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I am OK, you are OK

There are many theories of development and personality that describe how we function. One of them is transactional analysis (TA), a concept of human relationships developed in the early 1960s by psychiatrist Erik Berne.

The author described human functioning on several levels, including personality, life scripts or transactions and games in communication. As defined by the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA), ‘TA is a theory of personality and a system of psychotherapy aimed at personal development and personal change’ (Steward, Joines, 2020). Let us take a closer look at it.

The personality model in TA

According to Berne’s concept there are three ego states – Parent, Child and Adult - which are a coherent system of thoughts, feelings and behaviours developed on the basis of our past experiences. The ego states are representations of the actual characters present, now or in the past, in our lives. According to the theory, personality is a mixture of these components and each of us has all three ego states, each with its role to play, but depending on the situation, they will manifest themselves with different intensity. 

The Child ego state is characterised by the dominance of behaviours typical of a child’s perspective, such as irresponsibility, carelessness, emotionality or the tendency to satisfy one’s needs regardless of the consequences. In communication, it will be guided by the categories ‘I want - I don’t want, I like - I don’t like’, regardless of the rational analysis of the situation. There are three subtypes here, which will differ quite significantly in terms of characteristic features:

  • The Free Child - joyful, curious about the world, independent, asking lots of questions and getting the most out of life;
  • The Rebellious Child - moody, abusive, does only what he   or she wants and does not accept the point of view of others;
  • The Adapted Child - polite, compliant, often dependent on others and submitting to their will, may react to criticism by crying and withdrawing.

The Parent ego state is guided by rules and values, but may be overprotective or controlling. It will use messages, such as ‘allowed - not allowed, right - not right, the world is good - bad’. This ego state has two functions - it enables you to play the role of a parent for your   own children, and it performs many automatic actions because ‘this is the right thing to do’, which saves you time and energy.

In this case, we can also talk about variants:

  • The Nurturing Parent - cares for others, supports and motivates them, sometimes in an overwhelming way, and is always ready to help them and give advice;
  • The Controlling  Parent - is overly judgmental and evaluative, difficult to get approval from and may evoke the feeling of guilt.

The Adult ego state is characterised by responsibility, rationality and consistency.  It is able to balance his own emotionality with the demands of life in society and focuses on facts, tasks, evaluating reality ‘here and now’, without fantasising or looking for excuses. It is needed it to process large amounts of data. It is the most mature of all the ego states and should dominate in a healthy adult. Unlike the other states, the ego has only one variant.

All ego states are equally important and necessary, forming a coherent whole and allowing for a full life. They are not related to a person’s age or roles in life. The prototypes of individual states are people from our surroundings - in the case of the Parent or Adult, they are often adults close to us, in the case of the Child - ourselves from the period of our childhood. 

Transactions and rules of communication

In our everyday functioning, we can alter between our ego states. Berne noticed the fact that different transactions take place between the interaction participants at the level of different ego states. They are also closely related to the rules of communication.

'Imagine an angry mother disciplining her children during a loud argument. Her entire body posture expresses anger, her tone of voice is raised. Suddenly the phone rings and the boss is on the other end of the line -her  body posture, voice and facial expression change dramatically - there is more calmness, even submission in the voice, the conversation is conducted on a completely different level. In response to the demands of the situation, the woman has moved seamlessly from the Parent to the Adult ego state'.

The simplest transactions take place at the Adult-Adult level. Simple transactions apply to the situations when the participants of an interaction assume ego states adequate to their roles - e.g. in child-parent communication the child asks for something and the parent fulfils that need. Both are examples of a complementary (parallel) transaction, where the reactions of both parties are expected, pursuant to the naturally accepted order, adequate to the ego state expected. According to the first rule of communication, as long as the transactions are complementary, communication is unhindered.

The second rule of communication is that communication breaks down when there is a crossed transaction. This type of transaction is the cause of most difficulties in social communication, be it at the level of close or professional relationships. Initially, the communication starts at the Adult level in both interlocutors, but quickly shifts to another relationship - e.g. Parent - Child. In such a situation, the original topic of the conversation is put on hold, as well as effective communication, until there is a change in the ego state of one of the interlocutors.

The last type of transaction is the ulterior transaction. It occurs when both people seemingly adopt one of the ego states, but in fact they are hiding other attitudes underneath. This type of transaction is gives rise to psychological games, which often become fixed in behavioural scripts.

Psychological positions

Transactional analysis also tells about our attitude towards ourselves and the world. It is dependent on the level of development of each of the ego states, and therefore linked to the level of our personal development and psychological condition. Attitudes towards ourselves and the world tend to be extensively fixed and act as a filter through which people perceive reality and make judgements about their own and other people’s behaviour.

TA describes four types of attitudes:

  1. I’m OK, you’re OK - this is the most constructive and healthiest attitude. It is characterised by respect for oneself and others, orientation towards acceptance of mutual needs and resolving emerging conflicts.
  2. I’m OK, you’re not OK - is a position characterised by self-focus and shifting uncomfortable traits onto other people, often associated with a low sense of responsibility.
  3. I’m not OK, you’re OK is an attitude characteristic for people with a low self-esteem who put other people’s needs before their own. Often associated with introversion and social isolation.
  4. I’m not OK, you’re not OK is the most destructive form, characterised by a hostile attitude to both oneself and others. It may indicate mental health difficulties.

Transactional Analysis is used as a theory of personality, a form of psychotherapy or management. However, it can also be applied successfully in self-development. Analysing our own reactions and behaviour in different situations, observing how we communicate with other people or reflecting on our attitude towards ourselves and the world can help us to learn more about ourselves.

Reference literature:

Berne, E. (1977) What Do You Say After You Say Hello? The Psychology of Human Destiny. Grove Press, Inc. 
Berne, E. (1978) Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. Book Sales.
Harris, T. (1963) I'm Ok, You're Ok: A practical guide to Transactional Analysis. Harper & Row.
Steward, I., Joines, V., (2012) TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Vann Joines

About the author

Magdalena Niedbał – psychologist and coach who has worked with a variety of clients. She was an educational advisor at the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service, where she focused on ways to support students with high-functioning Autism spectrum.