I’m OK, You’re OK is one of those titles I’d feel slightly embarrassed to be caught reading on the train. When I bought myself a copy a while back, my other half reacted as if I had moved to the dark side. Before he knew it, I’d be lecturing him on how to Make Friends and Influence People, or letting him in on The Secret.
In fact, while I’m OK, You’re OK was highly popular during the 1970s, it’s actually pretty turgid stuff. In it, Thomas Harris builds on Eric Berne’s theory of ‘Transactional Analysis,’ which argues that from birth, through all our interactions or ‘transactions’ with one another, we adopt three different Ego States: Parent, Child and Adult. The theory goes like this:
As Parent, we behave or ‘mimic’ how we feel our parents or other parental/authority figures have acted. This may mean playing the authoritative and strict Parent, or a nurturing and rescuing one. And when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning those we are interacting with as ‘Child’
As Child, we act and feel as we would have in childhood. We may have a negative emotional reaction if we are criticised (or perceive criticism) and may either sulk, withdraw or rebel. Alternatively, we crave and seek approval from others in order to feel validated, and when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning the other as either a rescuing or dictatorial ‘Parent.’
It is as Adult that we are at our most objective and arguably distanced from these intrinsically emotional polarities of Parent/Child. We can stand back to see the reality of what’s going on and resist the temptation to leap to conclusions about intent or cause. We use our intelligence and reasoning capabilities to step outside the emotional ‘game’ or drama associated with the Parent/Child dynamic and instead focus on the practical steps needed to really resolve a situation. We adopt an ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ life position.
A simple but effective way to gain perspective on our thoughts and actions
Of course there is a lot more to it than this, and the bases for the original theory have been much-critiqued. In many ways the model is perhaps just too simple, the Parent, Child, Adult categorisations neat labels we can ‘shoehorn’ our behaviours into.
However, I’ve found that the power of this idea actually rests in its inherent simplicity.
For many of us, it is easy to comprehend and often instantly relatable to our own stories and experiences. As a coach, I like to use it as a simple tool or ‘lens’ to help clients raise their self-awareness. It can often help people significantly increase their insight into their own patterns of behaviour and emotions, sometimes leading to break-through moments. One of the most powerful questions I can sometimes ask someone or of myself is “are you Parent, Child or Adult in this situation?” While our self-diagnosis might not hold up to scientific scrutiny, it can still help us notice our own actions from a new perspective – and this alone is invaluable.
I came across the concept a few years ago when I was introduced to Karpman’s ‘Drama Triangle’, which argues that in moments of conflict people can find themselves playing one of three positions: victim, rescuer, or persecutor. We can occupy and cast others into these roles interchangeably. Someone might cast you as rescuer (nurturing Parent) to his/her victim (needing Child), but if you don’t deliver, you become persecutor (overbearing Parent). In turn, you feel you’re the persecuted one for being put into this position and play the victim. And so it goes. I had a bit of a Sixth Sense moment when I found out about this concept and was suddenly seeing Drama Triangles everywhere – including a few I was unwittingly participating in.
Unprocessed emotion can trigger the Child or Parent in all of us
When we are in a Parent/Child dynamic, Harris argues, it is often a sign that we are being led blindly by our emotions and feelings as opposed to our rationale selves. ‘Blindly’ because the feelings triggering a certain behaviour are largely unexamined and not validated.
So, for example, like most people when I receive (or perceive) negative feedback about something I’ve done, I will sometimes have an emotional reaction. This is a response I can ‘feel’ – a quickening of the heart rate, a twist in the stomach, a flushing of blood to the face. Pretty soon my inner critic kicks in telling me I’ve messed up and I’d better start working on fixing this and getting approval ASAP. I might stay in this Child mode for bit, wallowing in the feelings of guilt/shame, go off and lick my wounds, eat a family bag of Maltesers — that sort of thing.
If a particular button is pushed that puts me into fight mode, I move swiftly into the ‘I’ll show them’ phase by reasserting my position, pulling apart the points they’ve made (I’m quite good at that) and pointing fingers anywhere but at myself. Listening has stopped entirely – my head is instead thundering with my own version of events, which I must assert so I can take back control again. I cut people off. I interrupt.
When this happens I am normally having a pretty rubbish day. Like most people, when I’m burnt out, I find I have a negative emotional response much more quickly. Through increasing my self-awareness and recognising my own triggers, however, I’ve become better at managing my state and remaining Adult.
So what are the warning signs? These patterns are based solely on my own experiences and observations:
We might be in the ‘needing’ Child-mode when…
- We find we are constantly seeking approval in order to feel valid and can’t find that validation within ourselves
- We have a tendency to self-deprecate and praise others to the point of undermining ourselves in the eyes of others. We lavish praise but refuse to accept it if returned (or believe it).
- We put ourselves down because we think of it as a means to ease situations and keep everyone happy.
- We internalise blame and responsibility when things go wrong – even when others need to be held accountable, too — but we don’t necessarily take any action
- We seek to be rescued in challenging situations and look to others to fix things – we play the victim.
- We find ourselves committing minor acts of passive aggression (“I wish I was as respected as you are”)
We might be in ‘rebellious’ Child mode when…
- We disengage and turn our backs from situations we find challenging. (“I’m not going to bother. Don’t give a toss anyway.”)
- We blame and continually shift responsibility elsewhere and use ‘Us vs. Them’ language
- We ‘act out,’ disrupt, rant, and seek to bring others with us (“Can you believe they’ve done this to us again?”)
- We position ourselves as the heroic underdog (“All they do is have meetings. Meanwhile, we’re the ones slogging our guts out”)
- We talk endlessly about what ‘needs to happen’ but don’t take any real action ourselves
- We veer towards paranoia – drawing swift conclusions about the harmful intent of others.
We might be in ‘nurturing’ Parent mode when…
- We rescue – swooping in to fix or solve others’ problems, often uninvited and when they may be perfectly capable themselves.
- We feel guilty if we don’t do the above. But if we don’t feel recognised for our efforts, that guilt can swiftly shift to resentment, which means…
- We play the martyr. (“No, no. As long as you’re happy”)
- We perpetually put others’ needs before our own
- We are more motivated to do something for others than to do it for ourselves
- Because fundamentally, in order to feel good about ourselves, we need to be needed. Our giving is in fact a form of neediness.
We might be in ‘authoritarian’ Parent mode when…
- We have a habit of dispensing unsolicited advice that is often tinged with judgement (“Why don’t you make a schedule? That way you’ll get more organised.”)
- We impose our own opinions and experiences onto others’ situations (“It’s worked for me, so it will for you too.”)
- We sympathise but don’t empathise; we attempt to ‘silver-line’ the misfortune that’s hitting others by attempting to minimise it as opposed to really empathising and connecting with them (“I’ve just had a miscarriage” “At least you know you can get pregnant“; “I’m overwhelmed with work” “At least you have a job“)
- We respond to uncertainty by attempting to take control
- We lack trust in others and tend to take over because we implicitly ‘know’ we can do it better ourselves
These behaviours are recognisable to most of us, because we’ve all been there – these feelings are all very, very human.
But often these patterns can be hiding feelings of hurt or vulnerability we’re afraid to confront; they give us the illusion of control over uncertainty and prevent us from taking the more real and painful steps of confronting the true issues getting in our way.
So how do we choose to be Adult?
- Before leaping to judgement, anger or solutions, we seek clarity. We make sure we get all the facts.
- We separate observable facts from perceived realities or ‘stories’ we tell ourselves
- We don’t presume intent (“she’s going to be really angry”; “he’s just trying to put me in my place.”)
- We actively work to see a situation from the other’s perspective, no matter how hard.
- We have difficult conversations with others to seek this clarity, to understand another’s perspective, and to resolve issues.
- We remind ourselves of what we can control, what we can influence, and what we simply cannot change.
- We start from a default position of trust and empathy
- We are curious about our own emotions and what our triggers are for certain patterns of behaviour (we know whether our default mode is needing/rebellious Child or rescuing/controlling Parent).
- We recognise our patterns and work deliberately to step outside of the dynamic if it’s occurring.
- But at the same time, we validate and face our feelings – we don’t brush them off or judge ourselves harshly for experiencing them.
- We actively choose to be kind to ourselves.
This is the Long Game
In all of this, it’s key to understand that choosing to be Adult is a choice; it requires self-awareness and deliberate practice, and it’s often pretty hard. Sometimes it’s just easier and sometimes temporarily comforting to slip into the familiar patterns, but the longer-term gains come only from an ongoing commitment to be more Adult, the choice that can lead to more connection, growth, and happiness in our lives. It’s only by becoming Adult that we become ‘unstuck’ from the situations that hold us back.