Our thoughts and feelings shape the way we see the world; if we feel sad, we’re likely to think sad thoughts. This in turn affects the way we behave – for example, if we feel sad, we’re more likely to spend time alone.
However, what we may not be aware of, is that much of the time, our thoughts and feelings are echoes of the past – ways we used to think and feel as children.
Eric Berne (the originator of TA) suggested that as children grow up and make sense of the world, they make decisions from their observations about themselves and the people around them. When we’re young, our capacity to think isn’t fully developed and we make these decisions based on how things make us feel. For instance, if as a baby we cried and nobody came, we might have ‘decided’ that we aren’t worth coming to.
The beliefs we arrive at in childhood are likely to stay with us throughout our lives. In terms of our beliefs about our value and that of other people, we arrive at various decisions:
- I’m OK, or
- I’m not OK;
- You’re OK, or
- You’re not OK.
One of the underlying principles of transactional analysis, is that we are all ‘OK’. By this, we mean that everyone has value and worth; I accept myself as me and I accept you as you. Sometimes we might behave in ways which are unacceptable, but this does not mean that our existence does not have value; I may not like your behaviour, but I still value your existence as a human being.
We are all equal, no matter what our gender, ethnicity, age, religion etc.
Imagine how different the world might look if we all lived by this statement, all of the time! Unfortunately, being the flawed human beings that we are, even with the best of intentions, we don’t always live by it.
Life positions in adulthood: the OK Corral
By putting together the beliefs about ourselves and others, we have four statements about the essential value we perceive in ourselves and others. These are called ‘life positions’:
- I’m OK, you’re OK;
- I’m OK, you’re not OK;
- I’m not OK, you’re OK;
- I’m not OK, you’re not OK.
Franklin Ernst came up with a means of showing how we move between these different life positions from moment to moment. He called this the OK Corral. Each of us has a favoured position in life; a way of being and seeing the world. These life positions give us our perspective on life.
The OK Corral is represented pictorially below:
Moving between these positions, it’s as though we’re looking at the world through a different lens at any one time.
Position 1: ‘I’m OK, you’re OK‘ is the healthy life position. This is a place where we value ourselves and others, experiencing self worth and having good self esteem. We are engaged with life and feel a sense of agency. Problems which arise are opportunities to learn from and obstacles to navigate around.
Characteristics/traits often shown in this position include being loving, loyal, truthful, joyful, compassionate, empathetic, spontaneous, approachable, reasonable and responsible.
Position 2: ‘I’m OK, you’re not OK‘ is a place where we might feel that we’re better than, or more important than others. Problem solving will involve seeking an outcome that is good for us, often at the expense of others.
Characteristics/traits typical of this position include arrogance, being judgemental, gossiping, being a fair-weather friend, feeling the need to impress, exploiting others.
Position 3: ‘I’m not OK, you’re OK‘ is a place where we don’t have good self esteem, and feel inferior to others. Problems can seem insurmountable and we wonder ‘why do bad things always happen to me?’ Often, people suffering from depression see the world through this lens.
Characteristics/traits typical of this position include not feeling a sense of agency, under-achieving, being passive and withdrawn, feeling confused and helpless, feeling taken for granted.
Position 4: ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK‘ is a place of futility where we are not interested in life, are detached from the world and feel despairing. People in this position do not believe they can solve problems.
Characteristics/traits typical of this position include resignation, feeling loveless and joyless, engaging in unhealthy habits and unhealthy rebellion, withdrawal and apathy.