Psychology can be hard to write about. Unlike many other topics I present here, it is almost a science, and thus deserves a lot more attention. Also, I don’t know a thing about psychology or psychoanalysis and evaluating such a book gives me a hard time. Freud postulated the threefold mind: the id (containing desires and urges), the ego (the conscious self) and the superego (the unconscious framework of rules and ethics). Transactional analysis is built on a similar but different idea, modeling the human psyche as three ego-states, of which only one is active at a time:
The Parent is filled with values (or non-values) directly adapted as a very small child. This part contains mostly unconscious instructions and ideas from “Fire is dangerous” to “Non-white people are dangerous”. The Parent can cause problems, because it cannot evaluate those ideas and instructs a person to mimic their parents. This is the source of superstition, prejudice and a lot of stupidity, and also the reason why abused children often become abusive parents.
The Child is also formed at a very young age, and is where emotions and spontaneity live. It is a recording of feelings as the Parent is a recording of values, and these recordings can be replayed when triggered by a similar situation. This can be troublesome if negative emotions are brought back without reason. The Child cannot evaluate if circumstances have changed, and vividly re-feeling past failures can easily stop you from trying again now.
The Adult lives in the middle between Parent and Child, and you should strive to be in this state for most of the time, because this is where YOU is happening. While Parent and Child merely contain information you have unconsciously absorbed, the Adult is fully capable of perceiving reality, unfiltered by notions from the outside. It is a computer that evaluates the contents of Parent and Child, compares them to reality and integrates everything into a consistent framework of values and behaviors. The problem is that most people have an underdeveloped Adult and are often dominated by another ego-state.
Freud postulated that everything somehow revolves about the presence or absence of schlongs, and Harris presents a concept that could also originate from a stereotypical movie shrink: we all get a huge inferiority complex as babies, because our parents were bigger and stronger, and most people never get over this. The author hypothesizes that the natural impression a person adopts of themselves and of society is “I’m not OK – You’re OK”. While accepting that other people can be good, even great, people will always see and feel their own flaws. Some people migrate to one of the pathologic positions “I’m not OK – You’re not OK” (utter resignation) or “I’m OK – You’re not OK” (the self-justified criminal), but hardly anyone can reach the healthy, soothing worldview of “I’m OK – You’re OK”.
How can we get reach this position? By strengthening the Adult in us. And how can we do that? By analysing transactions! A transaction in transactional analysis is any meaningful decision or interaction, and the reaction to that. The interesting part is to see which ego-state of me is sending the transaction, and which part of you is receiving it. Harris details at length, what types of transaction are possible, and which are productive. There can be aligned transactions like Adult-Adult (I ask you what time it is, you tell me the time), Parent-Parent (I complain that there is never enough time anymore to do anything, you agree with me and say how everything was better when we were young) or Parent-Child (the stereotypical wife pampering her stereotypical ill husband). There can also be misaligned transactions, where the response does not originate from the targeted ego-state, like Adult/Parent (I ask you what time it is, you scold me for always forgetting my watch) or Adult/Child (the stereotypical wife telling her ill husband to get some fresh air, who responds with extensive coughing and whining). The latter transactions are the unproductive ones.
The most interesting portion of “I’m OK – You’re OK” is about recognizing origins and targets of transactions. By providing the tools and lots of colorful examples, Harris made transactional analysis applicable for laypersons like me. Unfortunately, a good portion is about treatment of mental illnesses, which (hopefully) is not that relevant for you. Nevertheless, if I make a decision, I examine if it really is based on evaluated information of Adult-me, or if Parent-me or Child-me have something to do with it. When I feel upset, I ask myself what triggered Child-me to come out. If I find myself arguing all the time with you about why I don’t have a watch, I examine at what point Parent-us took over from Adult-us.
Is transactional analysis a sound theory? I still cannot tell. After nearly than fifty years it has not been widely discredited, so there may be something to it (although some of Harris’ additions to the theory are not generally accepted). It does offer a model of human interaction and minds that I can understand, and that can help to improve the quality of communication with other, although I sometimes wished to get more details.
I enjoyed it.
- The human psyche is made up of three different compartments, Parent, Adult and Child
- Human communication (transaction) can be classified by sending and receiving compartment
- Most humans develop a state of mind in which they are dependant on others, feeling inferiority
- To achieve a happy life, we should be confident and trusting (I’m OK – You’re OK)
- To become that, we need a strong Adult compartment
Harris was a psychiatrist and early practitioner of transactional analysis (developed by his close associate Eric Berne) and group therapy for the treatment of mental disorders.
Rowohlt, 50th edition (May 30., 1975), german, first edition 1969