What is it about Eric Berne’s transactional analysis that so attracts people? From decades of traveling and teaching transactional analysis (in twenty five countries on five continents) Wherever I go, whenever I can, in hundreds of informal interviews over the years, I have asked the question: “What attracts you to transactional analysis?” From people’s responses I concluded that there are certain features of transactional analysis that attract people everywhere. The most frequent answers I get from psychotherapists, educators, counselors and consultants, as well as lay people are: “It helps me understand myself,” and, “It helps me help people.”
When I inquire further and ask what transactional analysis concepts make it so helpful, I find that ego states and the “I’m OK, you’re OK” concept are most often mentioned, followed by strokes, scripts, games and contracts.
Five years ago I came to Tokyo to teach Emotional Literacy at your JTAA conference. The conference program was written in Japanese, of course, except for two lines in English. One was my name next to my picture. The other said, in English, “ I’m OK, You’re OK.” I am OK, you are OK was evidently a major TA concept in Japan.
I have been surprised that the OK concept has become as important as it has in people’s thinking. For years, in the 1970s an 80s, I was fearful that OK/OK would become an overly simple definition of TA. Thomas Harris’s book I’m OK, You’re OK had become an even better best seller than Games People Play. When an astronomer, on a coast-to-coast flight, asked me: “Isn’t transactional analysis about ‘I’m OK, you’re OK?'” I was not pleased; I responded with a playful smile, pointing to the stars outside the plane “Yes…and isn’t astronomy about ‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’”
Over the years I realized that there is more to the OK concept than I imagined. Behind the OK/OK concept stands a sophisticated theory. Berne believed that the “I’m OK, you’re OK” position is the “universal position” with which everyone arrives in this world. We deviate from that inborn view when we develop “not OK” attitudes about ourselves and others. However, when we change, from OK to not OK, we can always return to the deeply embedded, basic, OK position of our birth. This capacity to return to our OK nature is a fundamental and important theoretical proposition that informs the method of transactional analysts.
Berne conceived of the OK concept in order to clarify the source of certain pathologies in people; their persistent negative attitudes about themselves and others; their depressions, paranoia, obsessions, resentments, pessimism and so on. But the OK concept has been taken further than Berne imagined; it has developed into a cultural dimension of transactional analysis organizations, an attitude of acceptance, cooperation and open-mindedness. The OK/OK attitude has become one of transactional analysis’ features. In my next column I will examine how the OK/OK attitude has become an essential aspect of transactional analysis, and I will argue that it has important political implications.
By stating that all people are born with an “I am OK, You are OK” existential position, Berne asserted the fundamental equality of people, and their potential as human beings. In his theory and practice Eric Berne’s politics were deeply populist, anti-elitist, libertarian and egalitarian. Transactional analysis’ attractiveness is partially due to the fact that it shares these values. It is a democratizing organization; a small but important link in a world-wide evolution toward democracy.
Berne believed in establishing a level playing field between professional and client by requiring that there be a contract between them. A contract implies a conversation between two equals, one of whom requires expert help, while the other offers expertise. The fact that one person is an expert and the other needs expert assistance does not mean that one person is superior to the other. Both are assumed to be capable human beings with a potentially fully functioning Adult.
A requirement of the contract is that both people understand its terms and that requires a common language. That language has to be understandable to both client and professional. It has to be completely meaningful to both and therefore Berne required that we use simple language. As an example a psychotherapy contract would be “stopping having sex with strangers.” instead of “treating compulsive promiscuous sexual behavior.” Or a coaching contract would be “stop playing games” instead of “improving interpersonal achievement.” In addition to demanding simple language, he wanted to deal with observable events that anyone could see. He insisted that we speak about visible transactions between real observable people, using understandable language.
In the late 1960’s I observed Berne’s weekly therapy groups at St. Mary’s hospital in San Francisco. For an hour, Wednesday mornings, Berne led a group for the patients of the closed ward with the staff, seated around the group, observing. When the group session was over Berne conducted a staff discussion of the group therapy session with the staff sitting in the inner circle and the inmates observing. This was a clear statement to both staff and patients that he saw them as equal human beings. He insisted that both staff and patients were to be taken seriously and he expected them to speak, to and about one another, in understandable language; no psychiatric or psychoanalytic “jazz” was allowed.
Openness to cooperative discussion, acceptance of debate and differing points of view, standing fast or changing one’s mind on the basis of new information, and willingness to synthesize differing views are the characteristics of an open, democratic society. Transactional analysis emphasizes detailed Adult observation and dialog. With its pragmatic, simple and utilitarian language, it is a profoundly egalitarian, democratic activity promoting equality, cooperation and compromise at the most personal level.
People’s longing for freedom and social justice can find solace in the ideas, practices and training methods of transactional analysts. That is why, in my view, transactional analysis is proliferating dramatically around the world, including in Japan where there are thousands affiliated with it.
I have been a transactional analysts for 50 years and now I am in the privileged position of having been present during the various phases of the development of our discipline from the very beginning in 1956 when, every Tuesday evening, Eric Berne met with a few professionals in his San Francisco Chinatown apartment, to discuss his work. I have witnessed our development to a global movement. Still, I certainly do not fully understand the nature of all of transactional analysis, as it exists today. For example, I might be amazed at what TA is in Japan these days.
In the beginning, Berne’s meetings consisted largely of discussions of selected chapters of his book in progress, Transactional Analysis and Psychotherapy. Over the next five years we saw the publication of that book and he began to work on Games People Play.
The huge success of Games People Play (101 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list) was followed by the even larger success of Tom and Amy Harris’s: I’m OK you’re OK. That book was so successful that, as an example, during one of President Richard Nixon’s televised speeches to the nation I’m OK you’re OK was clearly visible in a bookshelf in the background. Berne was not happy about being trumped by Harris; for one thing, Harris disagreed with Berne’s basic premise–that people are born into the universal OK/OK existential position. Harris on the contrary, argued that babies were born Not OK and only later changed, if they were lucky, into the OK/OK position. In addition, Harris began to go from city to city to hold very large, one-day meetings in which, for a fee, he taught a simplified, popularized version of TA.
Several aspects of this development were important. That people were born OK princes and princesses was essential to transactional analysis script theory and Harris’ view was the first substantial theoretical deviation from Berne’s basic views. This was also the beginning of the vulgarization of TA, which eventually led to a loss of prestige in the professional community.
In 1967 Eric decided to found the ITAA. He was determined that we should have an international organization, comparable with psychoanalysis, with institutes in every country and three levels of membership: regular members, clinical members who practiced transactional analysis and teaching members who taught and supervised transactional analysis trainees. Berne very much desired to have a research component to validate our concepts. Then, unexpectedly he died weeks after his sixtieth birthday, in 1971.
Soon people began to pull in different directions. I founded the Radical Psychiatry movement and for the next 15 years devoted myself to political anti-Vietnam war and anti-psychiatry activities in Berkeley, California. During that time the ITAA grew to ten thousand members and different people developed innovative branches of transactional analysis. In addition, transactional analysis, which had been an exclusively clinical practice, branched out into pastoral and other counseling, education and corporate consultation. An elaborate system of training and examinations was developed over the years.
In my next column I will explore the different directions that TA developed after Berne’s death.
Eric Berne died on July 15, 1971 at the young age of 60. His shocking, unexpected departure left the ITAA organization rudderless. Even though Berne suspected that he would die young due to his heart condition (as did his mother) he had made no plans for what he desired for TA after he died. Still, he did provide us with some hints:
He wanted TA writings to be crisp and comprehensible, devoid of professional mystifications and “Jazz”. He wanted us to speak in terms of observable events and facts and he refused to discuss hypothetical examples. In our weekly seminars he wanted us to operate in our Adult during the scientific portion (no Parent an only occasional Child) and the he wanted every meeting to be ended with a small fun filled event. He wanted every conference to terminate with a dancing party for the Child. He was thrifty and not fond of people who wanted to get rich quickly using TA.
When I visited him in the hospital the day before he died he was making final revisions on What Do You say After you say Hello. In his last words to us he wrote:
“Any system or approach which is not based on the rigorous analysis of single transactions into their component specific ego states is not transactional analysis.” (pg 20)
As a psychotherapist he wanted transactional analysis to use contracts and to “cure” people. He defined a cure as the completion of a previously mutually agreed upon, clearly defined contract. For example: Stop abusing alcohol, or be able too enjoy sex, or overcome depression, or get a fulfilling job. Each contract was defined with behavioral goals. For example in the case of overcoming depression that might mean waking up with a smile almost everyday, seldom experience sadness, eat and sleep adequately and so on.
What began as a system of psychotherapy branched into counseling, educational and organizational uses. Various individuals pioneered major developments. Mary and Bob Goulding developed a system of script redecision therapy that used some of Fritz Perls’ techniques to resolve therapeutic impasses. The notion of egograms was developed by Jack Dusay with the help of Japanese researchers. Jackie Shiff and the Cathexis Institute and later Muriel James developed the technique of reparenting. Steven Karpman developed the Drama Triangle and its many important uses and I developed Stroke centered TA. These developments accepted Berne’s views and moved forward within the confines of his premises.
On the other hand, Trautman and Erskine developed integrative psychotherapy which was grounded in TA but departed on certain key issues when they postulated that the healthy person had one ego state only; the integrated Adult. Relational TA, pioneered by Hargaden and Sills de-emphasized the importance of strictly defined therapeutic contracts as demanded by Berne and reintroduced psychoanalytic language and concepts. Both of these approaches have found wide acceptance in the TA world of psychotherapy today. At the same time, world wide, TA is moving away from its psychotherapy focus and in the direction of organizational uses.
In this my final column, I will explain the ideas and techniques that I have developed since Berne’s death.
Years before it was proven through scientific research, Berne postulated that people need strokes for good physical and mental health. At the same time he made it clear that an important motivation for the games that people play is the procurement of strokes which he called the biological advantage of games. The other advantage of games, he argued, is the existential advantage. This is the way each game played validates the script; every game is part of a script or life plan and every time a game is played it reinforces the script messages.
Clearly Berne believed that people’s scripts and their games are an obstacle to a good life. Berne’s remedy was the analysis of the transactions of the game with the aim of stopping the games before they progressed to their harmful end, by the use of Adult control.
In my work with alcoholics I realized that people are stroke starved and since the game of Alcoholic is an abundant source of strokes, Adult control is not, by itself, a very effective method to stop playing games. I concluded that a more effective approach would have to include learning to get strokes in a more healthy manner.
However, it seems that most people are under the influence of a stroke economy; a system of beliefs and attitudes that prevent them from giving or accepting positive strokes, while allowing a free exchange of negative strokes. Consequently, I decided that to stop a person’s game there would have to exist an alternate source of strokes. To help interrupt games and scripts I would have to teach how to love and be loved in return and to reject negative strokes.
In developing a system of teaching the exchange of positive strokes it became clear that there was a powerful internal influence that prevented people from getting the positive strokes that they need. I have called this internal influence the Critical Parent who is, in fact, the enemy of love.
The Critical Parent is an inner tyrant that opposes loving behavior because the free access to love undermines its power over the person. Like a prison guard it makes sure that we don’t enjoy the freedom of unblemished affection, respect and love. To neutralize the anti-love influence of the Critical Parent I devised a training exercise which I called “Opening the Heart.” In this exercise I invite the participants to ask for, give and accept positive strokes while helping them confront and defeat the Critical Parent’s negative strokes and its prohibitions against positive stroke exchanges.
Opening the Heart is the first of three stages of emotional literacy training. The other two stages are “Exploring The Emotional Landscape” and “Taking Responsibility.” Together they have the aim of developing emotional literacy, an essential aspect of a healthy emotional life.
Learning positive stroking and emotional literacy are a powerful ally of Adult control over the games and scripts that interfere with the development of game free spontaneity, autonomy and intimacy. This is my humble, but I hope significant, contribution to transactional analysis.