“Je le pensay, & Dieu le guarit...We treat them but it is God who cures them.”
This key piece of Bernian (1963) theory awakened an interest, and then reading Petruska Clarkson’s (1992) journal article on the subject. Within this article I will look at definitions and interpretations of physis theory; critique, compare and contrast this with other self-actualisation, realisation theories and key seminal work. To then explore how physis theory underpins Transactional Analysis (TA) principles. To look at what the implications of Physis might be for diversity, social and cultural beliefs. Finally, why is knowledge of physis theory vital in clinical practice? What are the benefits for the client and TA practitioner?
Physis or Phusis, as it is sometimes spelt, is derived from the ancient Greek, meaning “to grow... to be...what things really are” (Edwards, 1967). Clarkson (1992) cites a more helpful meaning as “... change or growth which comes from the spirit within the person”.
Berne (1968) adds “the growth force of nature which makes organisms evolve into higher forms, embryos... into adults, sick people get better and healthy people strive to attain their ideals”. Summarising the literature; physis is a physical, emotional, spiritual, creative and evolving growth towards self actualisation and self realisation- being the best we can be. Implicit in this growth, change or evolution is the amount of energy the individual expends. Growth and change of any kind uses a high level of energy. If we put this into a TA context, pathology has its positive and negative sides, such as script, games, rackets, or life positions, to name a few. As for advantages, Berne (1968) puts it “...a neurosis has many advantages for the individual... what is the force which makes him want to get better?”. What advantage is there for a person to get better if their neurosis serves them well? There must be a point for some individuals when a level of consciousness starts to recognise these thoughts, feelings and behaviours as unhelpful or along a continuum to harmful.
This stance is diametrically opposed to the Freudian and psychoanalytical belief which emphasises the death and sex energies or drives (Mortido and Libido) and the Bernian/ Jungian belief in physis as Clarkson (1992) explains “... the drive toward health, wholeness and creative evolution.” Berne uses metaphor to personify the death and sex instincts as Thanatos and Eros respectively.
Thanatos or Thanatus is the Greek god or daimon of non-violent death. His touch was gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos or sleep (Theoi 2010).
Eros was the Greek primordial deity of procreation who emerged self-formed and was equivalent to Thesis (Creation) and Physis (Nature)
The Greek goddess Physis is used as a metaphor for life energy as it manifests in nature, in growth and healing as well as in all dimensions of creativity. Physician or physic (as in medicine) and Physics (as in Quantum and Chaos understandings of the world) are both derived from it (Clarkson, 1992).
Thanatos and Eros would seem to be intrapersonal, or inside the individual, opposite to one another, instinctive and appear to be basic human drives. Whereas Physis, which does function at a basic instinctive level, has yet another dimension and incorporates the transpersonal and at a higher level of being. Physis is creative, transformational, evolving and aspirational (Clarkson, 1992).
Berne (1968) explains physis as being “...some force which drives people to grow progress and do better... religious people might say it was the soul... which normally pushes living things continually in the direction of progress”. This life force energy fits well with the three guiding TA principles:
I’m OK- You’re OK
Everyone can think
Anyone can change
Steiner’s (1974) definition of script is clear and unequivocal:
“The script is based on a decision made by the Adult in the young person who... decides that a certain position, expectations, and life course are a reasonable solution to the existential predicament in which she finds herself ... between her own autonomous tendencies and the injunction received from her own family group. The most important influence... originates from the parental Child... the Child ego states of the parents... are the main determining factors in the formation of scripts”.
The script paradigm is not wholly negative as English (1977) explains:
“We all need a script... an inborn need for structuring the time, space and relationships... conceptualise boundaries... to test... ongoing experience of reality... by constructing the outline of a script..., hold together... hopes, ... fantasies, and... experiences.”
Physis, the creative force of nature that makes things grow and strive for perfection, is the aspirational drive for autonomy, which arises deep in the individuals Somatic Child ego state. MacDonald (1972) defines aspiration thus:
“... to desire eagerly; to aim at or strive for high things”
The script matrix comprises of five Counterinjunctions of “Be Perfect”, “Try Hard”, “Hurry Up”, “Please Me” and “Be Strong”, Petruska Clarkson (1992). The Counterinjunctions are from the individuals Parent ego state (Figure 4). Clarkson (1992) adds:
“... the values of being fast, energetic, pleasing, strong and excellent- as prized qualities of the autonomous individual under the influence of Physis... are differentiated from the counterscript drivers”.
The second part of the script matrix is the Program messages from the parent’s Adult ego states and instruct the individual “How to”. The parental Child to the individual’s Child ego state messages are known as Injunctions, for example “Don’t Be” and Don’t Feel”, as well as the positive Permissions “Be Close”, “Think” and “Feel”. The individual’s script is not fixed or rigid as
Cornell (1988) explains:
“Major script decisions can be made at any point in life. Times of crisis... will likely foster more rigid and therefore more dysfunctional elements in and individual’s script”.
Therefore, a tension must exist between the aspirational drive (Aspiration Arrow), arising in the Child ego state, towards individual perfection, self actualisation and autonomy (Physis), and the constraining force of script to keep the status quo and the individual in possession of their neurotic thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Steiner (1987) illustrates this elegantly with the script-matrix diagram.
The Aspiration arrow may be seen as a metaphor for the flow of Physis energy within all individuals which runs as a golden thread or pure water spring through their ego states. The role of the practitioner must be to enable the individual to access their Physis, together, peeling away the layers of script and associated pathological thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This can then release the energy flow to course through the Child, Adult and Parent ego states and free the individual to reach their potential. Clarkson (1992) adds:
“… these creative urges- our needs to aspire toward fuller selfhood as persons and professionals”
Barrow (2008) utilizes metamorphosis, caterpillar to butterfly as a metaphor for Physis. Unique to those creatures who undergo metamorphosis are “imaginal cells”. These cells carry the genetic blueprint throughout the process. The complete and perfect butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. Barrow (2008) relates this process to Physis as follows:
“… I am interested in the idea of an imaginal cell working at a psychological level… that there is an inherent psychological mechanism that despite adversity maintains a vision for the individual of a new way of being... it captures the possibility for thriving- the essence of physis”.
In considering Physis as a psychological metaphor for the individual to reach autonomy does imply that other factors are significant, influential and be established prior to achieving this status. Maslow (1962) presented his “Hierarchy of Human Needs” which supports the premise that our physical or extrinsic needs must be satisfied before we can aspire to meet our emotional and intrinsic needs. Each element of the “Hierarchy” is dependant and builds upon the last and starts from the human being’s basic survival needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is a structured, hierarchical and sequential model, again, we can visualise this paradigm as a metaphor for human needs. The model, on first sight, does lack dynamism or drive; I have added the Aspiration Arrow to illustrate the energy Physis flows from the basic Biological and Physiological needs to Transcendence. The practitioner supports the individual towards autonomy and Self-actualisation (penultimate tier); the practitioner aspires to reach Transcendence, the final tier in the “Hierarchy of Human Needs”.
In contrast, Educational TA practitioners have taken the familiar P-A-C ego state model and reversed this to C-A-P to articulate the Developmental TA (DTA) process and purpose (Barrow, 2003).
Barrow (2003) expounds this theory further:
“Instead of existing under the implicit repression of the Parent ego state, the Child is regarded at the “growing edge”, the arena through which individuals… will reach further potential… underpinned by Adult reality checking and the security of healthy Parent beliefs and values… physis is explicitly identified and its line runs through all three ego states… realised by the Child through aspirations… framed through Adult thinking… supported by the security of the Parent”.
Criticism of this model is mainly around seeing the individual being relatively script free in achieving autonomy through aspiration. The author does describe the model as being “hopeful” as the individual would have a “winning script”, be motivated and able to articulate what they want to become. Nonetheless, there is a close connection with the three guiding principles of TA; I’m OK- You’re OK, Everyone Can Think, and Anyone Can Change (Barrow, 2003: Berne, 1968) encapsulated within the physis life force.
Self-awareness and Growth
The concept of Physis appealed to me on a number of levels when I first heard it mentioned within the context of the script matrix diagram. I then looked at Clarkson’s article (Physis in TA, Vol.22, No. 4, Oct 1992) in the Transactional Analysis Journal (TAJ) and some of her associated writing on the subject. There’s seems to be a paucity of recently published work around what appears to be such a key factor in TA clinical practice. Although the term Physis is an ancient one going back thousands of years it is Berne (1968) who first named this concept for TA and Clarkson who developed the paradigm (Clarkson, 1992). Physis energy runs through nature and this includes the human life force.
Clarkson (1992) suggests:
“For people to change they first need to feel well and OK, that is, in touch with their life force”.
Hence, illness disrupts the individual accessing and experiencing their life force. It appears that the life force or Physis does not disappear or snuffed out; it is only death that extinguishes Physis. A metaphor may be likened to a candle barely alight, a tiny flickering flame, not enough to see or read with, in the room next door, but there nonetheless. The challenge for the individual is how they might, open the door to Physis and enable fresh air to rush in and rekindle the guttering candle flame.
Clarkson (1992) posits:
To kindle this is perhaps the most central and important of the therapist’s tasks”.
Clarkson and Fish (1988) add:
Some ego states from earlier periods in a person’s life may be fixated in response to early unmet needs or psychological trauma...the person will be unable to remain stable under stress and may revert to script”.
Diversity, Cultural and Social Factors
The concept of Physis, though not named as such, is a common thread throughout the major religions. Berne (1969) suggests:
“Religious people might say it was the soul”.
Clarkson (1992) adds:
“… striving towards connectedness with spiritual, religious or transcendental values. The core self can be conceptualised as the organising principle of Physis”.
The major authors within TA texts do emphasise the importance of spirituality as a step towards autonomy.
Kandathil and Kandathil (1997) describe individual autonomy:
“… when they make consistent efforts to be free in the sense that most of their actions-especially decisive ones- are self-determined and not socially programmed”.
In other words, freedom from the constraints and confines of script, this is a social form of programming. For the therapist the diversity, social and cultural beliefs of the individual must be discovered during early work in the assessment phase and be ongoing. These beliefs may be clear during initial work with the person, but as they move through therapy, issues around spirituality may come more to the fore as they access their power for self actualisation.
Physis and Clinical Practice
Application of Physis theory to clinical practice is a fundamental prerequisite if we are to believe Berne and Clarkson’s paradigm. They describe Physis and Physis theory as a driving force, aspiration to grow progress and do better. In TA terms, they warn against the deterministic constraints of script theory and empower the therapist and individual to aspire for change. Over-reliance on the script as hamartic, banal or losing in nature fails to understand the concept of transcendence (Clarkson, 1992). Cornell suggests:
“… a second parallel term-such as psychological life plan- to describe healthy functional aspects of meaning making in the ongoing psychological construction of reality”.
The therapist can assist the individual to re-experience Physis. Clarkson (1992) advises:
… in order to facilitate healing and self-realisation… they first need to feel well and OK, that is, in touch with their life force.”
In the application of Physis within the therapeutic relationship, the therapist first needs to have an awareness and understanding of the phenomena, and be prepared to share this with their client as a powerful tool for change.
Researching this piece of TA theory has been fulfilling yet challenging, although Berne wrote extensively on the topic almost five decades ago and Clarkson reprised his work 30 years ago, there’s very little current TA literature on Physis theory. This is surprising given Clarkson’s (1992) observation:
“… as a major concept in transactional analysis… it provides a drive-oriented theoretical base for Bernian belief and TA practice”.
The script matrix diagram with the added Aspiration arrow acknowledges that whereas script analysis is a key concept in TA and shows us where we are and where we have been, it is the striving for autonomy and self actualisation that drives us forward.
This article has brought into focus, for me, the three TA guiding principles and how Physis underpins this important piece of theory and the whole of TA clinical practice.
Finally, Clarkson (1992) expounds:
“Without the experience of physis there is not the energy, the belief, or the capacity to even use help. Thus it may be both the first requirement in psychotherapy and the last”.
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