An excerpt from the book, Step Up: Women’s Journey to Identity, Success and Power by Sailaja Manacha.
The Parent Ego State
I remember spending a lot of time with my cousins at their home, during my summer vacations. My aunt was a strict disciplinarian. All I remember of her were commands and instructions. She had an uptight rigid body and a tough-looking demeanour. I do not remember her ever smiling at me. I was utterly terrified of her almost all the time. I remember something that she often did. Even now when I think of it, I feel a jitter through my body. If she was upset with her daughters, she would call them to the dining table and all she did was give them a scary glare and said ‘SAY’— and they would meekly say in chorus, ‘SORRY’. She didn’t say what she was asking them to say sorry for and they didn’t know.
They just did it each time—because of the power of a commanding stare and voice, the power of position and authority, and the power of body language.
As I write this, I also remember the wonderful goodies this aunt made when we kids visited and the care she took of our food and play. Yet, these fade into the background and the above image of her tough self prevails in my memory.
Parent ego state in its controlling and commanding form is quite similar to my aunt. The other more popular character that comes to mind is the character of the father in the popular Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), played by Amrish Puri. He is the typical angry, authoritative father—one whose word is considered God’s word, one who knows it all, and is commanding and condescending.
The Parent ego state shows up in two forms: Controlling and dominating or Nurturing and caring.
If our parents were kind and caring, we are likely modelling to be that way; if they were judging and scolding, we are likely to adopt some of that in our lives.
This is because we as children, while growing up, often unconsciously take other people’s personalities into ourselves. The psychological word for this process is ‘introject’. We can think of it as ‘absorption’ of behaviour. When we are young, we are like a sponge. Unknown to us, we are absorbing other people’s gestures,
expressions, feelings, thinking and worldview. We have copied many aspects from significant parental figures and people we considered as authority in our lives. Apart from parents these could be grandparents, teachers, older siblings, friends and mentors too.
All of the absorbed aspects become part of who we are and are stored in our Parent ego state. As grown-ups, we borrow from this place and may behave like one of them. We may speak and express similar thoughts, and even feel the same feelings as they felt in response to a situation. We may even have the same emotions, attitudes and body language that they held towards different situations. This becomes part of our SELPH.
The Parent ego state has collective messages passed on from generation to generation. This is also what we come to see as cultural messages. Cultural norms fit in the Parent ego state. These messages have directives, instructions, and dos and don’ts.
Some of these messages are also about defining femininity and what a woman’s role in life entails. It has messaging around who is a ‘good girl’ and who is a ‘good woman’. These messages are part of the observer we are. Being aware and examining some of these definitions is part of the inner journey we will make as we transform ourselves. Doing this, develops a new observer.
Here are some messages culturally scripted:
- She is a good woman, she makes many sacrifices.
- She is a good mother, she is always attending to the children’s needs first.
- Girls should be quiet.
- Smart girls can be clever—but never show how intelligent you are. The boys may not like it.
- A woman should stay with her husband no matter what.
- A lady is never loud.
- Teaching jobs are great for women.
- What can one expect? She is a woman after all.
While these kinds of messages carve a role of what a woman should be like, if we are unable to fit these descriptions, it creates an anxiety in us.
Parent messages are like tapes in the mind—they keep playing on and on inside our heads. These form consistent language or inner chatter in us. A small trigger is enough to activate these tapes. Some tapes are activated very often and some are situational— certain instances trigger the tapes. The active tapes for some of us maybe are: ‘You are not good enough’; ‘Be quiet’; ‘Stay back— you don’t have to be important’. For some of us these messages may show up in specific instances such as in a meeting with significant people or in a performance appraisal discussion, during conflict or when we wish to express our views.
When I began my own transformational journey I met P. K. Saru—my TA teacher. Saru was such an interesting combination of nurture and structure. She had a commanding personality, a powerful voice and a manner of speaking. As a therapist and a teacher, she had a powerful nurturing presence—someone who could read the emotional layers beneath the words. Her questions and conversations would get us thinking and reflecting. She would be very quick to remind us about the power within us, our personal resources and capacity for positive action in our lives. She was a potent role model for each of these actions.
It was refreshing for me to experience a Parent ego state in this form. She was firm, and yet was a powerful manifestation of the nurturing element of the Parent ego state. That part of ourselves that is caring, supportive, encouraging and kind. We absorb these aspects also into ourselves.
Messages from this part of the Parent state create tapes that are helpful and supportive. They keep us feeling cared for and happy. They encourage us to attend to ourselves and to be what we wish. They serve as a storehouse of motivation and positivity, and get us moving in the direction we choose. They help us stay confident and feeling good about ourselves.
Image Credit: Sage Publications/Sailaja Manacha
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Excerpted with permission from Step Up: Women’s Journey to Identity, Success and Power by Sailaja Manacha, SAGE Publications India.