Dear Patti,

I love my sister Dani, and deep down I know she loves me. There are parts of her that I really like. She can be really nice, attractive and quite humorous. She gives me tips on how to attract boys and has inspired me to change the way I dress and wear my hair. Because of her, I get a lot more compliments. In turn, I’ve helped her learn better study habits, eat healthier and get along better with our parents.

Most of the time, however, we argue and bicker. Dani says I act too uptight and grown-up for my age, that all I ever do is study and that I’m never any fun. She thinks I’m way too critical and controlling and is tired of my nagging and scolding. I think she’s way too wild and childlike and needs to grow up. She stays out way too late, doesn’t take school seriously and does what she pleases without thinking about the consequences on others, especially the family.

We obviously have different values and viewpoints on how to live, but I want to know from a professional: which way of being is healthier?         

  — Madison

Dear Madison,

I understand that because you and Dani have such different personalities it may be difficult — but not impossible — to find a balance that will allow you to understand each other better and live together more harmoniously.

Imagine that your character is made up of three distinctly different parts which control your behavior and personality. These personality segments are labeled “the child,” “the parent” and “the adult.” If one of these ego states strongly overpowers the other two, disharmony results. To feel happy and at peace, all three need to not only get along but also be free to express themselves.

The “parent” ego state contains negative and positive attitudes, much like real parents. On the negative side, an internalized parent expresses feelings through scolding and criticism (i.e., judging oneself harshly for getting an average grade on a test). The positive side expresses feelings of nurturing and protection (i.e., leaving a fun party at a responsible time in order to prepare for an exam the next morning). Whether a person has a predominantly positive or negative parent ego state often depends on the parental models she or he was exposed during childhood.

“The “adult” ego state is about the ability to solve problems. This is the intelligent, organized part of a 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 be silly among friends or roll around on the grass and play with children or pets.

The “child” ego state contains the emotional and creative part of the self which engages in passionate, artistic, musical, spontaneous and fun activities and outlooks. For instance, a great novelist’s imagination depends heavily on an active, 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.

It sounds like your rigid adult or critical parent ego states may be running your life, while your child ego state is underdeveloped. Is Dani correct in thinking maybe you need to play and laugh more? While it’s laudable you’re a conscientious student, it’s equally important to reward yourself on occasion with activities that are fun.

As for Dani, it sounds as if she might be allowing her child ego state to take over too often. That may have consequences, especially if it impacts the ability of others to take her seriously. I can’t help but wonder if Dani’s parent and adult ego states are being neglected and ignored.

You’re both very different and can either learn from each other or become polarized and have trouble getting along. It’s not necessarily that one of you is healthier than the other but you each need to look at your respective personalities and decide for yourselves what you want to change or not change in order to be healthy and happy. For both of you, negative behaviors can be unlearned and out-of-balance ego states can be changed. It just takes time and willingness to work on it.


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 an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.