“I am OK you are OK” revisited

Eric Bern a noted psychologist in 1950s developed a concept of transactional analysis to explain various behavioral constructs, based on his theory and concepts Thomas Harris, wrote a cult book “I Am OK You Are OK”. Which explains the concept of transaction analysis and ego states of Child, Adult and Parent and their interplay in deciding our actions and reactions.

Let’s just think of class room situation – the students are in the class waiting for the teacher, and all kinds of activities are happening in the class, some students are sitting at a corner doing their assignments, at other end another group is planning for an excursion on the weekend. Few boys are throwing paper balls at each other, suddenly a boy called Durgesh climbs on the table and starts dancing, the entire class turns towards him and some join him in dancing, suddenly another boy called Ajay notices that Durgesh has his shoes on and is making the table dirty with his shoes, he asks him to get down from the table, Durgesh feels insulted and retorts “I won’t get down, it’s my desk”. Ajay warns him if he doesn’t get down he will pull him down, to which Durgesh says, “ok, go ahead if you have the guts to do it”, Ajay starts moving aggressively towards Durgesh, suddenly class monitor Manoj stands up and gently stops Ajay and asks Durgesh to get down from the table, asks the class to discipline itself and tells Durgesh that the class teacher can come any moment than the whole class might get punishment. Everyone goes back to their seats and class is back to order. Now this transaction has transition of ego states child, parent, and adult. Let’s try and understand this transaction on the basis of Adult, Child Parent theory discussed in the book “I am OK, you’re OK”. The moment Ajay notices that Durgesh is dancing on the desk with his shoes on, and its not appropriate, he moved from child to Adult stage and when he directs Durgesh to get down he moved on to Parent stage and when Durgesh rejects his idea, Ajay moves to Child stage from Parent stage and moves to confront Durgesh. Manoj reaches Adult and Parent stage and brings the class along with Durgesh and Ajay to adult stage. In this blog and next few blogs I will have you visit this concept as elaborated by Thomas A. Harris in his book “I AM OK YOU ARE OK”.


There is a biological chronological change in everyone’s life. One grows from child to become an adult and then in due course becomes a parent. This is irreversible chronological change. But in our mind, all these stages exist simultaneously and one travels from one stage to other stage very frequently and in almost instant transition, changes from being a child to an adult to parent, not always in sequential manner.
We observe these abrupt changes in everyone, the little boy who bursts into tears when he can’t make a toy work, a teacher who is mad at his unruly class, a father who is trying to convince his son, who is not ready to get convinced. A friend who is trying to reason with his obstinate pal. A diabetic parent who is fighting with his children because they are not allowing him eat sweets.
Continual observation has supported the assumption that these three states exist in all people. It is as if in each person there is the same little person he was when he was htree years old. There are also within him his own parents. These are recordings in the brain of actual experiences of internal and external events, the most significant of which happen during the first five years of life. There is a third state, different from these two. The first two are called Parent and Child, and the third Adult.
We have also heard people using the expression don’t be a child, or don’t try to be my father (parent). If you give a thought to your action you will sure find that you move across three different personalities; one of a small child dominated by feelings, one of self-righteous parent, and one of a reasoning logical, grown-up person.
The parent is a huge collection of recordings in the brain of unquestioned or imposed external events perceived by a person in his early years, a period which we have designated roughly at the first five years of life. This is the period before the social birth of the individual, before he leaves home in response to the demands of society and enters school. Everything the child saw his parents do and everything he heard them say is recorded in the Parent.
While external events are being recorded as that body of data we call the Parent, there is another recording being made simultaneously. This is the recording of internal events, the responses of the little person to what he sees and hears. It is this seeing and hearing and feeling and understanding body of data which we define as the child. Since the little person has no vocabulary during the most critical of his early experience, most of his reactions are feelings. In these early years, he is small, he is dependent, he is inept, he is clumsy, he has no words with which to construct meanings. During this time of helplessness there are an infinite number of total and uncompromising demands on the child. The predominant by-product of the frustrating, civilizing process is negative feelings. On the basis of these feelings the little person early concludes, “I’m not OK”. This conclusion and the continual experiencing of the unhappy feelings which led to it and confirm it are recorded permanently in the brain and cannot be erased. This permanent recording is the residue of having been a child.
At about ten months of age a remarkable thing begins to happen to the child. Until that time his life has consisted mainly of helpless or unthinkable responses to the demands and stimulations by those around him. He has had a Parent and a Child. What he has not had is the ability either to choose his responses or to manipulate his surroundings. He has had no self-direction, no ability to move out to meet life. He has simply taken what has come his way. The ten month old has found he is able to do something which grows from his own awareness and original thought. This self-actualization is the beginning of the Adult. Adult data accumulates as a result of the child’s ability to find out for himself what is different about life from the ‘taught concept’ of life in his Parent and the ‘felt concept’ of life based on data gathering and data processing. The adult is a data-processing computer, which grinds out decisions after computing the information from three sources; the Parent, the Child, and the data which the Adult has gathered and is gathering. One of the important functions of the Adult is to examine the data in the Parent, to see whether or not it is true and still applicable today, and then to accept it or reject it; and to examine the Child to see whether or not the feelings there are appropriate to the present or are archaic and in response to archaic Parent data. The Adult testing of Parent data may begin at an early age. A secure youngster is one who finds the most Parent data is reliable: ‘They told me the truth’.
The verification of Parent data does not erase the NOT OK recordings in the Child, which were produced by the early imposition of this data. These recordings are not erased but the adult learns to make a choice to turn them off. The Adult updates the Child data to determine which feelings may be expressed safely. Like crying and screaming are emotions in a child, and when a toy is snatched from a child’s hand he may scream and cry, but as adult he learns to switch of the expression of this feeling.
Another of the Adult’s function is probability estimating. This function is slow in developing in small child, and apparently, for most of us, has a hard time catching up throughout life. The little person is constantly confronted with unpleasant alternatives (either you eat spinach or you go without ice-cream), offering little incentives for examining probabilities.
The boundaries between Parent, Adult and Child are fragile, sometimes indistinct, and vulnerable to those incoming signals which tend to recreate situations we experienced in the helpless, dependent days of childhood. The Adult sometimes is flooded by signals of the ‘bad news’ variety so overwhelming that the Adult is reduced to an ‘onlooker’ in the transaction. An individual in this situation might say, ‘I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.’
Being aware of our ego state, does help us avoid conflict, and resolve conflict. It also helps us understanding the other person’s perspective in a better manner. We will discuss more of it in my future blogs.

Contributed by-

Mr. K. K. Bajpai
Associate Professor
SMS Varanasi

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