“I’m OK – You’re OK” (1967) introduces transactional analysis to the general public.
Thomas Harris, the author, shows readers how to apply PAC to our daily social interactions, how to self-analyze ourselves, and how to learn to become more discerning, rational, and empowered human beings.
- Bullet Summary
- Full Summary
- PAC: Parent, Adult, Child
- The Four Life Positions
- Parent & Child Play Games
- Parent & Child
- Complementary Transactions and Crosses
- Strengthening Our Adult (& Overcoming Inner Child & Parent)
- Types of Transaction
- Intimacy Is Only Possible With “I’m OK”
- The Hippies Example
- Children With Child-Dominated Parents
- Psychoanalysis Is Parent-Child Transaction
- Religions Are Parent-Child Transactions
- PAC & Power Relations
- I’m OK – You’re OK Criticism
- Real-Life Applications
- We all born with a default “Not OK”…
- … But we have the power to change our “Not OK” status into “I’m OK”
- Learning how our inner Child and Parent work is how we strengthen our Adult, our mind, how we get rid of games, and improve our relationships
About the Author: Thomas Anthony Harris was an American psychiatrist. After receiving his M. D. from the Temple University School of Medicine, Harris joined the navy, to which he returned after he completed his residency and where he made a good career until he became Chief of the Psychiatry Branch of the Navy. He later opened his own psychiatric practice in Sacramento.
Harris was a good friend of Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis and author of the popular book “Games People Play“. Harris disagreed with Berne on a few concepts, but was overall a major proponent of Transactional Analysis.
PAC: Parent, Adult, Child
Transaction analysis postulate there are three distinguishable modes within each one of us that we use to process information and respond to the stimuli around.
These are the parent, the adult, and the child.
The Parent is the collection of all that the child has recorded during his early years of life. All rules, admonitions, and limitations belong to the parent.
Harris says that since the children’s lives depend on the parents, everything from them is recorded as “true”.
If the parent sends discordant messages the child might partially block out the parent, which is weakened or fragmented.
If the parents were very intense in their rules, it might be harder for the adult to question and abandon those rules later in life.
Since the child has no words in his early years most of his recollections are feelings.
The child, dependant on the mother, is always looking for signs of approval or disapproval. The child has no way to understand what causes approval or disapproval, which frustrates him and leads him to conclude: “I’m not OK”, which is hardwired in our brains and cannot be canceled.
Same for the parents, adults can be transferred back to the child in grown-up transactions.
The adult grows as the child seeks answers for himself. He realizes there is different data from what is taught by the parent and what is felt by the child.
I quote Thomas Harry here:
The adult is different from the parent, which is judgemental in an imitative way and seeks to enforce sets of borrowed standards, and front the Child, which tends to react more abruptly on the basis of prelogical thinking and poorly differentiated or distorted perceptions’
The parent taught and demonstrated life. The child felt, wished or fantasized. The adult finds out.
The adult has the power to examine the child to see whether or not the feelings are appropriate to the present or if they don’t serve him well anymore and are simply responses to archaic Parent data.
Thomas Harry says that a secure youngster is one who finds that most Parent data is reliable: They told me the truth.
The Four Life Positions
Transaction analysis says there are four positions an individual can find himself in:
- I’m Not OK, You’re OK: the default of all children
- I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK: if the mother is cold and non-stroking or aggressive and brutalizing. An adult locked in this position rejects stroking and emotional connection from everyone else in life. Sounds a lot like scarring children with low self-esteem.
- I’m OK, You’re Not OK: children of abusive parents, while recovering from wounds, can switch to a criminal stance were they see themselves as OK, but they parents -and later the world- are not OK
- I’m OK, You’re OK: this is the only conscious position and a decision we make.
I’m Not OK, You’re OK is the default position for many. And the default position of every child.
If the child very early thinks “I’m not OK”, he also concludes that his parent, the big provider of all his life needs, must be OK.
Once we feel that we are not OK in a world of OK people, that’s when we play games, says the author.
Games people play are a form of relief of the “Not OK” position.
I’m Not OK, You’re OK is a position which can be changed once it’s understood.
Parent & Child Play Games
The author says that one of the reasons why parents and children play games is because the outcome is predictable.
There is a certain security in games, even the ones that harm us and our relationship.
When the adult is in charge, the outcome is not always predictable. There is the possibility of failure. Or of success. But it’s only the adult that gives us the opportunity of changing and developing.
Thomas Harris says that all games have their origin in the childhood game of ‘Mine Is Better Than Yours’. Back in our childhood years as it is the same in our grown-up years, it brings momentary relief from the Not OK position.
Parent & Child
Thomas Harris goes on to explain what are the cues of parents and children. The parent looks judgmental and the child looks at the parent’s mercy.
When we blame and find fault, we replay the early blaming and fault-finding which is recorded in the Parent, and this makes us feel ok, because the Parent is ok, and we are coming on Parent. Finding someone to agree with you, and play the game, produces a feeling well-nigh omnipotent.
Complementary Transactions and Crosses
Thomas Harris explains that when transactions happen between the same modality -ie. parent to parent or child to child- they can go on indefinitely.
Uncomplimentary or crossed transactions can cause troubles and communication stops.
Here is a classical example from Eric Berne:
Husband: Dear, where are my cuff links?
This is an adult stimulus as he seeks information.
If the wife answered as an adult, she would reply:
Wife: In your wardrobe I think
But if she’s had a rough day she might reply in ager:
Wife: Where you left them!
That’s a parent reply.
If she had replied:
Wife: Why do you always have to yell at me?
That would have been a child response.
A person who is dominated by the “Not OK” child tends to read all the stimuli as attacks and as a reflection of his low value.
The “Not OK” position is not to be found solely on the responses of course. It can also hide in the opening message.
Husband: Where did you hide my cuff links?
The overall communication sounds adult, but secondary communication here is in the word hide, which comes from the parent.
At this point, the wife can decide how to reply.
If her “Not OK” child is hooked, chances are she will go off at the “hiding” insinuation.
Aroused feelings, says Thomas Harris, is a sign that the child has been hooked.
Strengthening Our Adult (& Overcoming Inner Child & Parent)
When we have no idea about our inner Adult, Child, and Parent, the result is a “contaminated adult” and we often resort to substandard behavior that does nothing good for us and for the people around.
There are a few ways with which we can strengthen our adult:
- Learn to read the signals when our parent or child has been hooked
- Restrain the automatic & archaic responses of parent and child
- Pause: give time to the adult to come trough
- Question your Parent and Child data: ask yourself if your old data is true, if they are appropriate responses and if they are serving you well. The very process of questioning is the Adult in action
The more we get to know the content of our Parent and Child, the more we can separate them from our Adult.
And the more we separate the three, the more we develop and strengthen our adult and we free ourselves up.
Thomas Harris says that this is the home remedy of “sorting yourself out”.
The last step, once you learned to sort yourself out, is to do this:
- Learn to see the PAC in others
That’s the equivalent of increasing your emotional intelligence.
It’s what George Thompson in Verbal Judo refers to when he says that the biggest skill of learning verbal judo is to non react to the emotional communication of others.
Types of Transaction
Transaction Analysis divides human to human exchanges into six types:
Games are a particular type of transaction that has two different characteristics: an ulterior motive and a payoff.
The famous book Games People Play by Eric Berne is actually only focused on Games, a very specific part of transaction analysis.
My Note: This helped me understand “Games People Play”
this was enlightening for me as it put things into perspective. While I previously didn’t consider Games People Play to be a good book, I then re-evaluated it again. And I will eventually read it again now that I have a broader understanding.
Withdrawal, rituals, activities, and pastimes, keep people apart and stand in the way of an emotional connection (also read: turning towards based on Gottman’s research). Games make the relationship combative.
Intimacy Is Only Possible With “I’m OK”
The author also discusses relationships and how we can improve our intimate relationships.
He says that there is no simple way to define intimacy, yet we can say that intimacy is only possible when coming from an “I’m OK, You’re OK” stance.
- There are no games
- The Adult is emancipated
The Hippies Example
There are many awesome examples across “I’m OK, You’re OK”, here is one I liked:
A clear social example of this phenomenon is the hippie movement. The flower children extolled a life of Child-Child transactions. Yet the dreadful truth began to become apparent: It’s no fun to do your thing if everybody else is only interested in doing his thing. In cutting off the Establishment they cut off the Parent (disapproval) and the Adult (‘banal’ reality); but, having cut off this disapproval, they found they had also cut off the source of praise.
Children With Child-Dominated Parents
When parents are dominated by their children, they can end up into struggles with their own children.
Writes Thomas Harris:
If the Child in the mother has a strong not ok position, and it is easily hooked by such life hitches, or obstacles, or disappointments as the obstinate behaviour of a small child who also has a not ok Child, the way is open for a take-over by the Child in the parent, which triggers a regressive sequence of events with more and more archaic circuits taking over in a screaming game of ‘Mine Is Better’ with mother winning the final round with ‘I Am Bigger’.
Finally, he says:
Summarily, we may say that the solution to the problems of all children, regardless of their situation, is the same solution that applies to the problems of grownups. We must begin with the realization that we cannot change the past. We must start where we are. We can only separate the past from the present by using the Adult, which can learn to identify the recordings of the Child with its archaic fears and the recordings of the Parent with its disturbing replay of a past reality.
Thomas Harry goes on to discuss PAC with teenagers, for which I invite you to get the book.
Psychoanalysis Is Parent-Child Transaction
Harris is highly critical of Freudian psychoanalysis.
He says that it recreates a Parent-Child dynamic that lasts for a long time.
Transactional Analysis instead has simpler and more clearly defined concepts, works quicker, and holds the patient responsible for what happens in the future no matter what’s happened in the past.
I like that approach.
Even if the Adult in the individual gets him to the psychiatrist’s office, the Child soon takes over and a Parent-Child situation develops. The patient’s Child expresses feelings and anticipates a relationship with the psychiatrist’s Parent in the transactions of the first hour. The psychoanalysts refer to this as transference – that is, the situation provokes a transfer of feelings and related behaviour from the past, when the patient was a child, into the present, in which the Child in the patient responds as it once did to the authority of the parent. This unique transaction is fairly common in life, and there are elements of it present in any contact with authority, as, for instance, when one is stopped by a highway patrolman. Psychoanalysts maintain that the patient has improved when he has succeeded in avoiding this kind of transfer of feelings from childhood. At this point in analysis, the patient does not have to pick and choose what he is going to reveal about himself to his analyst. In other words, the patient no longer must be afraid of the analyst’s Parent. This is referred to in traditional psychoanalysis as overcoming resistance.
But the author says that normal psychoanalysis is slow while Transaction Analysis skips both transference and resistance.
He says that slapping people with a “diagnosis” does no good, and I also agree with it.
Religions Are Parent-Child Transactions
Says Thomas Harris:
Central to most religious practices is a Child acceptance of authoritarian dogma as an act of faith, with limited, if not absent, involvement of the Adult.
Since religious people have in the religious dogmas such a strong parent within them, they are often anxious in scorekeeping their behavior against the parent’s dogmas.
The confession of the Child to a religious priest says “I’m sorry, I’m not OK, please forgive me, I’m awful”.
Confession without change is a game, says Thomas Harris.
Instead, the confession of an Adult makes a critical assessment of where change is possible and looks for ways to make that change happen.
He also further discusses the games that “sinners” play in relation to religion, all of which are extremely interesting.
PAC & Power Relations
I found it very interesting, and highly relevant to the topics I write here on The Power Moves, that some people resist giving the parent role in relationships.
Thomas Harris says:
Some parents unknowingly undermine treatment efforts because they really do not want to give up the Parent-Child relationship(..). Their position of power is threatened when the adolescent starts operating in the Adult; unless the parents are equally Adult, the transactions will cross.
These parents see autonomy in their youngster as a threat to their control of him and may decide they liked it better the way it was, before treatment. Familiar miseries may seem more comfortable to frightened parents than the risk of trusting their teenager to develop his own inner controls.
I’m OK – You’re OK Criticism
As a book that helped me better understand the world, myself and actively helped shed some parental baggage and improve, well… I aam a bit of cheerleader.
Yet, “I’m OK – You’re OK” also presents a lot of mistakes and generalization, as does Transactional Analysis in general.
The moment transaction analysis tried to shoehorn every behavior into its model, it became obvious that not everything fits into it.
And that’s how it is for most models: reality is too complex to fit it all into one simplified model.
So when transactional analysts represented alcoholism as a “life script” for example, they only made themselves sound a bit ridiculous (see: rational wiki).
“I’m OK – You’re OK” also presents plenty of exaggerations. It ends up sounding a lot like cheerleading for the method instead of presenting facts and ideas.
And that’s not how a scientist should approach things.
And, finally, Harris is critical of Freud.
But Transactional Analysis falls for the same mistake: jumping to conclusions with no evidence.
How can transaction analysis say that “children are born with a default “not OK””?
I for one believe that many children selfishly put themselves at the center of the world, are very optimist -Martin Seligman proves it-, and can also have very high self-esteem.
The real-life applications of I’m OK, You’re OK are multiple and potentially life-changing. Including:
- Learn to see the child in you
Are you still dependent to mother, seeking her approval?
Or are you dependent on someone else, seeking their approval? I someone getting under your skin, and you are you reacting too aggressively?
Those are all signs you are engaging them from a child position.
- Learn to see people taking a parent role against you
In life, you might cross your path with people who are trying to take a parent role over you, to make you feel guilty or make you act as they wish and please.
Learn to see the signs of a judgmental parent.
- Are you still listening to old parent data (ie.: values)?
Your parents might have taught you values that are not good for you to obey. Examine them and drop them.
- Learn to see the child in others
As you learn to approach life with your adult first, learn to see the child in others.
Are they dependent on you? That gives you lots of power and leverage over them.
But if you want a more equitable relationship, you might not want to engage people as children, but help them develop their adult and have adult-adult relationships.
Also read here.
- Jumping to Conclusions
Rather typical of many psychoanalysts, Dr. Harris often jumps to conclusions without prefacing that he has no data to back it up and that it’s a hunch more than a certainty. For example:
The motility which gives birth to the Adult becomes reassuring in later life when a person is in distress. He goes for a walk to ‘clear his mind’.
Linking motility of the child to reassurance and later the “going for a walk” of the adult as a way of regaining certainty is certainly plausible, but it seems a huge stretch to me.
- Fitting The World Into The Model (instead of the other way around)
One of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of relying too much on models to describe reality is that people often end up stretching reality just to fit into their model.
Which is what happens sometimes for this text as well:
Once I observed an eleven-year-old, nonverbal, autistic boy evidence the seeming perception of the I’ M NOT OK-YOU’RE not ok position by an intense, repeated hitting with his fist, first his counsellor, and then his own head. It was as if he were acting out his view of life: You’re not ok and I’m not ok. Let’s smash both of us.
To me, this is extremely interesting, but also sounds like a possible instance of over-interpretation.
The boy might simply have problems that are not (necessarily) a consequence of “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK” position.
- Some Important Correction Need to Be made
The book makes some obvious mistakes that, in light of more recent development, we know not to be true.
For example, it says that psychopaths develop from a position of “I’m OK, You’re Not OK” following battering. But that’s not true, psychopaths are born.
- Unrealistic View of “I’m OK, You’re OK” Not Playing Games
Albeit transaction analysis should be all about games, it’s simplistic in its approach that “I’m OK, You’re OK” people don’t play games.
I don’t buy this idea of “purity” once everyone is “confident enough in his own skin” that he doesn’t “need” to play games”.
Some people might play fewer games, that’s true. And maybe, fewer nasty games. But it’s not zero.
“I’m OK You’re OK”, like many old-school psychoanalytical approaches, talks in terms of dogmas and ultimate truths. Even without the evidence.
Needless to say, I reject that approach -and it’s not scientific-.
- Sometimes Conservative
Albeit it doesn’t sound conservative as it’s highly critical of religion, a few passages are very conservative and judgmental.
For example, writes Thomas Harris:
Sexual intercourse without personal intimacy can only result in a loss of self-esteem. This is true also in marriage.
Who says that?
I don’t think that’s true at all. Or at the very least, certainly not true in all the cases.
I won’t list all the pros here, but here is the biggest one: enlightening. In all its limitations, transaction analysis and this book in particular are enlightening.
Something I haven’t yet outlined and which I deeply appreciated is this:
Great Explanation of The Connection Between Internal Confidence and Games
I find the idea that people in “Not OK” positions play more games to be quite often true. Indeed one of the characteristics of high-value men and high-value women is that of playing fewer games and being more direct.
That stems from internal confidence and a higher self-esteem that allows them to show their true selves.
I’m forever grateful to this book and to transaction analysis.
Not only it expanded my understanding and my own research on human behavior, but it also helped me understand myself much better.
And, in many ways, it cured me and upgraded me.
And even though it was never intended that way, I consider it a fundamental book to understand power dynamics.