TA: An Elegant Theory

The OK Cluster

In the process of developing an identity, people define for themselves, early in life, what the meaning and significance of their life is. Some people see life as a basically benign and positive experience and themselves as basically acceptable. Berne called this positive experience of self “being OK.” Others decide they are not acceptable (not OK) as human beings and that they will fail in some way. These expectations, based on a decision about how life will be, become a person’s existential position. People can feel accepting or not accepting about themselves and others (OK or not OK). This leads to four main existential positions: “I’m OK, You’re OK”; “I’m OK, You’re Not OK”; “I’m Not OK, You’re OK”; and “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK.”

The concept referred to in transactional analysis as the “OK existential position” is represented in the wider behavioral culture by the concepts of “positive psychology,” “flow,” “human potential,” “resiliency,” “excellence,” “optimism,” “subjective well-being,” “positive self-concept,” “spontaneous healing,” “nature’s helping hand,” “vis medicatrix naturae” (the healing power of nature), and “the healing power of the mind.” These concepts, until recently deemed unfashionable and “soft-headed,” have taken center stage in psychological research. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) reviewed the field in a special issue of the American Psychologist focused on positive psychology.

In transactional analysis, the OK existential position is also referred to as “the universal position” because Berne assumed that “people are born OK”; that is, people have an innate tendency toward health, healing, and a benign expectation and trust of others. This position about self and others is either maintained or lost to a not-OK position about self, others, or both.

Hundreds of studies (for an excellent review, see Matlin & Stang, 1978) have shown that human beings strongly tend to be selectively positive in their language, thought, and memory and that people who are psychologically healthy show a higher level of positive bias. The research also indicates that people with an OK-OK attitude are likely to be healthier and live longer. In fact, Tiger (1979) postulated that optimism has driven human evolution and is an innate adaptive characteristic of the species, a part of evolutionarily developed survival mechanisms. This is consistent with Berne’s views.

The not-OK position has been widely researched in studies about depression, low self-esteem, psychopathology, and in the construction of diagnostic manuals and tests. When lost, according to Berne, the OK position can be regained because it is innate, whereas the not-OK position is tied to a script and therefore to the arbitrary narrative or schemas on which people can base their whole lives. Arguably, prima facie evidence over the last centuries is that the human social condition-barring an ecological catastrophe-is steadily progressing in the positive direction of equality, cooperation, democracy, and humanitarianism, which supports the view that this is an innate trend of the species.

Posted in Frontpage Article, TA Articles.

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