Life Positions and Games - Transactional Analysis Part 2

Life Positions and Games - Transactional Analysis Part 2


In this episode, we continue our discussion about Transactional Analysis. We recap the Parent, Adult and Child zones of thinking that we mentioned last week, and move on to talking about the 4 different Life Positions and the Games People Play.

Table of contents

Notes from Part 1 of our discussion on Transactional Analysis can be found here.

In this episode, we continue our discussion about Transactional Analysis. We recap the Parent, Adult and Child zones of thinking that we mentioned last week, and move on to talking about the 4 different Life Positions and the Games People Play.

In his book, ‘I’m Ok, You’re Ok’, Thomas Harris explores the idea that we are all in one of four life positions. These are: "I’m not ok, you’re ok", "I’m not ok, you’re not ok", "I’m ok, you’re not ok", "I’m ok, you’re ok". The idea is that everyone starts off in the ‘I’m not ok’ group and most people spend their lives grappling with this position – all of the things that we do, such as seeking validation from others for instance, comes from the ‘I’m not ok’ position that every child embodies. This results in trying to live a life framed as ‘you can be ok if…’, which doesn’t produce any lasting happiness.

The goal of the framework and, ultimately transactional analysis, is to arrive at the position ‘I’m Ok, You’re Ok’. The aim being to achieve autonomy and being in complete control over our thoughts and feelings and this comes from three things – awareness, spontaneity and intimacy.

“Personal or social storms are not going to subside immediately when we assume a new position, the Child wants immediate results, but the Adult can comprehend that patience and faith are required”

Most people deal with interactions by engaging in pastimes or ‘games’. Pastimes are mainly ritualised, routine conversations including small talk – the primary objective being to structure the time, optimised so that both parties get some form of benefit by the end. Games, on the other hand, involve a series of complimentary transactions where there is a well-defined predictable outcome but with a concealed motivation and sometimes an ulterior motive. Some examples of games include:

  • ‘Why don’t you…? Yes but’ – this structure was the original stimulus for Eric Berne to come up with the idea of games. On the face of it, people are framing this as an Adult to Adult interaction but in reality, the second person is trying to prove that they are right and their problem is unfixable. If someone tries to play this game with you, a better response is to shut it down either by empathising with them or turning it on them and asking them what they are going to do about it.
  • ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a b*tch’ – when people bring up a topic that they know will force the other person into a corner and you can keep prodding them until they give up. There is a predictable outcome, they know what the result will be and there is rarely an argument or reason to undermine the argument.
  • Other games include: ‘If it weren’t for you…’, ‘Mine is better than yours…’

The ultimate goal is intimacy – the level of interaction we should be trying to get to with the people around us. Intimacy is about being vulnerable, real and authentic – which is hard in a society that sometimes frowns upon people being candid or going off script and not engaging in these structured ways of talking. To get past the boredom of playing a pastime and the difficulty of having intimacy with someone, most people resort to playing ‘games’.

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What is this? Not Overthinking is a podcast about happiness, creativity, and the human condition. We talk about things to help us think, do, and be better. Things like social interaction, lifestyle design, mental models...things that are hard to examine, but important to explore. And hopefully, things that make for a fun and interesting chat every week.

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Ali is a junior doctor and YouTuber working in Cambridge, UK. He makes videos about medicine, technology, productivity and lifestyle design. His links: YouTube, Blog, Newsletter, Instagram

Taimur is a data scientist and writer, working on his own startup Causal. He writes on his blog and as a columnist for Medium. His links: Blog, Twitter, Medium, Instagram

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