Frames of Reference and Redefining

By Sumedh Singh

March 13, 2023

In this blog, I explain two TA concepts – Frame of Reference and Redefining. These are taught in the Advanced TA training and are not part of the TA 101 , the introductory program on Transactional Analysis. I have explained these two ideas using my personal examples.

Frame of Reference

Schiff (1975) define Frame of Reference as the structure of associated responses which integrates various (consistent) patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling in response to specific stimuli. The authors say that it provides an individual with an overall perceptual, conceptual, affective and action set, which is used to define the self, other people, and the world.

In simple words, I see Frame of Reference as a ‘filter on reality,’ which is applied to perceive and respond to specific stimuli, as shown in the illustrated figure. Frame of Reference is unique for every individual. One way to think of it is as a framework within which the individual answers questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I believe about myself, others and the world?’ or ‘How would I react to this situation?’ For example, a couple of years back I was considering to change domain of work, however, I didn’t believe that I can make it from IT to psychology. I had seen others do it, however, I didn’t believe that I had what it takes to make it. I wasn’t good enough. For me, the world was a scary place where people can’t be trusted.

There are few features of the original definition – meaning making, ways of responding, addressing situations as if one were younger. Humans are meaning makers. And the role of parental figures in this process can’t be understated. It is because the childhood definitions (or meanings) one uses for self, others, and the world arises from the influence of the parents or primary caregivers. For example, I was often reminded a life lesson by my mother, ‘trust no one, no one is reliable.’ I didn’t question her message, instead I swallowed it. Part of the belief that I couldn’t make the switch happen was the way in which I viewed others, as untrustworthy and unreliable.

Two individuals respond to the same stimulus in a different way. For example, I shared my consideration of switching careers with my parents. Father reacted with words of encouragement and pride, ‘Go for it! It will happen in due time!,’ whereas mother was apprehensive and worried at the prospect.

Sometimes we address a situation/problem in the way that we did when we were younger. Consider my childhood years. My father worked in an unorganised business sector and faced constant pressure to meet basic needs such as schooling and clothing, which he often failed to provide. I faced disappointment when I had to miss out on school trips with my friends and workshops on my hobbies. I believed I couldn’t get what I wanted and that became my frame of reference. As I was contemplating on the switch of work, from a corporate 9-5 type of job to creative application of psychology, I couldn’t believe that it could happen! I would respond with disappointment and a given that I had to sacrifice the creative endeavour. I carried the frame of reference into adult life.


Once we have a frame of reference, we work hard to maintain it. Redefining refers to the mechanism people use to maintain an established view of themselves, others, and the world in order to advance their Scripts. For example, recently I joined a fitness group that meets in-person every week. It is a self-paced group which is led by an instructor. The participants are across a diverse range of ages. Last month, the group was doing a chest workout with a barbell. I looked across the room and saw a handful with X weight on their barbells. X was higher than my current strength level, however, I decided to increase it. As I failed to keep-up with the handful, I sulked down with a sense of inadequacy. I reached a familiar conclusion, ‘I am not good enough.’

In this example, the task for the group was to use weights that are appropriate to each individual’s own strength levels. However, I perceived and responded differently. I unconsciously went through a familiar sequence,

  • first by filtering out a few people to conclude that others are better than me,
  • second by pushing the goal to an unrealistic level and when I failed to then conclude that I am not good enough, and
  • third equating the group environment to conclude that the world is a place where I have to struggle.

I distorted reality in order to experience myself in the light of old definitions of self, others and the world. This process is called Redefining, as shown in the figure.

How is the Frame of Reference formed? And why do we redefine?

In early years of life, one depends on getting their needs met within a dependent relationship with their mothers (or other significant caregiver). When all goes well, the child can wean away from mom and learn to be independent. Originally a baby needs the dependency to survive. Hence unresolved aspects of this relational dependency are linked to survival. To meet the unmet needs of the unresolved aspects, people continue to relate as they did in the early-life significant relationships. In other words, within an early-life relationship, one forms the definitions of self, others and world. This dependency, therefore, is the cause and effect of redefining, while survival, or getting needs met, is the goal and motivation. A threat to frame of reference is perceived as a threat to survival, hence the need to restore the frame of reference, as shown in Figure 2.

For example, in my pre-teens, I experienced an over-protective environment at home. My mother would look down upon my engagement with peers. For example, she would have angry outbursts if I returned home late from playing cricket in the evenings. I would get scared and become mindful to limit the contact. As a result, I couldn’t form trustful relationships with peers. Instead, I looked up to my mother for close and dependable reciprocation. Oftentimes, I experienced her as an unreliable caretaker. Now, as a grown-up oftentimes I found myself walled off as I relate with others. I would prefer roles and responsibilities at work that minimised depending on others to get the task done. As I moved up in my IT career towards product management, team building and performance became a central responsibility. Evidence of reliability from a team member threatened my Frame of Reference, hence I would distort the observation to restore the status quo. For example, I would find myself in work situations where I would be overly responsible for the team’s performance. For example, clocking in extra hours to meet deadlines of the team.

There are two key components of the (internal) mechanism by which Redefining happens, discounting (I make something smaller) and grandiosity (I exaggerate something else). For example, while concluding that change of work domain is not possible, I discounted my Adult resources. For example I had the following options and resources: financial planning, the option to switch back to technology, day-jobs that can pay bills, and my creativity. But I discounted or minimised the possibility of these and maximised my conclusion that I could not change my work domain because I needed money to pay the bills.

Consider again the message I inherited from my mother, ‘trust no one, no one is reliable.’ Assuming no one to be reliable or trustworthy is a grandiose assumption. It is a gross neglect of the current resources that are available. For example, as I ventured on the journey, I found mentors, therapists, coaches, education institutions that were both trustworthy and reliable to support me in the transition.

In my personal therapy, I discovered the parental voices and its relevance to the problem. With the help of my therapist, I uncovered the life lesson my mother gave me. Therapist was highly attuned to me and his enquiries were empathetic. In a subsequent session, we proceeded to two-person chairwork, also known as psychodrama. Therapist facilitated the dialogue between the role of mother (M) and younger self (YS, seven years old),

  • M : Trust no one, no one is reliable.
  • YS : Why do you say that?
  • M : …because people betray.
  • YS : Who betrayed you?
  • M : Shut up and listen to me! No more words!

After this statement, the therapist decided to pause the dialogue and went on to have a one-on-one interview with M, with YS as a background witness. Initially, the therapist spent some time to get to know M and then picked up from the earlier dialogue,

  • T : No one is trustworthy or reliable, right?
  • M : Right!
  • T : One has to do everything on their own?!
  • M : Right!
  • T : What all did you do on your own?
  • M : Everything. I grew up without my father’s presence. And my mother had a bad temper. I was so scared and alone ! I was the only one to fend for myself !
  • T : I feel sad. How old do you think you are as you answer me?
  • M : Ten

After this M got in touch with the loneliness and scare with which she grew up. Therapist concluded the interview with M and proceeded to YS,

  • T : How was it for you to see M telling her story?
  • YS : Sad. I get it now, why she would dismiss my curiosity so often!
  • T : What do you want to say to her now?
  • YS : I don’t have to dismiss your words now. I know a bit more about where you are coming from!

In a subsequent session, YS discovered emotions which were previously denied due to the influence of the parental voice. For example, compassion towards others (something that he didn’t experience in his early-life peer relationships), intimacy in relationships etc. To safely test these emotions using interpersonal communication, group psychotherapy became a suitable playground. For example, an excerpt of exchange with a co-participant, M,

  • S : I had to make a choice between continuing my earlier commitment, (which was adhoc extended by 15 minutes) and joining the session on time. I choose the earlier.
  • M : I had many other commitments, however, I prioritised this.
  • S : It’s like a spotlight is put on me. I feel uncomfortable. I wonder if there is an expectation to be on-time, every single time?

This line of dialogue opened for up each of reflecting on what the group (and time commitment) means to us, parts of selves which became critical or defensive. It led an overall reciprocation of bonding towards the group, which earlier to this conversation I was starting to get distanced from.

In 2021, I decided to give SAATA’s Diploma examination, which can be seen as an evaluation of examinee’s competence to apply TA on themselves. I reached out to my supervisor and peers to inform them of my decision, which was met with comments like, ‘Great!’ Or ‘You got it!’ The examination can be seen as a process or a journey of its own. While I was preparing my essay drafts, every now and then I reached out to my peers for support. For example, to get a critical evaluation on the essays or have a discussion on relevant TA concepts for an essay.

For one of my essays, a peer connected over a call to discuss her detailed feedback. The essay was of personal nature, where the intention was to capture my growth using TA concepts. In it, I wrote on a recurring pattern of experiencing distance with my then partner. I was able to experience her with an empathetic presence which then helped to direct attention towards constructive feedback. I incorporated it in the next iteration of the draft. I took regular review on the essays from my supervisor, ranging from ad-hoc phone calls to detailed rebuttal. As a consequence of this, the quality of essays improved over iterations. I cleared the examination faultlessly, scoring 100 out of 100.

My current frame of reference that allows me to pursue a career in psychology includes excitement to get into something vastly and curiosity to know how the human mind works. I trust that I will be successful and I will always have people to support me.

About the author:

Sumedh (he/him) is a fun-loving, outgoing person, who enjoys the everyday zest of life. During Covid, he transitioned from a full-on techie role to psychotherapist-in-training, and it’s been a 180 degree flip!

In the role of psychotherapist, he helps people on an array of life aspects – relationship issues, family history, anxiety, stress, depression and body affecting mind. You can reach out to him at +91-9002330471, or

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