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.