The Basic Idea
Sometimes we behave in ways that may feel strange, even to ourselves. We can feel uneasy about something that we said or did, yet be unable to explain the reasoning behind these behaviors. Often, these situations can be influenced by the childhood experiences that shape our life positions.1
Life positions are facets of transactional analysis, a form of psychoanalysis that studies social interactions and how we can improve them.2 Transactional analysis is grounded in our ego states, which are ways that we think, feel, and behave. Ego states are informed by our experiences with our parents (Parent), our prior experiences as children (Child), or our current environments (Adult).
Life positions are the basic beliefs that we hold about ourselves and others, which are used to justify our decisions and behaviors.1 Our life positions are shaped by our early experiences, up until the age of seven, and these positions consist of whether we view ourselves and others as “OK” or “not OK”. Being “OK” refers to notions of being good or worthy; it is believed that everyone enters the world “OK”.
Theory, meet practice
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The history of life positions cannot be told without talking about transactional analysis, since life positions are a facet of this larger psychoanalytic model.2 Transactional analysis was developed by Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950s, influenced by Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on gaining insight from ego states. In this context, social interactions are defined as transactions between multiple parties. The goal of transactional analysis was to help people analyse their relationships and increase effective communication.
Berne published two papers in 1957 distinguishing between Parent, Adult, and Child ego states:2
- Parent referred to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors incorporated from one’s primary caregivers, either nurturing or controlling;
- Adult referred to one’s ability to think objectively and act based on the present, which is the ideal ego state; and,
- Child referred to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from one’s childhood, either curious and open or guilty and afraid.2
In 1962, Berne published an article in Transactional Analysis Bulletin entitled “Classification of positions.”1 Berne wanted to develop a descriptive classification for the “games” people play, with games being patterns of transactions that are common in everyday life. For example, the “Why don’t you – yes but” game consists of someone presenting a problem, to which other people present solutions.2 However, the original person objects to all possible solutions (i.e. “yes, but…”) which causes other people to cease suggesting solutions.
Berne wanted these classifications – which he termed “life positions” – to yield consistent results, such that those with the same life positions would experience similar transactional patterns.1 Berne believed that life positions were based on a simple and predictive universal truth. These life positions would then allow people to justify their decisions on the basis of earlier experiences. For example, a learned universal truth could be that “all women are untrustworthy” and “I am never lovable”, stemming from childhood experiences. This could result in the justification, “never again will I risk loving anyone because my mother showed me I am unlovable.”
To define the classification of life positions, Berne introduced the concept of being “OK”, which consisted of being fair with oneself and others, as well as seeing oneself and others as having equal rights.1 According to Berne, the subjects of all positions focus on “I” versus “Others” and their predicates focus on being “OK” versus “not OK.” Thus, the basic predicates are:
- I am OK
- I am not OK
- You are OK
- You are not OK
These predicates then form the four possible life positions:1
- I am OK, you are OK (I+ U+)
- I am OK, you are not OK (I+ U-)
- I am not OK, you are OK (I- U+)
- I am not OK, you are not OK (I- U-)
Berne proposed that everyone is born in the world being “OK”, but their experiences as a child can change this to being “not OK” and influence whether they believe other people are “OK” or not.1 As Berne said, “People are born princes and princesses and their parents turn them into frogs.”4 This belief – that people’s life positions are tainted by their parents’ behaviors – coupled with the belief that everyone’s Adult ego state can be strengthened, was the foundation for transactional analysis to be viewed as an empowerment method, helping people achieve their goals.
Inspired by his work with Berne, his student Frank H. Ernst Jr. developed the life positions into the OK corral, also known as the OK-not OK matrix.5 In his 1971 article, Ernst hypothesized that the outcome of all transactions is resolved by one of four categories of dynamic social operation:
- Get-On-With, which brings about an “I am okay” and “you are okay” solution (I+ U+). This is the healthiest position, similar to being happy.
- Get-Rid-Of, which brings about an “I am okay” and “you are not okay” solution (I+ U-). This is a “one-up” position in which the individual is at an advantage, which can result in anger from the other party.
- Get-Away-From, which brings about an “I am not okay” and “you are okay” solution (I- U+). This is a “one-down” position in which the individual is disadvantaged, feeling helpless.
- Get-Nowhere-With, which brings about an “I am not okay” and “you are not okay” solution (I- U-). This is essentially a hopeless situation, since neither party is perceived to be OK, and thus effective communication will be very difficult.
The distinguishing components of Ernst’s OK corral are the dynamic operations occurring within someone, which can bring about a chosen resolution for themselves, their internal view, as well as their view of the specific other in the transaction.5 This means, for example, that one could behave in an I+ U- manner at home, but in an I+ U+ manner on date night with their significant other.
Extending on Berne’s transactional analysis, there is an overarching outcome of the transaction: when the Child ego state is in charge of determining the outcome, it will be equivalent to the position of the Child.5 Alternatively, that person’s Adult ego state can exert influence on transactions to bring about certain outcomes, so helping patients understand and adjust their life positions through transactional analysis is crucial for empowerment.
This Canadian psychiatrist was responsible for developing transactional analysis and the notion of life positions.6 Berne’s psychology background allowed him to draw on Freud’s ego states to influence his model of transactional analysis, which has since become a notable area of study within research and treatment. In fact, Berne’s work even resulted in the creation of the International Transactional Analysis Association.
Franklin H. Ernst, Jr.
An American psychiatrist with experience in the military and his own private practice, Ernst attended Eric Berne’s seminars on transactional analysis in 1958.7 Ernst studied and trained under Berne, before becoming a founding and teaching member of the Internal Transactional Analysis Association. Based on his work with Berne, Ernst developed the well-known OK corral to organize the different life positions one can hold.
The concept of life positions was popularized in the 1967 self-help book, I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas Anthony Harris, an American psychiatrist.8 The book became a best-seller and has been considered as a practical guide to transactional analysis as a method for solving problems in real life.3 In his book, Harris also expanded on the feeling of “not OK” in the Child ego state. He hypothesized that children believe they are “not OK” on the basis of having to adapt to unexpected pressures of the real world, compared to the safety that they felt in the uterus.
Notably, Berne’s original conceptualization of life position does not necessarily equate to whether someone is morally good or bad.8 Rather, his concept refers to attitudes of one’s own self-worth and the perceived worth of those they interact with. However, the notion of “I am OK and you are OK” has been useful in considering freedom and human potential, since it implies that everyone’s Adult is equal and has potential for growth.
Positive psychology, the study of what makes life worth living in terms of both individual and societal well-being, has been linked to the study of life positions.9 Research has focused on how human attitudes tend to be optimistic and cooperative, so they are thus inclined toward being “OK”. These researchers turn to suggestions that optimism is a genetic aspect of humanity, and one of our most adaptive characteristics.8 Thus, positive psychology emphasizes the importance of being “OK”, and our ability to return to this life position.
In our world today, life positions have been an integral part of transactional analysis as a model for therapy.10 The belief that people can recognize and reframe their distorted thoughts and improve their self-perceptions, behaviors, and transactions, has driven therapeutic efforts. Part of this work consists of identifying one’s life position, the factors that could have shaped this position, and considering how communication can be improved. As a result, researchers have developed tools to measure life positions, such as life position scales and surveys.11,12
There has been some divergence from Berne’s original transactional analysis and the role that life positions play.13 Berne held that one’s overall life destiny cannot be changed quickly, and other researchers have since conceptualized life positions in ways that are fairly permanent.14 These researchers hold that character life positions are viewed as constant positions, while Ernst’s different outcomes (i.e. I+ U- at home, versus I+ U+ with a significant other) were better characterized as feeling states. However, since both Berne and Ernst used the term “life position”, there has been confusion over what exactly is a life position, and just how stable it is.13
In response to this confusion, some researchers have hypothesized that we can have changing life positions.13 For example, if one’s life position of “I am not OK, you are OK” causes them to often feel helpless, transactional analysis can help them engage in surface level behavior in which they act like they are OK. Over time, consistency with these behaviors will help the Child ego state begin to alter its position to accurately reflect one of “I am OK”. Have you ever heard the phrase, “fake it ‘til you make it”? Surface life positions highlight how people can act differently on a minute-by-minute basis, influenced by their situations, despite their underlying character life position remaining the same.
Behavioral attributes of life positions
As we’ve covered, there are different beliefs on the stability of life positions: some believe that they do not change once established,1,8,14 while others believe that social outcomes can depend on the contexts in which they occur.13 As a result, researchers wanted to study the behavioral characteristics associated with each of the four life positions.15 Perhaps a better understanding of whether life positions are considered to be psychologically and behaviorally different from each other could inform understandings of the stability of life positions.
Using a list of 128 behavioral descriptors typically used in research on diagnosing personality disorders, the researchers approached twenty two transactional analysis professionals.15 I+ U+ and I+ U- shared similar dominance characteristics, with I+ U+ being rated by the professionals as more loving than I+ U-. Compared to the other three positions, I+ U+ was considered to reflect the most desirable balance of dominance and love, since it is perceived to be the healthiest position. Viewed respectfully as a position of leadership, people in this position were believed to be assertive in caring for both their own and others’ needs. This is what allows those in I+ U+ positions to prompt feelings of being “OK” in oneself and others.
I+ U- was considered to be the most interpersonally destructive (between people), inducing submission and compliance.15 Thus, this position invites others to feel “not OK”. I- U+ was also considered to be destructive, but on an intrapersonal level (within oneself). This position was believed to struggle with assertiveness regarding one’s own needs and allocating their energy to meet the perceived needs of others. Unsurprisingly, I- U- was considered to be the most intrapersonally destructive, with the lowest indication of dominance and love characteristics. This results in a great deal of anger directed internally and at others, evoking feelings of guilt, distrust, fear, and resentment. This position invites feelings of being “not OK” both within oneself and others.
Ultimately, the researchers found that those knowledgeable about transactional analysis were able to identify different life positions based on their corresponding behaviors.15 The study also produced a list of descriptors associated with the life positions that could be useful for clinical and research situations. If life positions are believed to change, then there is indeed a degree of difference among the different positions, which are expected to influence behaviors and transactions.
Life positions and life satisfaction
Life satisfaction is a popular area of research due to its associations with mental health, overall health, and happiness.16 Life satisfaction measures the cognitive component of subjective well-being and has been defined as a judgemental process, in which individuals assess the quality of their lives based on their own criteria. Factors like personality and sense-of-self can play a role in life satisfaction. Accordingly, one of the factors expected to play a role in life satisfaction is one’s life position, especially as it pertains to childhood experiences.
Due to the different personality traits and self-perceptions associated with the different life positions, Ali Karababa was curious about the relationship between one’s life position and life satisfaction.16 For example, the position of I- U+ consists of feelings of inferiority, which would be expected to be associated with lower life satisfaction, relative to the position of I+ U+. Karababa had 429 university students rate their life satisfaction and answer a questionnaire developed to assess life positions.
Life satisfaction was found to be positively associated with I+ U+ and I+ U-, and negatively associated with I- U- and I- U+.16 These findings support the idea that one’s life satisfaction may have more to do with being “OK” on an individual level, above and beyond whether others are OK. Unsurprisingly, I+ U+ was the most significant predictor of life satisfaction. After all, believing oneself to be “OK” will allow for healthier existential thoughts, helping individuals with this life position to overcome their problems. These people are more likely to have healthy communications with others, even in the case that the other person is “not OK”.
Thus, these findings highlight the importance of identifying our life positions and working toward being “OK” with the help of transactional analysis. Not only might our quality of life improve as a result of self-satisfaction, but our communication patterns can also improve, increasing relationship satisfaction.
Related TDL Content
Transactional analysis was developed to assess and improve social behaviors and communication patterns. Could Berne have predicted the way that COVID-19 would change the definition of social interaction and communication? While we can only muse about how he would apply transactional analysis to current transactions, this article provides some insight on how communication styles have changed during the pandemic.
- Berne, E. (1962). Classification of positions. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 1(3), 23.
- Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. Grove Press.
- Jacobs, A. (1997). Berne’s life positions: Science and morality. Transactional Analysis Journal, 27(3), 197-206.
- Steiner, C. M. (2012). The OK position: Freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. Transactional Analysis Journal, 42(4), 294-297.
- Ernst, F. H. (1971). The OK corral: The grid for get-on-with. Transactional Analysis Journal, 1(4), 33-42.
- Eric Berne, Founder. (2014). International Transactional Analysis Association. https://www.itaaworld.org/eric-berne-founder
- Franklin Ernst Jr. (2009, June 21). Napa Valley Register. https://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/obituaries/franklin-ernst-jr/article_48a80687-8707-5aad-a0db-cf5b2f0e6052.html
- Harris, T. A. (1967). I’m OK, You’re OK. Harper & Row.
- Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Free Press.
- Solomon, C. (2003). Transactional analysis theory: The basics. Transactional Analysis Journal, 33(1), 15-22.
- Kramer, F. D. (1978). Transactional life position survey: An instrument for measuring life position. Transactional Analysis Journal, 8(2), 166-168.
- Boholst, F. A. (2002). A life position scale. Transactional Analysis Journal, 32(1), 28-32.
- White, T. (1994). Life positions. Transactional Analysis, 24(4), 269-276.
- Woollams, S., & Brown, M. (1978). Transactional Analysis. Huron Valley Institute Press.
- Fine, M. J., & Poggio, J. P. (1977). Behavioral attributes of the life positions. Transactional Analysis Journal, 7(4), 350-356.
- Karababa, A. (2019). Life positions as predictor of life satisfaction among university students. Bolu Abant Ìzzet Baysal Üniversitesi Eğitim Fakültesi Dergisi, 19(2), 530-539.