Life positions, psychology, and people


One of the most important things we could learn about people— either other people or fictional people— is their ‘life position.’ This position shows the conclusion that individual has drawn about himself, and about other people. Transactional Analysis gives 4 possible life positions:
  1. I’m not OK — You’re OK
  2. I’m not OK — You’re not OK
  3. I’m OK — You’re not OK
  4. I’m OK — You’re OK
The first thing we must learn is what is meant by being OK. It’s not defined in the book ‘I’m OK — You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris. Having read the book many times over the years, I conclude that ‘OK” means that you are adequate to do the kind of life tasks that people expect of you. You don’t have to have brilliant intelligence or saintly moral fiber. You just have to be good enough not to stand out among others as less than adequate.
The first life position indicated above, ‘I’m not OK — You’re OK’ is believed to be the universal position we adopt during early childhood, and many of us never change from that position. Think of what the life of a little baby is like. The baby can do nothing at first, and is dependent on others to feed him, change him, bathe him, and comfort him. The baby’s parents may be attentive to the child, or very inattentive, but if the baby managed to live we can assume that some minimal child care and feeding took place. The baby, as his mind begins to be able to analyze the world about him, feels inadequate or ‘not OK’ because he can do so little for himself. Other people must be OK in the baby’s mind, since they are the ones who have the life-skills to bring the baby food and comforts.
That’s the normal position. Even people with great parents and happy childhoods usually feel ‘not OK.’ But what about the second position? It is taken in early life by children who suffer abandonment, physical or psychological. The child in this position concludes, for whatever reason, that other people are not a reliable source of good things. Once he has decided that other people are also ‘not OK,’ he has trust issues and is harder to reach. This life position is one of hopelessness, and the person involved may suffer mental health issues and be hard to ‘reach’ in therapy.
The third position can be called the criminal position, since it can often be found in criminals. It happens when a child experiences abuse from parents or caregivers which seems to outweigh any good things that come from other people. But since the child isn’t abused when he is by himself, he concludes that being alone is OK— less painful, anyway— and that he is OK. At least, way more OK than the abuser. The child thus rejects others as ‘not OK,’ like the abuser is not OK, and also rejects social rules and the law, since they come from other people. The person in the third position is out for himself— since he is the only OK one, and the only source of good things for himself.
The preferred adult position— one that is recommended that adults adopt— is ‘I’m OK — You’re OK.’ You decide that you are good enough— adequate— after all. And that other people are OK too. This is, according to the book’s author, the only position not based on your feelings, but on reason— recognizing that there is no logical proof that you are ‘less OK’ than average. It is an optimistic position, and I am not sure how long a person can stay in the ‘I’m OK — You’re OK’ mode, no matter how much therapy you get. Those early not-OK feelings are still a part of you.
How does ‘OKness’ square up with Christian teachings? I’ve wondered that since I got the ‘I’m OK — You’re OK’ book as a high school girl in therapy. I conclude that being ‘OK’ does not in any way mean ‘free from sin.’ Being ‘OK’ does not give you permission to ignore Christian moral teachings, any more than it makes it OK to ignore the social rules that other people expect of you. And the Christian gospel doesn’t aim to make us ‘OK,’ but redeemed and sanctified.
How do we use the knowledge of the Four Life Positions in your life? The first thing to remember is that it’s normal that everyone around you has feelings of inferiority— not-OK feelings. Are you getting blog comments or social media comments that insult you or put you down? Remember that the commenter probably feels inferior to you. The commenter may feel that insulting you— and believing his own insults— will make him feel less inferior for a while.
On the other hand, you may get some comments or interactions which are kind and flattering, but show that the commenter utterly missed your point. The commenter probably is being kind because that’s a way to make him feel less ‘not OK.’ Being nice to others is a sign of being OK. And sometimes inferiority feelings put a barrier that make it harder for a person to understand what others are saying. They are so busy feeling not OK and in awe of you, someone they perceive as OK, that they may miss a few points. That’s why it’s helpful to be patient with others, and be willing to explain the same things more than once without getting impatient about it. Other people have stuff going on inside their heads that you don’t know about. Don’t worry about the people who miss your point if most of them understood. You’re allowed to feel OK too!
What about fictional people? The key is that everyone either feels not OK, or used to feel not OK before adopting another life-position. So every character, from your Lead to your villain to the guy who gets killed in Act 2 has this not OK feeling deep down. A character who says he feels OK, or adequate, or even competent or brilliant rarely feels that way deep down— at least not all the time. And all realistic characters have flaws. Yes, even if you read nothing but lives of the saints for a year, you will see that even very holy people have flaws.
What about villains? Should they all take the third life position, and be sociopaths? Well, first off that I’m not quite sure that all third-position people are actively sociopathic. And just because someone is a villain doesn’t mean they believe ‘I’m OK — You’re not OK’ or that they are selfish and sociopathic. In fact, many villains (or story antagonists that are not villains) believe that they are the enlightened ones, the kind ones, the just ones. If they do a horrible thing to your Lead character, it will be because they believe it the right thing to do.
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