Transactional Analysis Psychological Hungers – or Stuff You Need In Your Life To Stay Sane

Eric Bernes psychological hungers transactional analysis

Feeling off your perch?  Maybe you’re not meeting all of your psychological hungers?  

Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis, came up with a cracking bit of theory around what us humans need in our lives to feel fulfilled. 

Food, shelter and sex form our physical needs, but Eric said our psychological hungers are just as important.  They are structure, stimulation, and recognition.

Why should you care?

Eric Berne and Fred Elliot mentioned in the same post …

Ah, good question padowan, you’re learning!  Because this piece of theory is useful, my friend!  Useful I say! (oo – sorry, I came over all Fred Elliott).   Let’s have a look at them in more detail.

I Heart Structure

Super important, structure.  If you’re self-employed then this psychological hunger will be particularly important for you to pay attention to.

Let me give you an example of how I went from the sublime to the ridiculous with structure in my work life.

Before I became a therapist, I was a secondary school teacher.  Now there’s a group of professionals that know about structure.  

I based every moment of my working day around bells.  

In between the ringing bells, I would deliver a lesson with a clear structure; objectives and outcomes, a summary at the end.  Rinse, repeat.  

Teachers are the human equivalent of Pavlovs dogs.  Woof!

I go from the Pavlovian to being self employed, where I did not hear a bell, ever.  

I found it incredibly hard to motivate myself to do anything. So…

Nothing got done.

Ring My Bell

How did I sort myself out?  I put in structure.  Now I have a set number of appointments for my counselling practice in Cheadle.  They are at the same time each day on the days I work with clients.  I now ring my own bell.

The days I most struggle with are the ones where I’m not working with clients.  I have to impose structure on these days too, otherwise I spend my day staring into space, feeling bored and frustrated, and eating anything I can get my hands on.  Not fun.

Own Boss Problems

I see this in my self employed clients so often.  They struggle to put structure into their day and can autopilot themselves into oblivion.  

If this is the place you get stuck, put a routine in place, get yourself a timetable.

Plan in lunch and leg stretches if you’re a desk jockey.  The Pomodoro technique has helped me very much too.  Those little tomatoes break things up into 25 minute blocks, making it easier to finish things.  You can do something for 25 minutes, right?


Humans hate boredom.  We find it intolerable.

If you are not feeling stimulated in a particular moment you will look for a way to stimulate yourself…

How’s that fit with you?  Do you get a buzz from your job?  What about when you get home?  How do you fulfil the psychological hunger for stimulation?

I’m sure you don’t need constant stimulation, you would explode!  But when you’re sat there having a nice cup of tea, how long does it take before you reach for your phone?  Yup, stimulation, baby!

Are You Bored?

If your life feels unfulfilled, then maybe there isn’t enough stimulation in it.  

Do something that takes you out of the house and interests you.  

Go watch a film, go skydiving, join the local knitting club, just get out and do something. And if it’s something that takes you towards your values, even better!


You are a human and you like other humans to acknowledge your existence.  This is your psychological hunger for recognition.  

How many people do you talk to every day?  I mean really talk to?  

There are different levels of recognition, from a nod from the car park attendant to a deep, intimate conversation from a close friend or family member.  The trick is to get a mix of them as part of your week.

Friends Keep You Alive

I’m sure you’ve seen the articles that come out every six months or so declaring that those that live longest have the best social networks, and that married men live longer than single men (not sure it works in the same way for women by the way, sorry ladies, we let you down again).

Having contact with others is important to all of us.  If you haven’t got social networks in place, then you might want to have a think about the things you like to do and go find others that are into the same stuff.  You’ll live longer if you do.

Triple Threat

So, where are we up to?  The psychological hungers of structure, stimulation, and recognition can help you quickly and easily identify why life might be a bit shit for you at the moment.

Is your life structured enough to give you clear routines but not lurching into you feeling that you’re a member of the armed forces? 

Do you do enough in your life that interests you?  Do you have fun and feel excited at least weekly?

Are there people in your life that you enjoy spending time with? Do these people see you and take an interest in you (Have you got Tonys?)

Berne’s Psychological hungers can help you identify what’s missing in your life.  All that remains is that you go do what matters and sort boost the ones that are missing.

Buy The Book

If you’re interested in Transactional Analysis then I think the best place to start is TA Today by Ian Stewart and Van Joines*.  It’s probably the most accessible book out there on TA and a standard text for anyone studying the subject.  

Reading Eric Berne’s original books is far more challenging, as Eric has a habit of wandering off in his writing and talking about complete irrelevancies…  Look, a squirrel!

*affiliate link

Photo by Viswanath V Pai on Unsplash

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  1. Rach Morris on February 20, 2020 at 10:59 am

    This has been a timely reminder thanks Ian!

    • Ian Tomlinson on February 21, 2020 at 10:39 am

      You’re welcome Rach, thanks for the comment!

    • Ruby on June 7, 2020 at 10:33 pm

      Love the straight talk, good info!

  2. Rich N on July 29, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    New to TA but really enjoyed reading this. Thanks Ian

    • Ian Tomlinson on July 29, 2020 at 3:50 pm

      You’re welcome Rich, pleased you enjoyed it.

  3. Joanne Webb on October 6, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for the email and the article. Sometimes we forget the simple things so it’s good to bring it back to basics.

    • Ian Tomlinson on October 7, 2020 at 8:44 am

      Thanks for the comment Joanne and you’re right, sometimes going back to basics can be really useful.

  4. Amanda (Mandy) Randall-Gavin on December 14, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    I really like your style of writing and keeping theory contextualised. Lovely piece and clear too. Thank you Ian

    • Ian Tomlinson on December 15, 2022 at 9:13 am

      Thanks for your comment Mandy, great to hear the piece was clear.