This article engages with the parts of us that might feel stuck. By understanding and cultivating a state of being called ‘The little Professor’ we can spark a wellspring of change and curiosity to our lives. Reading this article might answer two questions:
What is the Little Professor, and do you have one?
How can Little Professor help with thinking, feeling and acting better?
Part of the content in therapy can be helping a client to reform outdated or limiting beliefs about themselves and the world. Such beliefs can effectively hold a person back from living life in the way they desire. A common example is the belief that depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Despite this being a popular belief, even after 40+ years of research, there has been no reliable evidence that points supports the idea. It can be a rude and uncomfortable awakening for a mental health professional to overtly challenge such a belief.
How can we engage in examining our beliefs about ourselves and the world in a way that is gentle and non-confrontational?
Here is where I ask for the help and service of my Little Professor! The Little Professor denotes a pattern of thoughts and behaviours that lie within the structural ego state model in Transactional Analysis.
The Little Professor
Let’s think of the child from roughly 6 months old to 3-4 years, who is in the early stages of developing their self awareness and recognising their position and impact on the world. In attempts to make sense of the strange world, toddlers conjure wildly creative interpretations of phenomena, like say, the moon is flying. This pattern recognition and meaning making later becomes a vital source of information for survival and the child grows into independence.
As bumbling fully-formed adults, looking in on the child’s experiences of the world can be baffling! There’s such a paradox in young children. They can understand and act upon very subtle and sophisticated interpersonal queues from their parents, but at the same time they cannot perform basic tasks like tying a shoe lace.
In Transactional Analysis, this developmental pursuit of recognising patterns, and making sense of the strange people and world toddlers find themselves in, fits into the realms of the Little Professor.
So the idea goes that within us all is a Little Professor, concerned primarily with survival through making sense of the world. Little Professors are constantly asking questions, trying to figure things out, make sense of strange patterns, label things, documenting them, and trying to explain what just happened to others.
What happens to the Little Professor when we grow up? As we mature into adulthood, this wealth of experience and wisdom developed in childhood becomes an internal resource for navigating the world. We might view these early experiences as what in our adulthood comes to be known as our intuition.
So how might the recruitment of our by-gone Little Professors be useful when it comes to feeling stuck, anxious, or depressed in adulthood?
Beliefs about Professors
I wonder what springs to mind when you think of a Professor?
Professors are often seen a wise, capable, highly knowledgeable, trustworthy and accurate to the point that they are entrusted to teach the next generation of young thinkers. It’s easy to see how we might view our own inner Little Professors with the same light. Thoughts like ‘I know enough already’, or ‘talking therapy doesn’t work’, or ‘there’s nothing I can do, 'I know exactly how this is going to play out’ are sentiments of the Little Professor’s deductions of the world. So if we trust our Little Professor’s conclusions in the same way we might trust a real one, we might get stuck. Take the earlier example, we know now, as adults, that the moon is not flying. Yet there might be other such deductions that have been left unchecked well into adulthood.
During the time of the Little Professor's reign, there is such fragility and sensitivity to the atmosphere in which we were making those conclusions about the world. Potential difficulties in the familial, relational, social, political, and financial atmosphere’s in which we all fostered, can have deep and long-lasting influences upon our perspectives of ourselves and the world.
With all of that, it’s easy to see the potential for our Little Professor’s to make mistakes to be made along the way. Or even that they form useful beliefs at the time, but when life develops, they become obsolete.
Stubbornness, as the inability to entertain a differing perspective or alternative, might be built upon the foundations of that very early and fragile learning we all experiences. Gripping hold of those deductions made by the Little Professor to get by psychologically in the world can be incredibly useful, but through adulthood we may reach their limitations, either knowingly or not.
An Alternative Professor
You might find it interesting that the verb to ‘profess’ is to state something with conviction, despite not being sure...
Professors are researchers. They are deeply curious and seek to find answers to our world’s mysteries through trial and error experimentation. They are willing to strike out, make assumptions, and be proved wrong. Professors start with a hypothesis about the world, and then invent exciting experiments to test their theories.
I believe that this perception of Professorship is a useful stance to adopt in the pursuit of overcoming mental health challenges and feeling well. From this position, one can invite in that childlike curiosity about ourselves and the world, and be open to evidence that proves our outdated beliefs wrong.
Be curious about your own nature, and of the nature that surrounds you. Engage with the experimentation of your surroundings to figure out what you can improve. Use your well learned intuition honed as a child to make deductions about the world around you now, but be willing to be wrong when evidence from your experimentation demonstrates otherwise.
As mature adults, rekindling the relationship with our Little Professors dusts off any unwanted stubbornness accumulated through life, so that we can engage in our own pursuits towards attaining a good life. This pursuit is simultaneously about confidently inhabiting our own well-earned expertise about ourselves and the world, whilst also keeping alive the childlike spirit of curiosity and experimentation, and an openness to be wrong. This can manifest itself within talking therapy as we explore what a client believes about themselves and the world, and challenge those parts that seem incoherent or limiting the pursuit of making progress. Executed with genuine compassion and curiosity, this sort of dialogue can be a powerful tool for change.
I look forward to hearing from your little Professor, and to be shown otherwise!
Alves, T. E. C. (2019). The Little Professor: Reflection on the Structure, Development and Evolution of the Adult in the Child. International Journal of Transactional Analysis Research & Practice, 10(2), 79-86.
Clarkson, Petrūska (1988) Ego State Dilemmas of Abused Children Transactional Analysis Journal. 18(2), 85-93.
Guy, A., Davies, J., & Rizq, R. (2019). Guidance for psychological therapists: enabling conversations with clients taking or withdrawing from prescribed psychiatric drugs. APPG