel like crawling back into bed, getting lost in Netflix and seeking refuge from the demands of the world. I always find that January, with its peculiar dual nature, encourages a kind of tug-o-war between motivation, new promises and fresh starts and the quiet pull of introspection, hibernation and going slow.
As the second week of January unfolds, I’m noticing that there is a part of me eager to engage with the world, set goals, and initiate change, while another part—quieter and more contemplative—keeps inviting me towards the comfort of the sofa and a cosy cup of coffee. Ugh. It’s a tension that feels like I have one foot on the gas pedal and the other firmly on the brake— a restlessness and a deep desire for rest—a need for both movement and stillness. Oh to be human – why is it so bloody complicated?
As some of you know, I have spent the last two years training in a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA). It’s a psychoanalytic theory that helps us to be more aware of how we feel, think, and behave towards ourselves and others. One of the basic, foundational theories of TA acknowledges that our mind or psyche isn’t just one single entity but is made up of three different ‘states’ or parts, each with its own system of thought, feeling, and behaviours. These different states are called the child ego state, the parent ego state, and the adult ego state.
What I love about TA, and the reason I weave it into the work I do with my coaching clients, is that it offers a simple but powerful way of helping people to be much more aware and conscious of the nuanced needs, wants, and protests of the three different ego states or ‘parts’ within them.
At this time of year, when our social media feeds are full of 7-day detoxes and gym joining and dry January and drinking green smoothies and generally being a very wholesome, healthy person all of a sudden, we might notice that our parent ego state—the part of us characterised by internalised beliefs, values, and rules acquired from external sources, such as our actual parents growing up, authority figures or societal and cultural expectations—is urging us to set overly ambitious resolutions and goals in January, while also contributing to an inner dialogue filled with self-criticism and lots of judgement. This might sound like, “You need to set some goals this January. Everyone else is. You should be achieving more, pushing yourself harder. If you don’t aim high, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Our child ego state, on the other hand—the part of us that holds emotions, feelings, and learned behaviours from childhood—might really want more rest, relaxation and play. It might want to spend the first few days or weeks of January catching up on TV, pottering around and slowly building up to entering the big wide world once more, rather than joining a gym, cleaning the entire house from top to bottom or starting an intermittent fasting diet. Our child ego state might also remember experiences where we’ve failed at our New Year’s resolutions in the past, so why bother now?
Still with me?
Let me introduce you to the adult ego state, the part of us that is characterised by more objective, rational thinking and is focused on the present moment—on what IS as opposed to what IF or should be. The adult ego state is free from emotional influences and past conditioning, allowing us to problem-solve, make decisions and rationally balance the influence of both the parent and child ego states. The adult ego state acts as a kind of mediator between the parent—which might be pushing us to set resolutions and achieve and do more—and the child ego state—the part of us that just wants to watch movies, eat cheese and stay in our pyjamas all day long.
On days like today, when I’m acutely aware of the tension between my parent and child ego states, both clamouring for different things, I recognise that finding some form of balance or harmony requires embracing my adult state. My adult ego state considers both the drive for achievement (parent ego state) and the need to take it easy and relax more (child ego state), helping me to find and navigate a middle ground that supports my well-being and personal growth without sacrificing my need for relaxation and going slow.
What this is looking like for me at the moment is carving out time to make plans for 2024, both professionally and personally, while also spending some of my days watching every single Harry Potter film with my son, and eating pizza. Last night, I cooked a really healthy lentil Thai curry. And then, without any guilt or judgement, scoffed a load of chocolate. This morning, I worked out but tomorrow, there will be no pressure to, because I know the moment I set myself a rigid workout schedule dictated by some 22 year old buff dude on Instagram yelling at me to commit to exercising 5 times a week, I’ll not set foot in the gym again.
Yesterday, I couldn’t be bothered to do anything but knew that doing nothing also felt really terrible, and so I took my dog for a walk through the nearby forest and felt so much better for it.
As we venture into 2024, whether hesitantly and slowly, or skipping with boundless energy and all the plans, I am curious about your three ego states too. What does the balance look like for you this year? How can you navigate the differing needs and wants of your parent and child ego states in a way that embraces both accomplishment and some peace or rest?
Here’s to the year ahead.
Over and out.