Ego 'states' of co-existence

Ego 'states' of co-existence

Are you the ‘parent,’ ‘adult’ or ‘child’ in your closest relationships?

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 03/04/2014

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Dear Patti,
When my buddy Dylan and I got accepted to the same college, it seemed like the greatest idea to be roommates at the dorm. We’ve known each other since kindergarten and I always thought we balanced each other out. He’s athletic and knows way more about fast cars and motorcycles and throughout high school gave me tips on how to flirt with the really hot girls. I’m the smarter of the two of us, as well as more spiritual, and he tells me that he’s picked up better study habits and knows more about world events and politics because of what he’s learned from me. We’ve always been there for each other, but we’re not even through the first year of college and we’re constantly fighting about anything, everything and nothing.
He thinks I’m way too uptight and boring because all I do is study instead of party. My education is important to me if I’m ever going to get my career up and going, but Dylan says I’ve become a big drag and a control freak who’s always criticizing his lifestyle. I think I criticize him for good reason. He’s acting like a self-centered jerk that stays out late, never thinks about the consequences of his actions, and doesn’t take his education seriously. Last night, he screamed, “Lay off, you’re not my mother!” when I told him he needed to pick up his clothes instead of leaving them all over. 

We obviously have different viewpoints and values, but I’m thinking I can’t go through three-plus more years of his juvenile behavior. Any advice?

— Scott

Dear Scott,
Your friendship with Dylan seems to have veered off course lately, but your shared history of learning new things from each other suggests it’s possible to find a harmonious balance if you’re both open to the task of exploring your respective behaviors.

It starts with imagining there are three distinctly different people controlling your personality and your actions: a child, a parent, and an adult. In order for you to feel happy and at peace, all three not only need to get along but also be free to express themselves. If one of these ego states strongly overpowers the other two, disharmony results. 

Just like real parents, the “parent” ego state contains negative and positive attitudes. On the negative side, an internalized parent expresses feelings through scolding and criticism while the positive side expresses feelings of nurturing and protection. Whether a person has a positive or negative parent ego state often depends on the parental models she or he was exposed to during childhood.

The “adult” ego state isn’t related to actual age but, rather, the ability to solve problems based on current reality and fact-gathering. This is the intelligent, organized part of the personality. A person with an overdeveloped adult ego state, however, might be perceived by others to be stiff and boring — a product of relying too heavily on logic and lacking emotional and creative expression. An example might be a student who finds it difficult to laugh and act silly or is unable to naturally roll around on the grass and play with children or pets.

The “child” ego state contains the emotional and creative part of the self that engages in passionate, artistic, musical, spontaneous and fun activities and outlooks. Great novelists’ imaginations, for instance, depend heavily upon an active and healthy “inner child.” An unhealthy child ego state might lead someone to stay up too late, oversleep the next morning and miss school or work.

Are your rigid adult or critical parent ego states running your life? Is your child ego state underdeveloped? Is Dylan correct in saying that maybe you need to play and laugh more? While it’s laudable you’re a conscientious student, it’s likewise important to reward yourself on occasion with activities that are fun.
As for Dylan, it sounds as if he’s letting his child ego state run the show. This behavior isn’t without consequences, especially if it impacts the ability of others to take him seriously when circumstances warrant it. Are Dylan’s parent and adult ego states underdeveloped?

For both of you, negative behaviors can be unlearned and out-of-balance ego states can be changed. It just takes the time and willingness to work on it. If you’re both open you could actually end up being each other’s mentors and learning a great deal from each other. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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