In the September broadcast of their online TV channel, jw.tv.org, the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses presented a number of ideas which I would like to use in this post to illustrate the psychological theory of Transactional Analysis. The theory was founded by Eric Berne, and one of the most famous ideas he proposed as part of this theory was the model of the three “ego states,” namely, Parent, Child, and Adult.¹
The “ego states” contain childhood experiences, but can then be modified and enriched throughout life. Each ego state has a characteristic set of embodied feelings and thoughts as well as behaviours; we use this concept to provide another language to describe the experience of self. In emotionally healthy individuals, the ego states don’t operate fully independent of each other or the whole person, but I think that these get played on and used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation to keep the membership perpetually dependant of the Governing Body.
The Ego States, Explained
The “Parent” ego state contains recordings of actions and words of parents, caregivers, and other important parent-like or authority figures. We present the Parent ego state when we engage in behaviours, feelings and thoughts copied from parents and caregivers.
The “Child” ego state contains recordings of the person’s reactions to the behaviours or words of the parents, carergivers, and later on, important parent-like or authority figures. We present the Child ego state when we replay behaviours, thoughts and feelings experienced when we were children.
The “Adult” ego state develops from the age of about one year old, and evaluates what the parents and other important figures teach. For example, a child is taught that touching a hot stove is dangerous; the “don’t touch a hot stove” rule gets recorded in the Parent ego state of the child. Later, the child observes how their older brother got burned because he touched a hot stove. A child who observed the consequences can evaluate the parent’s rule of “don’t touch the hot stove” and come to the conclusion that this rule is indeed right. That rule becomes stored in the Adult ego state in the child’s personality. We present the Adult ego state when our thoughts, feelings and behaviours arise in direct response to the here and now.
We can also experience all three ego states in response to one event. For example, imagine you are called to have a biyearly evaluation meeting with a supervisor and you feel very nervous about that meeting. If the feeling of strong anxiety would be explored, you might find it connected to the time when you were called to give an answer to the teacher, the Child ego state. Additionally, you might find yourself thinking “My boss seems to be stressed out, how can I help and support her?” which would be engaging from the Parent ego state. Of course you could also respond to the evaluation process from the Adult ego state, with an adaptive degree of anxiety and readiness to learn.
Imagine now, that in our feedback scenario, the employee feels very anxious, judged and insecure (engaged from the Child ego state) and the supervisor takes a patronising and judgmental stance (engaged from the Parent ego state). It is quite likely that at least some of the conversation will play out to remind of the interaction between a child and a parent.
The Ego States Engaged By the Governing Body and Jehovah’s Witnesses
I think that the policies implemented in the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult exploit any unhealthy traits in the personalities of the congregation members, and create an environment where people expressing those traits are rewarded and put up as an example to others.
Let’s consider the relationship between the rank-and-file and their leader, the governing body. As we discussed earlier, most, if not all, people have an aspect of their personality which can be identified as the Child ego state. Jehovah’s Witnesses are constantly treated like children by the governing body; presented with a long list of do’s and don’ts along with fear-inducing dramatic scenarios if the rules are not followed, such as being cast out to the domain of the servants of Satan or killed by god. It can be said that the governing body is like a controlling, demanding and abusive Parent to the Children-like believers attending Kingdom Halls. (For more information, see Beware the Cult-Like Control and Abuse of Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to feel like children and are rewarded with approval of the Governing Body if their life choices are motivated by those feelings. In the broadcast we learn about a missionary who spent many years proselytising and indoctrinating others into the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ideology. She said that her life’s motto has been a prayer to god; “Jehovah, show me where I belong”. Former elder Spike Raynor makes a case in one of his videos that people like her have mistaken the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s will for god’s will. I would suggest that, since the governing body is responsible for setting out the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she has taken their will as god’s. This woman has been like a child in her relationship with the governing body; trusting, ready to follow anywhere, reliant and dependent. In the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult, believers are taught to switch off their critical thinking and any inner sense of control over the choices they make, and hand over the steering wheel of their lives to the governing body.
The message disseminated in this month’s broadcast that “pioneers can’t help their parents very much” is clear and wrong. In general it goes against human nature to not to care for the elderly and needy members of our family; one of the few exceptions from that rule is that children (youths) should not be made to care for the financial and emotional needs of their family. The governing body creates a culture where adults have a pass to behave like children and think it is okay not to take upon themselves the responsibility to care for their parents.
Anyone who has been exposed to such attitudes will need to make a decision to challenge those messages and form their own mature understanding. Healing starts with identifying unhelpful conditioning and then having a dialog with oneself about what is right and what is wrong. We will come back to this thought later in the post.
Finding Resolution to Cult Conditioning and Internal Conflict
Earlier we discussed how the ego states cross over between two individuals, where the Parent ego state of the supervisor interacts with the Child ego state of the employee. The interactions between the ego states also occur on the level of personality. For example, in a stressful situation we might feel as if we don’t have much control over the events, and replay a voice of an internalised critical opinion of parents, caregivers or the governing body such as, “You need to do as I say,” or “You are not equipped to make good choices”. We might, at the same time, operate from the Child state and feel ashamed, guilty and afraid about our situation. The Transactional Analysis proposes that we can try resolving internal incongruency arising between the ego states.
The first step involves becoming curious about, and kindly aware of, the experience of physical sensations, feelings and thoughts characteristic to each ego state as they change from moment to moment. It is not necessarily easy to develop such awareness, and the governing body’s instructions go to the contrary of such practise. The viewers of the September broadcast are encouraged as a matter of priority to pay attention to the Bible and let it influence how they feel and think, over honing any honest awareness of what their hearts, bodies and minds want. With some practise, it might become possible for a person to, as it were, step into the perspective of each ego state and observe their habitual way of relating to the external events and each other. In time the person might observe that, from their Adult ego state, they have started taking note of the critical conditioning locked in the Child state, and decided that those beliefs are not conducive to the well-being of the whole person. The Parent ego state might become open to developing a more balanced and loving attitude towards the Child ego state. The Child ego state, with help from the Parent and Adult ego states, might learn to trust itself. This is a process of opening communication channels between ego states and developing a relationship between them which is based on compassion and care.
The theory of personality proposed by the Transactional Analysis will not ring true to all reading about it. The idea of the ego states interacting with each other might sound quite unbelievable to some. That’s okay, all readers are invited to take what is helpful, and leave the rest. Each person who stopped associating with the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult will hopefully find what best supports their unique process of learning to solve problems in a more mature way, reconciling inner conflicts, building up resilience, allowing themselves to love without fear and strengthening what is their version of a mature, steady and grounded Adult self. Some psychological concepts and theories might be more useful than others. Some psycho-therapeutic interventions might feel right, some might not resonate at all. Coaching or mentoring might be more helpful than therapy to some at that particular point in life. It’s a good idea to find someone with credentials and experience to work with, but this is your journey so start it, and continue, with trust that you know what is right for you.
Karuna, a Sanskrit word meaning any action taken to diminish the suffering of others, is the pen name of a former Jehovah’s Witness originally from Poland and now living in Ireland. Karuna received her Master’s degree in psychology while one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but left the organization after learning of their devastating “two witness” rule and other policies that put children in harm’s way. She is currently looking to continue her higher education and use her learning to help children who have been victims of abuse. JWvictims is deeply grateful for her contributions.
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