As mentioned in my previous post – Memory Monday- “Inner child and past child” – I have been spending a fair amount of time recently, thinking about my ‘inner child’ and the ways in which my thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced by that part of myself.
This has been part of a lengthy stretch in therapy (since Christmas) of focusing on my marriage and the substantial difficulties in my relationship with my husband. In particular, the renewed attention I have paid to my ‘inner child’ has been in large measure the result of the book I am currently reading, recommended by my therapist, called ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, by Thomas Harris.
If you can resist the urge to throw it out of the window for its incredibly dated language and examples (feminist friends, take note!), I can heartily recommend it as both a comprehensible guide to Transactional Analysis, and also an immensely powerful book for anyone looking to understand their own patterns of behaviour, and looking for hope that there is a real possibility for change in ourselves and in others.
Transactional Analysis (TA) has its roots in psychoanalysis, but split off from traditional psychoanalysis in the sense that rather than looking at internal psychological dynamics, it focuses on the dynamics contained in people’s interactions (or transactions). The ‘cure’ to emotional difficulties is thus framed in terms of understanding and changing these transactions, rather than uncovering the content of unconsciously held ideas.
TA also postulates three ‘ego states’, of the Parent, Child and Adult, with individuals’ emotional states being created out of an ‘internal dialogue’ between these states. By way of an incredibly brief and simplistic analysis, the ‘parent state’ is essentially the individual’s ‘collection of data’ or ‘internal recordings’ provided by their parents or parental figures/objects in the first few years of life. This data is comprised of everything a child saw and heard his parents do or say, and includes everything from admonitions, rules and laws to praise and positive reinforcement. Parent data, in itself, is unreflective and unexamined. To quote from the book: “Any external situation in which the little person feels himself to be dependent to the extent that he is not free to question or to explore produces data which is stored in the Parent”.
The ‘Child’ state is the recording of the ‘internal events’ that accompanied the external situations recorded in the ‘Parent’ – they are the child’s feelings, his or her emotional responses to what he sees and hears. As with Parent data, this can cover a whole spectrum ranging from frustration, anger and rejection, to curiosity, joy and excitement. By contrast to both the Parent and Child states, the Adult state grows out of self-awareness and original thought; it arises “as a result of the child’s ability to find out for himself what is different about life from the ‘taught concept’ of life in his Parent and the ‘felt concept’ of life in his Child”. The Adult uses both Parent and Child data to make decisions about what views to accept and what choices to make in the present, as well as what behaviours are appropriate and constitute a response to the present situation rather than to ‘Parent data’ and the past. The goal is not to eliminate or suppress the Parent and Child, but to be aware of them, to be able to separate them out in order to consider them, and to make them available for the Adult to use, rather than being used and controlled by them.
TA also postulates that there are four ‘life positions’ that individuals can adopt, which profoundly influences how they go about their lives and interact with people. These are: ‘I’m okay, you’re not okay’; ‘I’m not okay, you’re okay’; ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay’; and ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’. The healthiest position to adopt is the latter, but an important part of the book is the ‘revelation’ that the ‘natural situation of childhood’ leads to everyone having a ‘not OK Child’. Even the children of the most loving and nurturing parents go through the difficult and frustrating process of individuating and learning about boundaries (amongst other things), and the inevitable unhappy feelings that this process engenders, leads (according to TA) to every child carrying a ‘not OK’ burden. As with the Parent, this ‘not OK Child’ can manifest at any time during a person’s interactions with others (transactions), whatever age or stage of life they are at.
The Amazon review of the book says: “Hundreds of thousands of people have found this phenomenal breakthrough in psychotherapy a turning point in their lives. In sensible, non-technical language Thomas A Harris explains how to gain control of yourself, your relationships and your future – no matter what happened in the past.” It’s hard to ignore an endorsement like that, even taking into account the old-fashioned language! And though there will undoubtedly be many people to whom this book does not appeal and for whom it doesn’t seem to work; and although you may not be convinced that these three states really do exist in everyone – I think the model does offer up some helpful ways of thinking about ourselves and how we relate to others.
For me, the chapter on marriage was particularly helpful, and highlighted the extent to which my ‘Child’ is almost permanently being triggered and in control, in my interactions with my husband. To quote from a few places in that chapter: “It is the nature of the Child to mistake disappointment for disaster….this is what happens when marriages break. The Child takes over in one of both partners, and the whole marriage is shattered when imperfections begin to appear……the average marriage contract is made by the Child, which understands love as something you feel and not something you do, and which sees happiness as something you pursue rather than a by-product of working towards the happiness of someone other than yourself…..”
I believe that there is a ‘right time’ to read every book – and now is the right time for me and this book. I think we know when the ‘right time’ has come, because we feel drawn to read something that may have been recommended to us for a while, or may have sat on our shelves for years. For me, this book builds on a number of other books I have read recently, but which all examine similar questions in different ways. These include: “The seven principles for making marriage work” by John Gottman and Nan Silver; “The 5 love languages” by Gary Chapman; and “Barefoot disciple – walking the way of passionate humility” by Stephen Cherry, a Christian book but with wide-ranging and broad appeal in the way that C.S. Lewis’s writings have broad relevance and appeal. All of these books have challenged me to look beyond the ways in which I am held captive by the experiences and feelings of my childhood, and to recognise that it is possible to do things differently and to respond differently in my relationships. It will take courage, self-awareness, a great effort of will, vulnerability, openness and patience; but all of these books lead me to believe that it is possible and that the rewards can be immense.
As mentioned in my recent post ‘Transferentially yours – an email to my therapist, unsent’, therapy has been turbulent recently not just because of the painfulness of delving into my marriage difficulties, but also because of what felt like a major rupture with my therapist over the issue of ‘resistance’ in therapy, and whether I was willing to make changes in my life. This arose after I impulsively wrote my therapist a note stating that though I could change my behaviour and even perhaps the way I thought about others, it just didn’t feel possible for me to change the way I thought about myself. Just a few days later, and in the midst of these discussions, I read the following in ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’: “There is also the type of patient who, although suffering from disabling symptoms, still does not really want to change. His treatment contract read, ‘I’ll promise to let you help me if I don’t have to get well’. This negative attitude changes, however, as the patient begins to see that there is indeed another way to live. A working knowledge of P-A-C [Parent – Adult – Child] makes it possible for the Adult to explore new and exciting frontiers of life, a desire which has been there all along but has been buried under the burden of the NOT OK”.
My impulsive note was ‘of the moment’ and reflected a feeling of depression and hopelessness – it was not a rational and decisive view on what was possible. But it’s true to say that a part of me is resistant to change and sometimes believes it is impossible – and this book has been invaluable in helping me to identify that part and not be buried underneath it. Feminists – read this book at your peril due to the language! But we all read this book at our peril in the sense that we are all afraid of change – and this book is certainly a major challenge and incentive to do just that….