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I'm OK, You're OK, by Thomas A Harris MD, is one of the most successful self-help books ever published. It offers a practical guide to Transactional Analysis as a tool for solving problems in life. From its first release in 1969 I'm OK, You're OK gradually grew in popularity until, in 1972, it made the New York Times Best Seller list and remained there for almost two years. It is estimated to have sold over 15 million copies to date[How to reference and link to summary or text] and has been translated into over a dozen languages[How to reference and link to summary or text].
In the opening preface, Harris hails the then-new approach of Transactional Analysis (TA, or as Harris often refers to it, P-A-C) as a major breakthrough addressing the slow process and limited outcomes that he and other psychiatric practitioners felt conventional psychiatry had delivered up until the late 1960s. His motivation for writing I’m OK, You’re OK is that TA offers an approach that is accessible, produces results and which can scale to offer many ordinary people affordable ways to overcome issues in their lives, particularly because it works in group situations.
Harris' context for the bookEdit
The body of the book starts with the observation that historic attempts to understand human nature have long recognised that individual personalities have multiple facets. Harris acknowledges the great advance made by Sigmund Freud in describing those facets in abstract terms such as Id, Ego and Superego, but also the challenge of trying to apply them to help his clients resolve their problems (and the challenge of trying to get Freud’s followers to agree on a consistent model).
Rather than working with abstract concepts of consciousness, Harris suggests that the pioneering work of brain surgeon Wilder Penfield in uncovering the neurological basis of memory could offer complementary insights grounded in observable reality. Specifically, Harris highlights reports of Wilder’s experiments stimulating small areas of the brains of conscious (but locally anaesthatised) patients undergoing brain surgery. Though the patients were conscious that they were on the operating table, the stimulation also caused them to recall specific past events in vivid detail – not just facts of the event but as a vivid "reliving" of "what the patient saw and heard and felt and understood" when the memory was laid down. Based on these experiments, Harris postulates that the brain records past experiences like a tape recorder, in such a way that it is subsequently possible to relive past experiences with all their original emotional intensity.
Harris continues by linking his interpretation of Wilder’s experiments to the work of Eric Berne, whose model of psychotherapy is based on the idea that emotionally intense memories from childhood are ever-present in adults. Their influence can be understood by carefully analysing the verbal and non-verbal interchanges (‘transactions’) between people, hence Berne’s name for his model: Transactional Analysis. Harris sees great merit in the ability of TA to define basic units through which human behaviour can be analysed - the ‘strokes’ that are given and received in a ‘transaction’ between two or more people – and a standardised language for describing those strokes. This readily understood standardisation, and the link Harris sees between TA and Wilder’s neuroscience, gives TA a special credibility that makes it both superior to, and more easily understood by non-specialists, compared with earlier abstract models such as that put forward by Freud.
The Parent, Adult, Child (P-A-C) ModelEdit
After setting out the context for his belief in the significance of TA, Harris sets out his picture of TA, starting point 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 take on board unquestioningly. Many of these rules (for example: "Never run out in front of traffic") are useful and valid all through life; others ("Sex before marriage is bad", 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 overwhelmed by feelings, it is as if we are re-living those Child memories yet the trigger 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 the environment. Instead of taking in undigested ideas from parents into the Parent, or experiencing raw 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 grows over time, but it is very fragile and can readily be overwhelmed by stressful situations. Its strength is also tested through conflict between simplistic tape 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 positionsEdit
The phase "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 OK, You're Not OK", but this is much less common. The focus 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 lead to 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, leading to 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 set out a generalized model of the ego states inside human beings, and the transactions between them, Harris moves on to explore 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 thrown between the poles of the Parent ego state's archaic admonitions about the world and the raw emotional state of the Child, making them non-treatable through therapy. For such cases, Harris endorses drug treatments, or electro-convulsive therapy, as a way to temporarily block out the disturbing ego states, allowing the “recommissioning” of the Adult ego state through therapy. Harris reports a similar approach to treating Manic Depression.
The second half of I’m OK, You’re OK begins by briefly setting out 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 explores 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 tool for specialists, but a technique that can beneficially be shared and used by many people.
Having set out such a structured approach to dealing with the challenges of human psychology, the final two chapters of the book acknowledge the questions that Harris sees TA raising for 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 through the lens of TA, together with more generalized questions about the nature of religion.
The final chapter of I’m OK, You’re OK makes reference to social issues contemporary at the time of writing, including the Cold War, Vietnam war and the then-recent controversial research around individuals’ response to authority conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram. Harris applies TA to these issues and concludes the 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 leading to war and disharmony.
The book was first published in the USA by Harper & Row, then republished as I'm OK- You're OK (ISBN 0-380-00772-X). In the United Kingdom it was first published in 1970 by Jonathan Cape under the title The Book of Choice. It is still in print, published by Harpercollins.
Several decades have now passed since Harris wrote I'm OK, You're OK, so inevitably some of the cultural references which might have seemed fresh and relevant when the book was newly published may now seem dated and less accessible to contemporary readers who do not remember the 1960s. At several points the book also takes a US-centric view of the world and, with the benefit of hindsight, Harris' optimistic projection of TA as a near-universal panacea has not been realised in practice.
Harris' assertion that no child grows up with the life position I'm OK - You're OK without therapy has been criticised because it turns TA into a quasi-religious Soteriology which wants to rescue people from the misery of their messed-up relationship with themselves. However the assertion runs counter to other TA authorities.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Against these criticisms, the book does not set out to be an academic or theoretical introduction to Transactional Analysis. Nor does it attempt to deal with advanced topics in psychopathology. It is a mass-market book and it has the positives (accessibility, practicality) and negatives (simplification, shallowness) of that approach.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
- Official website of Dr. Eric Berne
- More information on Dr. Thomas A. Harris
- Some notes from the book
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