“I am OK you are OK” revisited – 2 (Four Life Positions)

Continuing our journey of the road of transaction analysis laid by Thomas A. Harris, let’s move ahead from the Child, Adult Parent psychological states and discover what plays in the background in our subconscious whose manifestation are in the form of these states.

Very early in life every child concludes ‘I’m not OK’. He makes a conclusion about his parents also: ‘You are OK’. This is the first thing he figures out in his life-long attempt to make sense of himself and the orld in which he lives. This position, I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE OK, is the most deterministic decision of his life. It is permanently recorded and will influence everything he does. Because it is a decision it can be changed by a new decision. But not until it is understood.

Transactional Analysis constructs the following classification of the four possible life positions held with respect to one self and others.


By the end of the second year of life, or sometime during the third year, the child has decided on one of the first three positions. The I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE OK is the first tentative decision based on the experiences of the first year of life. By the end of the second year it is either confirmed and settled or it gives way to Position 2 or 3. I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE NOT OK or I’M OK – YOU’RE NOT OK. Once finalized, the child stays in his chosen position and it governs everything that he does. It stays with him the rest of his life, unless he later consciously changes it to the fourth position. People do not shift back and forth. The first three are nonverbal decisions. They are conclusions, not explanations. Yet they are more than conditioned responses.

I’m Not OK – You’re OK is the universal position of early childhood, being the infant’s logical conclusion from the situation of birth and infancy. There is ok-ness in this position. Every child is stroked in the first year of life simply by the fact that he has to be picked up to be cared for. Without at least minimal handling the infant would not survive. There is also NOT-OKnes. That is the conclusion about himself. IN the first position the person feels at the mercy of others. He feels a great need for stroking, or recognitions, which is the psychological version of the early physical stroking. In this position there is hope because there is a source of stroking – YOU’RE OK – EVEN IF THE STROKING IS NOT CONSTANT. The Adult has something to work on: what must I do to gain their strokes, or their approval? The need for recognition, appreciation, approval, being desired all these are outcome of our subconscious need of being stroked.

Here I would add a footnote about a concept called Life Script because further discussion on these 4 positions of life would need its reference.

We create stories about our lives, what they have been and what they will be. This starts in childhood where we weave our perceptions of ourselves and of the world around us into a narrative about what we can and will do.

These life scripts then continue to have a deep and unconscious effect on how we live our lives. They affect the decision we make. They control what we think we could easily do and could never do. They shape our self-image. And yet we seldom realize where they come from or even do not know that they exist at all.

Our life scripts are often encouraged and shaped by parents and other family members, whose life scripts were shaped by their parents and so on. In this way, we become a product of our family’s history. Likewise, our scripts are also woven by cultural and national forces.

Life scripts are not all the same as they may also be significantly affected by individual events, such as being criticized by a teacher or bullied by other children. They also are constrained by inherited characteristics. For example it would be unusual (but not impossible) for a shorter person to include being a basketball player in their life script.

There are often overall shapes to life scripts that can be expressed very simply, for example ‘I am a loser’ or ‘I must help save the world’. Life scripts can be very detailed and they can be very vague. They can be very empowering, yet they can also severely limit our lives. (Ref. www.chaningminds.org)

So, the first is to live out a life script that confirms the NOT OK. The script may call for a life of withdrawal, since it’s painful to be around OK people. “Hum to bhai aise hi hain”, “I am ME” are some of the expressions that you might have heard from people ostensibly showing their confidence but its actually “I’M NOT OK” is what coming out loud and clear from their presentation. A person may seek stroking through make believe and engage in elaborate wish-life of if I, and when I. You must have also came across such statements – “Agar mere paas paise hotey” or “Main agar boss hota” etc. (“If I had loads of money”, or “If I was the head of this organization”). Another person’s script may call for behavior which is provoking to the point where others turn on him spanking (negative stroking), thus provoking once again. I’M NOT OK – The bad little boy – who says “I am bad so I’ll be bad”, “Main Ganda Bachcha hoon” .

I’m Not OK – You’re Not OK by the end of first year something significant has happened to the child. He is walking. He no longer has to be picked up. If his mother is cold and non-stroking, if she only put up with him during the first year because she had to, this his learning to walk means that his ‘babying’ days are over. The stroking ceases entirely. In addition punishments come harder and more often as he is able to climb out of his crib, as he gets into everything, and won’t stay put. Even self-inflicted hurts come more frequently as his mobility sends him tripping over obstacles and tumbling down stairs. Life, which in the first year had some comforts, now has none. The stroking has disappeared. If this state of abandonment and difficulty continues without relief through the second year of life, the child concludes I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE NOT OK. In this position the Adult stops developing since one of its primary functions – getting strokes – is thwarted in that there is no source of stroking. A person in this position gives up. There is no hope. He simply gets through life and ultimately may end up in a state of extreme withdrawal, with regressive behavior which reflects a vague, archaic longing to get back to life as it was in the first year during which he received the only stroking he ever knew – as an infant who was held and fed. The individual in this position stops using his Adult with regard to his relationships with others.

’m OK – You’re Not OK – A child who is brutalized long enough by the parents he initially felt were OK will switch positions to the third, or criminal position: I’M OK – YOU’RE NOT OK. There is OK-ness here, but where does it come from? Where is the source of stroking if YOU’RE NOT OK. After being thrashed by his so far OK parents, in the absence of anyone to stroke. The child finds solace in himself, he feels better when he is alone, he feels better when he is healing from the injuries inflicted by his parents. He finds that he gets his stroke from himself that makes him OK. And the erstwhile OK parents are now NOT OK. Such a little person has experienced brutality, but he has also experienced survival. What has happened can happen again. I did survive. I will survive. He refuses to give up. As he grows older he begins to strike back. He has seen toughness and knows how to be tough. He also has permission (in his Parent) to be tough and to be cruel. Hatred sustains him although he may learn to conceal it with a mask of measured politeness. Remember the character of Amitabh Bachchan in his film Lawaris, his character was a typical profile of I’m OK – You’re Not OK. Apni to jaise taise kat jayegi, aapka kya hoga janab-e-aali. The first song that the character sings in the film describes his psychology. His abhorrence of rich people – which he showed in his first transaction with the character played by Zeenat Aman, at the restaurant, though it was uncivil, inappropriate, bad but he had justification about it – I’m OK. The writer has described the childhood of the character, where is father treats him very badly and turns into NOT OK personality for him) the person in the I’M OK – YOU’RE NOT OK position suffers from stroking deprivation. A stroke is only as good as the stroker. And there are no OK people.

I’M OK – YOU’RE OK is a position and not a feeling unlike the earlier three states. It’s a conscious choice which you make by analyzing revisiting earlier NOT OK memories, and holding on to the position of I’M OK – YOU’RE OK. There are no instant results and outcome, which the Child in us would want as he is interested in instant gratification, but Adult in us understands the requirement of patience and faith. We must understand the span of effect and span of control in our transactions to be successful in reaching and staying to this fourth position.

Franklin H. Ernst Jr., M.D, developed an OK matrix, based on I’M OK-YOU’RE OK construct designed by Thomas Harris, which described the interaction and probable response outcome of transactions among individuals of these four positions. You can map your responses and reactions to find out about your behavior pattern and decide for yourself.

I’m not OK – You’re OK
When you are in I’m not OK you are OK position, then you are putting yourself in an inferior position with respect to the other person.

This position may come from being belittled as a child, perhaps from dominant parents or maybe careless teachers or bullying peers.

People in this position have a particularly low self-esteem and will put others before them. They may thus have a strong ‘Please Others’ driver.

I’m OK – You’re not OK
People in this position feel themselves superior in some way to others, who are seen as inferior and not OK. As a result, they may be contemptuous and quick to anger. Their talk about others will be smug and supercilious, contrasting their own relative perfection with the limitation of others.

This position is a trap into which many managers, teachers, parents and others in authority fall, assuming that their given position makes them better and, by implication, others are not OK.

These people may also have a strong ‘Be Perfect’ driver, and their personal strivings makes others seem less perfect.

I’m OK – You’re OK
When you consider yourself OK and also frame others as OK, then there is no position for you or the other person to be inferior or superior.

This is, in many ways, the ideal position. Here, the person is comfortable with other people and with himself. He is confident, happy and get on with other people even when there are points of disagreement.

I’m not OK – You’re not OK
This is a relatively rare position, but perhaps occurs where people unsuccessfully try to project their bad objects onto others. As a result, they remain feeling bad whilst also perceive others as bad.

This position could also be a result of relationships with dominant others where the other people are viewed with a sense of betrayal and retribution. This may later get generalized from the bullies to all others people.

We don’t control other’s behavior, responses, attitude which is the result of their scripts, the emotional psychological baggage that everyone is carrying. Understand how you frame yourself and others as being OK and note how you respond to this. Then think about the other person and how they are framing it. This understanding and appreciation would help you manage your feelings and let you remain the in-charge of the situation. It will help you have the desired paradigm shift in terms of understanding the other person’s point of you and deciding course of action proactively rather than reactively.

Contributed by-
Mr. K.K. Bajpai
Associate Professor
SMS Varanasi


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