Tuning Out the OK Chorale
Eric Berne’s Games People Play
by Susan Prudhomme
I arrived at the Institute for Transactional Analysis in 1972, complete with the humanistic attitudes of the times, and eager to receive therapy under the guise of “being in training” as a practitioner. Instead of the staid, well-appointed offices I expected in an “institute,” I was taken aback to find a notably irritable receptionist presiding over a bare foyer.
This was overrun by young adults indulging in various attitudes and antics—one perched on the receptionist’s desk riffling her hair, another sprawled lazily on the floor, legs stretched across the walkway. I later learned that they were expressing their “Natural Child,” and this was considered a good thing.
Berne versus Freud
The institute’s program for both client and student was the same: Eric Berne’s “TA 101” course. Berne, a psychiatrist who had been denied the title “psychoanalyst” because of his defiance of Freudianism, responded to this disappointment by creating a new personality theory, first published in Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy in 1961 and then in 1964 in the best-selling Games People Play. These works formed the basis for the lecture portion of the “TA 101” course, which also included group therapy and occasional “marathons,” 36-hour sessions with no sleep allowed.
Transactional analysis therapy, I learned, differed from traditional psychoanalysis in that it was not about dredging up one’s early experiences and motivations, but about learning to observe for oneself the ego-states, games, and other transactional phenomena in one’s own behavior and that of others, and to make rational decisions to change.
Freud’s “Id,” “Ego,” and “Superego,” were derived from subjective reporting of inner experience and not observable phenomenological realities. Berne’s “Parent,” “Adult,” and “Child” ego-states, he believed, were behavioral phenomena that could be observed by paying attention to people’s interactions (transactions), and thus could be validated scientifically. This, Berne believed, would go far to legitimize the field of psychology as a real science.
His claim might have been well-received by the established psychiatric order but for the success of Games People Play, published in 1964, in which he laid out his concepts and tools for Everyman in colorful, easily understood terms. In popular thought, the mystique of psychiatric jargon was suddenly passé, and psychobabble was born. The Establishment was not appreciative.
What the Establishment scorned, we students loved. “TA 101” was like no other course of study I had experienced. The lectures were as disciplined as the foyer had been—in other words, high energy and hilarity prevailed, as everyone, including the presenter, exercised his Natural Child. An amazing amount of information was transacted, and we all had a great time.
In group therapy, we not only worked on our own issues, but learned by observing the therapist in action and by practicing on each other. This was also a forum for students to present new and creative ideas. The marathons included lectures, intensive group work, and recreational activities. They were exhausting and designed to break down resistance to therapy and weld us more tightly together as TA devotees.
In addition to the three ego-states and games, we mastered other tools, including the “OK Corral,” which arranged the four life-positions on a grid that demonstrated how they were manifested in relationships. For example, if you are OK and the other person is OK, you will “Get On With” him, but if you are not OK and he is, you will feel you must “Get Along With” or appease him.
The OK Response
During the time I was at the institute, I learned to understand how people function in relationships, and how to manage my own. I had come to it emotionally KO’d, and left it, if not fully OK, at least functioning with greater assurance.
On the other hand, in some ways my experiences of TA were crippling. The institute was an insular sub-culture with its own rules and values. Although Berne had said that all three of his ego-states “have a high survival and living value, and it is only when one or the other of them disturbs the healthy balance that analysis and reorganization are indicated,” in practice, the institute was biased against Parent behavior and strongly emphasized “freeing the Natural Child.”
For example, I learned quickly that my natural reserve was Not OK, and that I must learn to act extroverted (express my Natural Child) in order to succeed. It has taken me years to re-learn that being my quiet self really is “OK.”
As is often the case in sub-cultures, we perceived ourselves as superior, smugly analyzing the games of friends and family. This, of course, alienated us from them, which drove us all the deeper into the sub-culture.
At the same time, within the institute, the temptation to power could be irresistible; I learned to guard my behavior carefully in order not to fall prey to someone else’s “Gotcha!” During one marathon, I became angry when an opponent changed the rules of a board game, to his advantage, in mid-play. He pointed out to me, with some glee, that my Parent had been “hooked.” The OK response would have been to activate my own Natural Child and counter with even more outrageous “rules.”
Greater danger for the unwary lay in a kind of overheated sexuality that flowed from the emphasis on “freeing the Natural Child.” This was a perfect setup, intentionally or not, for predatory males. I think the professional staff tried to control this to some extent, but in other ways they encouraged it. For instance, we were assigned to attend a pornographic movie to help release our Natural Child, an experience that left me feeling dirty and battered, yet oddly ashamed to admit it. A sub-text of the “Free Your Inner Child” message might have been, “So You Can Be Molested,” either physically or emotionally.
These three conditions: (1) the insulated society, (2) the self-perception of superiority (power through secret knowledge), and (3) the loosening of moral, especially sexual, restraints, are earmarks of cult formation. I think it was this propensity of TA that most made the mental-health community wary of it and undermined their willingness to take it seriously.
While Berne’s theory, and the cult-like, Child-idealizing practice that emerged from it, brought doubt and outright scorn from other professionals, it was a student of Berne, Thomas A. Harris, who carried these ideals past the bounds of therapy and made them a kind of spirituality.
Three years after Games People Play, in 1967, Harris published I’m OK, You’re OK, which became arguably the first in the pervasive and lucrative genre we have come to know as “self-help.” His work transcended Berne’s more modest desire to make psychiatry scientific with suggestions that TA could save the world.
I’m OK, You’re OK presented TA in a kind of utopian, semi-religious vision. The closing chapters imply that TA could “restore psychotics to reality, prevent teenage sex, stabilize manic-depressives, end child abuse, mend the generation gap, transform international relations and effect world peace.”
How does the gospel according to Harris go? Essentially, he re-interpreted the Garden of Eden, replacing “original sin” with “original bad-decision-but-it-isn’t-our-fault.”
To Harris, the “original sin” that causes our dysfunction is not rebellion, but the fateful decision, in infancy, that one is Not OK. This decision, he claims, is thrust upon all infants, no matter how loving their parents, because in their utter dependence, they are forced to adapt to others’ demands to survive, thus living as an “Adaptive” Child rather than a “Natural” one. This position—that one is Not OK in relation to others—creates self-protective and ulterior relational patterns (“games”) that interfere with true intimacy and mutual acceptance.
Furthermore, this “original sickness” can be reversed only by achieving the life-position “I’m OK, You’re OK,” made possible only by a TA cure. It is, in Harris’s words, “like a conversion experience.” “Our understanding of what it means to be OK is not bound to our own personal experiences,” he goes on to say, “because we can transcend them into an abstraction of ultimate purpose for all men.”
To achieve the salvific state of “I’m OK, You’re OK,” Harris wants to free the Natural Child, which he assumes is innately perfect. This is done by purging the Controlling Parent (which includes not only our parents and teachers, but traditional morality and the Church), and the Adaptive Child (our urge to obedience and duty, and sense of awe toward authority).
Such purging emancipates our Adult, which then becomes an effective analyst and arbiter of all data. All outside authority is to be questioned and submitted to the Adult’s rational analysis, which is enabled by its emancipation to discover what he calls “the objective moral order”—a morality not defined by God but by an evolved human reason. The result is a Natural Child controlled by an emancipated Adult, and the life-position “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
He writes, “I believe the Adult’s function in the religious experience is to block out the Parent in order that the Natural Child may reawaken to its own worth and beauty as a part of God’s creation.” Invoking Jesus, he goes on, “Jesus said, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ The rebirth of which Jesus speaks is, I believe, the rebirth of the natural Child. This is possible after the Adult comprehends the Not OK, which was produced by the adaptive, or civilizing, process.”
OK in God
Christianity teaches that spiritual health depends upon accepting God’s absolute authority, in the knowledge of his perfect love. Only then are we able to receive the grace that perfects us. To translate this into TA terms, we must admit that we are Not OK before God, so that we might be OK in him.
In the world according to Harris, submission to God is a kind of tyranny that distorts our Natural Child. He locates this tyranny in the Church, which takes on the role of Parent and coerces the Natural Child to adapt to its demands. If we can break free of it, we become fully autonomous, giving free play to our own creativity and moral sense.
Harris’s gospel sounds suspiciously like the serpent’s promises to Eve: Did God really say you must obey? (or was it the nasty Church?); you won’t really die (you’ll be free); he knows you’ll be like him, knowing good and evil (you’ll define your own morality).
This gospel fell on eager ears, and I’m OK, You’re OK entered the cultural awareness of the nation. It offered a seductive invitation to believe oneself both innately perfect and at the same time not responsible for one’s evident imperfections.
In SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, investigative reporter Steve Salerno credits Harris with revolutionizing earlier self-help schemes into the guru-led, victim-ridden self-help industry we know today. Harris’s book proved self-help to be a reliable money-maker for publishers, and, more importantly, Harris’s “I’m Not OK and It’s Not My Fault” gospel captured the self-pitying sense of victimization that dominated self-help—and, to no small degree, American culture—for the next quarter-century.
Now, beyond that first quarter-century and nearly to the end of the next, the humanistic view of human life that Harris was instrumental in promoting is still much in evidence at all levels of our culture, and continues its aggressions against mere Christianity. The serpent still whispers his seductions, and the Eves of the world, with their Adams, still find them irresistible.
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