Transactional Analysis – ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ by Dr. Thomas A. Harris

23 01 2013


Transactional Analysis delineates three observable ego-states (Parent, Adult, and Child) as the basis for the content and quality of interpersonal communication. “Happy childhood” notwithstanding, says Harris, most of us are living out the Not ok feelings of a defenseless child, dependent on ok others (parents) for stroking and caring. At some stage early in our lives we adopt a “position” about ourselves and others that determines how we feel about everything we do. And for a huge portion of the population, that position is “I’m Not OK — You’re OK.” This negative “life position,” shared by successful and unsuccessful people alike, contaminates our rational Adult capabilities, leaving us vulnerable to inappropriate emotional reactions of our Child and uncritically learned behavior programmed into our Parent. By exploring the structure of our personalities and understanding old decisions, Harris believes we can find the freedom to change our lives.

The Parent, Adult, Child (P-A-C) Model

After describing the context for his belief of the significance of TA, Harris describes TA, starting from the observation that a person’s psychological state seems to change in response to different situations. The question is, from what and to what does it change? Harris answers this through a simplified introduction to TA, explaining Berne’s proposal that there are three states into which a person can switch: the Parent, the Adult and the Child.

Harris describes the mental state called the Parent by analogy, as a collection of “tape recordings” of external influences that a child observed adults doing and saying. The recording is a long list of rules and admonitions about the way the world is that the child was expected to believe unquestioningly. Many of these rules (for example: “Never run out in front of traffic”) are useful and valid all through life; others (“Premarital sex is wrong”, or “You can never trust a cop”) are opinions that may be less helpful.

In parallel with those Parent recordings, the Child is a simultaneous recording of internal events — how life felt as a child. Harris equates these with the vivid recordings that Wilder Penfield was able to cause his patients to re-live by stimulating their brains. Harris proposes that, as adults, when we feel discouraged, it is as if we are re-living those Child memories yet the stimulus for re-living them may no longer be relevant or helpful in our lives.

According to Harris, humans start developing a third mental state, the Adult, about the time children start to walk and begin to achieve some measure of control over their environment. Instead of learning ideas directly from parents into the Parent, or experiencing simple emotion as the Child, children begin to be able to explore and examine the world and form their own opinions. They test the assertions of the Parent and Child and either update them or learn to suppress them. Thus the Adult inside us all develops over time, but it is very fragile and can be readily overwhelmed by stressful situations. Its strength is also tested through conflict between the simplistic ideas of the Parent and reality. Sometimes, Harris asserts, it is safer for a person to believe a lie than to acknowledge the evidence in front of them. This is called Contamination of the Adult.

Four life positions

The phrase I’m OK, You’re OK is one of four “life positions” that each of us may take. The four positions are:

I’m Not OK, You’re OK
I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK
I’m OK, You’re Not OK
I’m OK, You’re OK

The most common position is I’m Not OK, You’re OK. As children we see that adults are large, strong and competent and that we are little, weak and often make mistakes, so we conclude I’m Not OK, You’re OK. Children who are abused may conclude I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK or I’m OK, You’re Not OK, but this is much less common. The emphasis of the book is helping people understand how their life position affects their communications (transactions) and relationships with practical examples.

I’m OK, You’re OK continues by providing practical advice to begin decoding the physical and verbal clues required to analyze transactions. For example, Harris suggests signs that a person is in a Parent ego state can include the use of evaluative words that imply judgment based on an automatic, axiomatic and archaic value system: words like ‘stupid, naughty, ridiculous, disgusting, should or ought’ (though the latter can also be used in the Adult ego state).

Harris introduces a diagrammatic representation of two classes of communication between individuals: complementary transactions, which can continue indefinitely, and crossed transactions, which cause a cessation of communication (and frequently an argument). Harris suggests that crossed transactions are problematic because they “hook” the Child ego state of one of the participants, resulting in negative feelings. Harris suggests that awareness of this possibility, through TA, can give people a choice about how they react when confronted with an interpersonal situation which makes them feel uncomfortable. Harris provides practical suggestions regarding how to stay in the Adult ego state, despite the provocation.

Having described a generalized model of the ego states inside human beings, and the transactions between them, Harris then describes how individuals differ. He argues that insights can be gained by examining the degree to which an individual’s Adult ego state is contaminated by the other ego states. He summarizes contamination of the Adult by the Parent as “prejudice” and contamination of the Adult by the Child as “delusion”. A healthy individual is able to separate these states. Yet, Harris argues, a functioning person does need all three ego states to be present in their psyche in order for them to be complete. Someone who excludes (i.e. blocks out) their Child completely cannot play and enjoy life; while someone who excludes their Parent ego state can be a danger to society (they may become a manipulative psychopath who does not feel shame, remorse, embarrassment or guilt).

Harris also identifies from his medical practice examples of individuals with blocked out Adult ego states, who were psychotic, terrified and varied between the Parent ego state’s archaic admonitions about the world and the raw emotional state of the Child, making them non-treatable by therapy. For such cases, Harris endorses drug treatments, or electro-convulsive therapy, as a way to temporarily disrupt the disturbing ego states, allowing the “recommissioning” of the Adult ego state by therapy. Harris reports a similar approach to treating Manic Depression.

The second half of the book begins by briefly describing the six ways that TA practitioners recognize individuals use to structure time, to make life seem meaningful. Harris continues by offering practical case studies showing applications of TA to Marriage and the raising of both Children and Adolescents. This section of I’m OK, You’re OK concludes as Harris describes when TA can be relevant to an individual’s life, and how and by whom it might be delivered. He promotes the idea that TA is not just a method for specialists, but can be shared and used by many people.

Having described such a structured method of dealing with the challenges of human psychology, the final two chapters of the book discuss the question of improving morality and society. In particular, he asks, if we are not to succumb to domination by the Parent ego state, how can individuals enlightened through TA know how they should live their lives? Starting from his axiomatic statement I’m OK, You’re OK, he acknowledges that accepting it at face value raises the same philosophical dilemmas as the problem of evil does for believers in a just, omnipotent God. Harris continues to explore aspects of Christianity with reference to TA, together with more generalized questions about the nature of religion.

The final chapter of I’m OK, You’re OK refers to social issues contemporary at the time of writing, including the Cold War, Vietnam war and the contemporary controversial research of individuals’ response to authority conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram. Harris applies TA to these issues and concludes his book with the hope that nations will soon gain the maturity to engage in Adult to Adult dialogue, rather than conducting diplomacy in the collective archaic ego states of Parent or Child, which he sees as causing war and disharmony.

TA Made Simple part 1

TA Made Simple part 2

Overview of Transaction Analysis (TA)

“The predominant by-product of the frustrating, civilizing process is negative feelings. On the basis of these feelings the little person early concludes, “I’m not OK.” We call this comprehensive self-estimate the NOT OK, or the NOT OK Child. This conclusion and the continual experiencing of the unhappy feelings which led to it and confirm it are recorded permanently in the brain and cannot be erased. This permanent recording is the residue of having been a child. Any child. Even the child of kind, loving, well-meaning parents. It is the situation of childhood and not the intention of the parents which produces the problem.

… the Child is a state into which a person may be transferred at almost any time in his current transactions. There are many things that can happen to us today which recreate the situation of childhood and bring on the same feelings we felt then. Frequently we may find ourselves in situations where we are faced with impossible alternatives, where we find ourselves in a corner, either actually, or in the way we see it. These “hook the Child,” as we say, and cause a replay of the original feelings of frustration, rejection, or abandonment, and we relive a latter-day version of the small child’s primary depression. Therefore, when a person is in the grip of feelings, we say his Child has taken over. When his anger dominates his reason, we say his Child is in command.

… our observations both of small children and of ourselves as grownups convince us that the NOT OK feelings generally outweigh the good. This is why we believe it is a fair estimate to say that everyone has a NOT OK Child.”

– Ch. 2

“Transactional Analysis constructs the following classification of the four possible life positions held with respect to oneself and others:


Before I elaborate each position I wish to state a few general observations about positions. I believe that by the end of the second year of life, or sometime during the third year, the child has decided on one of the first three positions. The I’M NOT OK—YOU’RE OK is the first tentative decision based on the experiences of the first year of life. By the end of the second year it is either confirmed and settled or it gives way to Position 2 or 3: I’M NOT OK—YOU’RE NOT OK or I’M OK—YOU’RE NOT OK. Once finalized, the child stays in his chosen position and it governs everything he does. It stays with him the rest of his life, unless he later consciously changes it to the fourth position. People do not shift back and forth. The decision as to the first three positions is based totally on stroking and nonstroking. The first three are nonverbal decisions. They are conclusions, not explanations. Yet they are more than conditioned responses. They are what Piaget calls intellectual elaborations in the construction of causality. In other words, they are a product of Adult data processing in the very little person.

I’m Not OK—You’re OK

This is the universal position of early childhood, being the infant’s logical conclusion from the situation of birth and infancy. There is OK-ness in this position, because stroking is present. Every child is stroked in the first year of life simply by the fact that he had to be picked up to be cared for. Without at least minimal handling the infant would not survive. There is also NOT-OK-ness. That is the conclusion about himself. I believe the evidence points to the overwhelming accumulation of NOT OK feelings in the child, making logical (on the basis of the evidence he has) his NOT OK conclusion about himself. In explaining Transactional Analysis to patients and nonpatients I have found a generally that’s it! response to the explanation of the origin and existence of the NOT OK Child. I believe that acknowledging the NOT OK Child in each of us is the only sympathetic, thus curative, way games can be analyzed. Considering the universality of games, the universality of the I’M NOT OK is a reasonable deduction. Adler’s break with Freud was over this point: sex was not at the basis of man’s struggle in life, but rather feelings of inferiority, or NOT OK, which were apparent universally. He claimed that the child, by virtue of his small size and helplessness, inevitably considered himself inferior to the adult figures in his environment. Harry Stack Sullivan was greatly influenced by Adler, and I was greatly influenced by Sullivan, with whom I studied for the five years preceding his death. Sullivan, whose central contribution to psychoanalytic thought was the concept of “interpersonal relationships,” or transactions, claimed that the child built his self-estimate totally on the appraisal of others, what he called “reflected appraisals.” He said:

The child lacks the equipment and experience necessary to form an accurate picture of himself, so his only guide is the reactions of others to him. There is very little cause for him to question these appraisals, and in any case he is far too helpless to challenge them or to rebel against them. He passively accepts the judgments, which are communicated empathetically at first, and by words, gestures, and deeds in this period . . . thus the self-attitudes learned early in life are carried forever by the individual, with some allowance for the influence of extraordinary environmental circumstances and modification through later experiences.

In the first position the person feels at the mercy of others. He feels a great need for stroking, or recognition, which is the psychological version of the early physical stroking. In this position there is hope because there is a source of stroking—YOU’RE OK—even if the stroking is not constant. The Adult has something to work on: What must I do to gain their strokes, or their approval? There are two ways in which people may attempt to live out this position.

The first is to live out a life script [Script Analysis is the method of uncovering the early decisions, made unconsciously, as to how life shall be lived. My reference to script and counterscript is general. Definitive studies of the origins and analysis of scripts are being conducted by a number of Transactional Analysts, notably Berne, Ernst, Groder, Karpman, and Steiner] that confirms the NOT OK. It is written unconsciously by the Child. The script may call for a life of withdrawal, since it is too painful to be around OK people. These people may seek stroking through make-believe and engage in an elaborate wish-life of if I and when I. Another person’s script may call for behavior which is provoking to the point where others turn on him (negative stroking), thus proving once again, I’M NOT OK. This is the case of the “bad little boy.” You say I’m bad so I’ll be bad! He may kick and spit and claw his way through life and thus achieve a fraudulent integrity with at least one constant he can count on: I’M NOT OK—YOU’RE OK. There is a kind of miserable sense in this, in that the integrity of the position is maintained, but it leads to despair. The ultimate resolution of this position is giving up (institutionalization) or suicide.

A more common way to live out this position is by a counter-script (also unconscious) with borrowed lines from the Parent: YOU CAN BE OK, IF. Such a person seeks friends and associates who have a big Parent because he needs big strokes, and the bigger the Parent, the better the strokes. (OK strokes can only come from OK people, and the Parent is OK, as it was in the beginning.) This person is eager, willing, and compliant to the demands of others. “Some of our best people” are where they are because of these efforts to gain approval. However, they are committed to a lifetime of mountain climbing, and when they reach the top of one mountain they are confronted by still another mountain. The NOT OK writes the script; the YOU’RE OK (and I want to be like you) writes the counter-script. Neither works in producing happiness or a sense of lasting worth, however, because the position has not changed. “No matter what I do, I’m still NOT OK.”

Once the position is uncovered and changed, the achievements and skills that have resulted from the counterscript can serve the person well when he builds a new and conscious life plan with the Adult.”

– Ch. 3

“The fact is games are not funny. They are defenses to protect individuals from greater or lesser degrees of pain growing from the NOT OK position. The popularity of Berne’s game book has given rise in many sophisticated circles to a new pastime of game calling. The concept of games can be a useful therapeutic tool when used in combination with a prior applied understanding of P-A-C; but in the absence of such insight the game concept, particularly game calling, can simply be another way to be hostile. People with an understanding of P-A-C can use an academic discussion of games by applying it to themselves; but to be “called” on a game by another person, in the absence of insight or true concern, most often produces anger. It is my firm belief from long observation of this phenomenon that game analysis must always be secondary to Structural and Transactional Analysis. Knowing what game you are playing does not, ipso facto, make it possible for you to change. There is danger in stripping away a defense without first helping a person to understand the position—and the situation in childhood in which it was established—which has made this defense necessary. Another way of stating this is that if only one hour were available to help someone, the method of choice would be a concise teaching of the meaning of P-A-C and the phenomenon of the transaction. This procedure, I believe, holds more promise for change in short-term treatment than game analysis.

Summarily, we see games as time-structuring devices which, like withdrawal, rituals, activities, and pastimes, keep people apart. What then can we do with time in a way which does not keep us apart? George Sarton observed: “I believe one can divide men into two principal categories: those who suffer the tormenting desire for unity and those who do not. Between these two kinds an abyss— the ‘unitary’ is the troubled; the other is the peaceful.”

For many thousands of years man’s existence has been structured preponderantly by withdrawal, ritual, pastimes, activities, and games. Skepticism about this assertion could perhaps best be met by a reminder of the persistent recurrence throughout history of war, the grimmest game of all. The majority of men have helplessly accepted these patterns as human nature, the inevitable course of events, the symptoms of history repeating itself. There has been a certain peace in a resignation of this sort. But, as Sarton suggests, the truly troubled people of history have been those who have refused to resign themselves to the inevitability of apartness and who have been driven on by a tormenting desire for unity. The central dynamic of philosophy has been the impulse to connect. The hope has always been there, but it has not overcome the intrinsic fear of being close, of losing oneself in another, of partaking in the last of our structuring options, intimacy.

A relationship of intimacy between two people may be thought of as existing independent of the first five ways of time structuring: withdrawal, pastimes, activities, rituals, and games. It is based on the acceptance by both people of the I’M OK—YOU’RE OK position. It rests, literally, in an accepting love where defensive time structuring is made unnecessary. Giving and sharing are spontaneous expressions of joy rather than responses to socially programed rituals. Intimacy is a game-free relationship, since goals are not ulterior. Intimacy is made possible in a situation where the absence of fear makes possible the fullness of perception, where beauty can be seen apart from utility, where possessiveness is made unnecessary by the reality of possession.

It is a relationship in which the Adult in both persons is in charge and allows for the emergence of the Natural Child. In this regard the Child may be thought of as having two natures: the Natural Child (creative, spontaneous, curious, aware, free of fear) and the Adaptive Child (adapted to the original civilizing demands of the Parent). The emancipation of the Adult can enable the Natural Child to emerge once more. The Adult can identify the demands of the Parent for what they are—archaic—and give permission to the Natural Child to emerge again, unafraid of the early civilizing process, which turned off not only his aggressive antisocial behavior but his joy and creativity as well. This is the truth that makes him free—free to be aware again and free to hear and feel and see in his own way. This is a part of the phenomenon of intimacy. Thus the gift of a handful of primroses may more readily be a spontaneous expression of love and joy than the expensive perfume from I. Magnin on the socially important anniversary date. The forgotten anniversary date is not a catastrophe for the intimate husband and wife, but it very often is for those whose relationship exists by virtue of ritual.

The question is frequently asked: Are withdrawal, pastimes, rituals, activities, and games always bad in a relationship? It is safe to say that games nearly always are destructive, inasmuch as their dynamic is ulterior, and the ulterior quality is the antithesis of intimacy. The first four are not necessarily destructive unless they become a predominant form of time structuring. Withdrawal can be a relaxed, restorative form of solitary contemplation. Pastimes can be a pleasant way of idling the social motor. Rituals can be fun—birthday parties, holiday tradition, running to meet Dad when he’s home from work—in that they repeat again and again joyous moments which can be anticipated, counted on, and remembered. Activities, which include work, not only are necessities of life but are rewarding in and of themselves, as they allow for mastery, excellence, and craftsmanship and the expression of a great variety of skills and talents. However, if there is discomfort in a relationship between two people when these modes of time structuring cease, it is safe to say there is little intimacy. Some couples program their entire time together with frantic activity. The activity itself is not destructive unless the compulsion to keep busy is one and the same as the compulsion to keep apart.

The question now arises: If we strip ourselves of the first five ways of time structuring, do we automatically have intimacy? Or do we have nothing? There seems to be no simple way to define intimacy, yet it is possible to point to those conditions which are most favorable for its appearance: the absence of games, the emancipation of the Adult, and the commitment to the position I’M OK—YOU’RE OK. It is through the emancipated Adult that we can reach out to the vast areas of knowledge about our universe and about each other, explore the depths of philosophy and religion, perceive what is new, unrefracted by the old, and perhaps find answers, one at a time, to the great perplexity, “What’s the good of it all?””

– Ch. 7




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