Eric Berne, author of The Games People Play, described how the decisions about ourselves, our world and our relationships with others are crystallized during our first 5 years of life. These decisions are based on the pattern of strokes we receive from our parents and primary caregivers. These decisions lead to our acceptance of one of four basic existential/psychological life positions, which then determine our patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour.
Our early existential decisions are reinforced by the verbal and non verbal messages that we continue to receive and perceive throughout our lives. Berne states that dysfunctional behaviour is the result of decisions made in childhood that were the best belief systems available to the child then – allowing them to survive and adapt to those around them, but then become a limiting life script for later life.
Once a person has decided on a life position that will often remain fixed unless there is considerable effort put in to change the underlying beliefs and decisions put in about life. The goal of transactional analysis psychotherapy is to bring into awareness, explore, challenge, and change an ineffective life script. This is based on the belief that because we were the original creators of our own script we have the power to change it.
There are four life positions described by TA – these are:
I’m OK—You’re OK
I’m OK—You’re not OK
I’m not OK—You’re OK
I’m not OK—You’re not OK
I’m OK—You’re OK position is considered the optimal, healthy position and is generally game-free. People occupying this position will hold the belief that all people are innately worthy and valuable. That people are OK is a statement which describes their being or essence rather than their behaviour This position is characterized by an attitude openness and of honesty and trust. People occupying this position will be collaborative and accepting of themselves and others.
I’m OK—You’re not OK is occupied by those who project their difficulties onto others, they may be blaming and critical. Transactional games that reinforce this position involve a self-styled superior (the “I’m OK”) who projects anger, disgust, or disdain onto a designated inferior, or scapegoat (the “You’re not OK”). This position requires that there be someone to be ‘worse than’ in order to maintain the sense of self as ok.
The I’m not OK—You’re OK position is depressive, it is characterized by feeling powerless and lacking in comparison with others. People occupying this position may discount their own needs in favour of others and may experience themselves as victims. Transactional games supporting this position include “Kick me” and “Martyr”—games that support the power of others and deny one’s own.
I’m not OK—You’re not OK is a position of hopelessness, futility and frustration. From this position life seems uninteresting and hopeless. This may result in self destructive or violent behaviour.
The challenge of TA is to become aware of how we are attempting to make life real through our basic life position and if necessary, create a healthy alternative.
The four life positions were developed by Frank Ernst into the well-known OK Corral shown here.