Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – In Symbiosis You Diminish Yourself And Others – Part 1 of 2

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I’m the director of two businesses. One is called the Intact Academy where I train coaches and consultants from absolute beginners to supervisor level. The other business is Team Agility where I help businesses innovate their business more quickly than their products. I train coaches and consultants and for that, I use transactional analysis. 

We’ve talked about ego states, we’ve talked about transactions, and we just talked about the five ways people keep their own reality going so that they’re not able to solve their problems in the here and now. 

We talked about the first way, which was redefinition, and now we’re going to talk about the second way, which is called symbiosis.

There are functional and dysfunctional types of symbiosis, so let’s start with the definition. Symbiosis is when two or more people act as if they have less than three ego states each.

Let’s say when I am in a relationship with you and I pretend you are my Parent who holds all the values and all the boundaries, and I don’t have the capacity to think from Adult or the capacity to structure from Parent. At the same time I’m the one who’s holding all the feelings and intuition. I am taking care of you as long as you take care of me. 

That’s a symbiotic form in relationships also seen at work where people mistake the role of the leader as the one who thinks and who creates boundaries and doesn’t feel, and where the employees just follow and do all the feeling for them. 


  • Functional Symbiosis


Of course, when you’re just born, the relationship between a parent or care-taker and a baby is symbiotic at that point in time. The baby developmentally does not have an Adult or a Parent ego state yet, they only have the Child. They feel fear, they feel hunger, they have somatic experiences, and at that point in time it’s the parent or care-taker who translates and fulfills those needs. We call that a functional symbiosis.

As an adult, sometimes you also have functional symbiosis. If I’ve broken my leg and I can’t walk and I asked my partner to go to the kitchen and get me a cup of coffee,  I’m actually incapacitated and that person agrees to do that. That’s also functional symbiosis. We have a contract or need for dependency. If you find yourself frequently depending on others without having a contract or without there being a need, you’re probably in an archaic more dysfunctional symbiotic state. 


  • Dysfunctional Symbiosis


A lot of people are in symbiosis at some time or other in their life, but if you have it constantly, it keeps both of you from developing. It keeps the person who is fulfilling the Parent and the Adult role from growing because they’re excluding their Child ego state, and not really in contact with their own needs. The other person also doesn’t grow because they’re not in contact with their Adult and their Parent, but  always in contact with the Child ego state. They don’t have the capacity to think that comes with the Adult or the capacity to maintain boundaries, which comes with the Parent. 

Though it may feel really good when someone brings you chicken soup when you’re sick, remember it’s a temporary state.  If you do that all the time you stop the other person from learning and growing. 

For more information see also:

Normal Dependency and Symbiosis, Stanley J. Woollams & Kristyn A. Huige

Transactional Analysis Journal, Volume 7, 1977 – Issue 3

Symbiosis Illustrated by Egograms, Eric W. Schiff

Transactional Analysis Journal, Volume 4, 1974 – Issue 4

Published On: December 27th, 2019By
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