Psychological Models, Transactional Analysis and a review of Thomas Harris’s ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’

Self-help vs Layman’s psychology

Among its many flaws, the issue with the money-grabbing and nefarious self-help industry is the fact that it will occasionally cherry pick – and sometimes even plagiarise – individual methods, statements, or concepts from superior works out there, which gives it an air of authority it simply doesn’t deserve. This is especially problematic when good publications introducing good concepts may then be mistaken for self-help books.

A mere rant against the self-help industry isn’t the point of this post. There are enough people who rage against it day and night, and rather than to add to the overwhelming tempest that tries to make a dent in the rocks, I’d rather use this space to point towards the use of psychological models and how they can – if properly understood – be helpful to any individual. Books that explain these concepts can be very useful.

Problems with psychological models

That being said, I understand completely if people take issue with psychological models. People rightly point out that they are ‘not scientific’. To use the most classical model of Freudian psychoanalysis, you don’t need to search far to find the difficulties. What exactly is the unconscious? Can we point to a place where it exists? What about the id, ego and superego? Freudian theories like the Oedipus complex sound neat but when you think about it, you’d be hard-pressed to find any solid proof for them. They are unfalsifiable, thereby unscientific.

The issue with all this is that the same can be said for many things we take for granted in everyday life – most importantly, the concept of selfhood. The self, too, cannot be traced back to any actual evidence. Of course Descartes had the idea of ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but scores of philosophers have criticised his finding – prominently among them Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. The issue here is that it presupposes the ‘I’: the only thing that can be said for the concept is that ‘thinking is being done’ – but who or what is doing the thinking is unknown.

But this sort of thinking can quickly lead into a state of nihilism from which there is no escape. If any central concepts that were taken for granted end up being illusions, we may find ourselves in the same mindset that Macbeth finds himself in when he hears that his queen has died. In that moment, he states that life ‘is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing’: a lot of faff over absolutely nothing.

Your philosophy, my philosophy…

Thankfully, however, life is not merely a set of scientific truths. In fact, in everyday human experience, little is less relevant than scientific reality. Such a view is materialistic: you only accept what is scientifically verifiable, you only judge according to objective standards. And yet you don’t have an issue with concepts such as the self, although they hold no more validity than concepts that you would reject out of hand. You certainly behave in a way as though the concept of self were important to you – why else bother with education, family, a career?

William Blake, Illustration from Europe – a Prophecy

This tells us that materialism is a philosophy like any other, and rejecting materialism is not the same as rejecting science – not even a little bit. It just involves an acknowledgement that as humans we experience life as a set of interconnected meaning, and not as a set of objective experiences. 

And this is where psychological models come in handy. Many of them might not be scientifically verifiable, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful. As the word model suggests, they aren’t a carbon copy of existence; they don’t point to anything specific. But they are representations. They are metaphors that we use to gain a greater understanding over ourselves, and thereby help us improve ourselves. 

Transactional Analysis

One useful model I’ve learnt of recently is Transactional Analysis. It is a theory that was developed in the late 50s and 60s by Eric Berne and has its roots in Freudian psychoanalysis – although the core concepts deviate drastically.

The main premise of Transactional Analysis is the concept that each individual’s personality is split into three states, that of the Adult, Parent, and Child. At various times one of the three can become dominant, which then leads to a response along predictable lines that may or may not be pathological. That’s not to say that your consciousness switches between any of the three, but rather that your automatic response may deviate depending on which of the three parts of you is currently predominantly in ‘control.’

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The Child develops in the first couple of years of one’s life and consists mainly of feelings. This part of the personality is therefore usually triggered by feelings: when we are afraid or experience anxiety, but also when we’re in a playful mood and feel mischievous. We develop our Parent in our formative years by internalising dogmas that our parental figures say. Most conceptions of absolutes fall into this camp: believing that X must obviously be true, or that one should never do Y. Obviously the stronger the Parent is, the less freedom to act on our own behalf we have; a stronger Child would lead to frequent anxiety attacks or a lack of rational behaviour. 

The Adult is the one who should ideally often be in charge since it is able to reason rationally and understands when their personality is leaning in one or the other direction. This doesn’t mean it’s cold to emotion – that might be more in the realm of a tyrannical Parent – just that it has mastered itself. Awareness of one’s Child and Parent – and realising that everyone’s behaviour falls along these lines – can lead to a strengthened Adult.

Why even bother with Transactional Analysis?

Transactional Analysis is particularly useful because it provides a framework that puts people on an equal footing. There is no concept of ‘I know this way of thinking and therefore can tell you what to do or think.’ Instead, it is collaborative: teaching it can give multiple people a common language in which to communicate ideas about ourselves in the knowledge that everyone functions, more or less, in the same way without building unnecessary hierarchies. 

And yet it is only a model, and one of many. Its usefulness in therapy cannot really be overstated, but it wouldn’t be applicable to each case. Any case of addiction, for instance, can’t really easily be cured with it. Some people may find themselves being resistant to it – as individuals we have our own way of thinking, and this particular metaphor may not help the patient, or else, they may not be metaphorically inclined and can’t connect to models in general, and would prefer a more clear-cut method. 

I’m OK – You’re OK

The strongest book I have read on the subject is Thomas Harris’s I’m OK – You’re OK. It is a lovely little gem of a book that was published in 1967. Unlike Eric Berne’s Games People Play which hasn’t aged particularly well (partly due to stereotyping and overly analytical takes on concepts), Harris’s book still holds its own.

Its purpose is to introduce the world to Transactional Analysis. Written with non-professionals in mind, the concepts are generally laid out in a way that is easy enough to understand, and yet the subject matter is treated in a clear, straightforward way with plenty of examples to make the point. 

Parts of it do feel very much of its time. There is still a reference to parental figures slapping their kids as a normal way of punishing them (even if this is put down as the tyrannical Parent being in action), and it speaks of electroconvulsive therapy as a common way of treating certain conditions – and other things are generally uncomfortable (on a side note, electroconvulsive therapy is still in use, though only rarely). 

But none of this really undermines the point of the premise, which is to teach people a method that can be a very helpful tool to people. At times Harris does tend to ramble on and go into too much detail regarding certain very specific examples, but by and large it flows neatly.

The title refers to four particular statuses of being that Transactional Analysis refers to – I’m Not OK – You’re OK; I’m Not OK – You’re Not OK; I’m OK – You’re not OK; and I’m OK – You’re OK. The theory is that we are all born in the first group, and in an ideal situation we would want to overcome that situation and reach the last group since that is harmonious and makes for a good attitude towards life.

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This statement is based on the assumption that we are all born with an initial trauma: that of being born, leaving the warm comfort of the womb, and finding ourselves in a cold, unfeeling world that we don’t understand. We see the caregiver as OK since they – ideally – treat us well, but we don’t feel as though we ourselves are OK – and so the initial state, according to Harris, is that we need to behave in a way that we can approach being OK. Through the use of Transactional Analysis and a belief that we can all feel ourselves to be OK, Harris believes that we can all reach a status of equilibrium in which we accept everyone – including ourselves – as OK.

Towards the end of the book, Harris also becomes overly optimistic in his conclusions. According to him, if everyone were to learn Transactional Analysis, then the world would be a much better, safer and kinder place. Whether or not that is true cannot be said because it is simply impossible – it’s quite clear, at this stage, that it won’t ever be more than a good tool for some individuals to improve their own lives.

Nevertheless, credit where it’s due – it is certainly worth a read, and Transactional Analysis is well worth a consideration for anyone who has an interest in psychology and finding a framework that can be useful in thinking about oneself.

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