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Review of I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A Harris

My first introduction to Transactional Analysis was in a couple of modules I did in my Access course before going to university, Counselling Theories and Mental Health. The idea interested me and made a lot of intuitive sense. Whilst in Delhi, walking between Pahar Ganj and Connaught Circus, I’d seen a couple of street vendors with copies of this book laid out on the pavement. Realising I might run out of books of my own to read, I eventually bought one. The lad asked for 200 rupees, and I didn’t haggle; the printing was blurred on many pages and the back cover wasn’t quite big enough – but it was usable. (In the computer game, Alpha Centauri, your score is summed up in the title of a book your followers have created of your collected sayings and wisdom. One of these (one of the lower scoring ones) is I’m OK – You’re a Drone.)

Some of the ideas in Transactional Analysis seem like refinements of Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes; in TA, though, the many achetypal models are reduced to just three – Parent, Adult and Child. The Parent is the part of the personality containing all the recordings of parental and authority rules and dictates – everything from how to tie your laces to racial prejudice. The Child is the instinctive, feeling part of the personality – the part that says, I want, I hate; the part that plays and creates. The Adult (sometimes referred to as the computer) is the objective, reasoning part of the personality – it gathers information both from the external world as well as from the ‘archaic’ recordings within the Parent and Child, and makes decisions and choices.

The other main element of TA is the source of the book’s title: everyone takes one of four positions about their relationship to others:

  • I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE OK
  • I’M OK – YOU’RE NOT OK
  • I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE NOT OK
  • I’M OK – YOU’RE OK

Harris says that the first position, I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE OK, is one that everyone develops very early in life and most retain from then on. His reasoning is that, no matter how much care and attention parents pay to their babies, the ‘little person’ (he uses this phrase often) doesn’t understand this strange world it’s been thrust into and the parents are, to it, omnipotent beings. The choice (a conscious choice) the ’emancipated Adult’ must make, for the person’s genuine happiness, is the final position – I’M OK – YOU’RE OK.

The final element of TA is the idea of the transaction – any communication between two people. Harris rightly points out that the efforts of psychologists to make their field into a real science are hampered in the vagueness of the object of their studies – relationships and personalities. Physicists have quarks, chemists have molecules, biologists have cells – and now psychologists and therapists have transactions. I don’t think this really does much to make analysis any more scientific, but it does increase the specificity with which people can talk about it.

The Parent, Adult and Child (P-A-C) are represented diagrammatically as the famous ‘traffic lights’. Transactions take place between one element of one person’s personality and one element of another’s. If the lines drawn between the two sets of traffic lights are parallel then the two people can have a complementary and smooth interaction. Problems happen when the lines are crossed. Two Parents can happily pass the time decrying the state of the world, but if one person tries to have an Adult-Adult conversation and instead ‘hooks’ the other’s Child an argument may well ensue. The activated Parent or Child plays ‘games’ (the subject of the other important TA book, Games People Play by Eric Berne) instead of working to resolve problems.

Harris spends the first half of I’m OK – You’re OK defining and illustrating Transactional Analysis. In the second half he tries to outline how TA can be used in a number of areas. These areas start off reasonably – marriage, raising children – but by the end of the book Harris is tackling morality, religion and international diplomacy. Logically, anything that bears on relationships bears on any area of human endeavour, but the latter part of the book seemed over-ambitious, even ridiculous.

A lot of the examples used in the book are very out of date (it was originally published in 1967). Women are usually drawn as housewives; families have to overcome such problems as the daughter dating a black boy; Krushchev’s Parent wants to bury the USA. It’s also quite US-centric.

TA seems to me to be a much more modest and potentially useful method of analysis than the classic therapies of Freud and Jung. The ideas of Parent, Adult and Child are intuitive and easy to use and remember. Undoubtedly they don’t in any way capture the reality of how the mind works, but they are powerful metaphors. Despite getting carried away with himself towards the end of the book, Harris gains a lot of credibility by promoting the fact that TA works best in group therapy and doesn’t require years of dependence of the patient on the therapist (he claims an average of 20 sessions).

Anything that helps people understand people has to be a very good thing. I’d recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

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