I’m OK, You’re OK


Dr Eric Berne, a Canadian born psychologist designed Transactional Analysis, or TA as it is often known today, as a system that seeks to provide guidance on the interactions of people and to help improve their social connectedness. Berne’s body of work has been used extensively over the past 35 years and, in this brief presentation we will look at two particular aspects of it which still have high acceptance today.

TA needs to be considered carefully as a way of helping us to better understand people’s learned behaviours. We should note that it assumes:

  • People are OK
  • Everyone has the capacity to think
  • People decide their own destiny (and these decisions can be changed)

Berne made complex interpersonal transactions understandable when he recognised that people can interact from one of three “Ego States” – Parent, Adult or Child.  Let’s therefore look at these states one at a time.

Ego States

According to Berne all individuals have three discrete parts to their personality. For Berne these aspects are filters through which we see the world (and all have been learned over time usually very early on in our childhood). Berne called these personality filters “states”.  Every individual therefore communicates predominantly through one of the three “Ego States” or “PAC” states for short which are in diagrammatic form below.

These three “Ego States” operate as follows: 

Parent Ego States (Taught)

This state contains the attitudes, feelings and behaviour incorporated in external sources, primarily parents. It is divided into two parts:

  • nurturing parent: concerned with caring, loving, helping
  • controlling parent: criticising, censoring, punishing

When a person is in his or her parent state, he/she responds automatically, almost as if the individual has a memory recording, playing in his or her head. Everyone has Parent memory recordings – some are helpful – they enable us to carry out routine tasks automatically without having to think too much about them. Other memory recordings can create problems – if a Parent memory is triggered automatically in an inappropriate situation. 

Adult Ego States (Thought)

A person’s Adult Ego State is his or her thoughts, feelings and behaviour in the here and now that is calmly appropriate to the external stimulus being experienced at any one time. The state has nothing to do with the person’s age. It contains those behaviours concerned with collecting information, organising and analysing. It operates dispassionately and without emotion. 

Child Ego States (Felt)

This state contains all the impulses that come naturally to an infant. But just as the Parent has different aspects or characteristics which relate to this state, so does the Child state. The Child develops into two parts – the Natural or Free Child and the Adapted Child 

  • The Natural/Free Child: Is spontaneous, energetic, curious, loving and uninhibited, the part of you that feels free and loves pleasure. Many adults repress their natural child and exaggerate the parent.
  • The Adapted Child: Your Adapted Child developed when you learned to change (adapt) your feelings and behaviour in response to the world around you. Learned feelings of guilt, fear, depression, anxiety, envy and pride are all characteristic of the Adapted Child. The Adapted Child can become the most troublesome part of our personality. 

Each one of the Ego States is a system of communication with its own language and function; the Parent’s is a language of values, the Adult’s is a language of logic and rationality and the Child’s is a language of emotions. According to Berne, effective functioning in the world depends on the availability of all three intact Ego States (although the Adult State is ideally the “access door” to the other two).

One of the long-term outcomes of the Ego States (and the Games that we engage in) is that we become “driven” in certain ways and seek particular kinds of what Berne called “strokes” from other people. In combination, this leads us to one of four “Life Positions” or types of behaviour that can be plotted on what Berne called the “OK Corral”:

Berne suggested that each individual will eventually (often in his or her late teens) make a decision on how they will generally relate to others and themselves. Berne called this their Life Position and once decided upon, the Life Position influences how the person thinks, feels and behaves.

Relating this back to Ego States:

  • the I’m OK, You’re not OK quadrant is the dominant Parental Ego State
  • the I’m not OK, You’re OK quadrant is the dominant Child Ego State
  • the I’m OK and You’re OK quadrant which is the healthy Adult Ego State
  • the I’m not OK, You’re not OK is a problem for everyone. According to Berne 99.9% of people fall into the three quadrants other than the one at the bottom left.

Most of us do not consistently act from a single Life Position and our positions can change from situation to situation. However, we may adopt a single Life Position with a particular person every time that we meet them until such time as the parties deliberately decide to change the relationship.


Berne’s ego states theory has been used extensively to help better understand communication between individuals with different Ego states (where we want to avoid Parental and Child state conversations in particular).

The OK corral theory has been applied in the areas of communication but more extensively in the realm of leadership development. In the latter, the aim is to get leaders to operate as much as possible from an I’m OK, you’re OK stand-point when working with individuals and teams. This allows them to avoid over-doing the parental role (which many leaders naturally slip into) and the child ego state, where the leader over-does the friend role and fails to stand back from the team in order to give firm direction and lead strongly when it is important to do so.

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

Colin is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has 30 years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at info@resourcezone.com

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