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The dark side of life positions
This article explores where life positions come from and how some of them can contribute to some negative extremes of behaviour. It also explores how an individual’s career or beliefs can reinforce some potentially negative life positions, and provides suggestions on how to achieve balance in such situations.
Transactional analysis (TA) is a theory of personality and communication that can help explain the dynamics of human interactions. TA proposes that people have three ego states: parent, adult, and child, which correspond to different aspects of their psychological functioning. TA also suggests that people adopt different life positions, which are basic beliefs about themselves and others, such as “I’m OK, you’re OK”, “I’m not OK, you’re OK”, “I’m OK, you’re not OK”, or “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” (Berne, 1964).
According to this theory, life positions are fundamental beliefs about ourselves and others that are formed during early childhood and influence our communication patterns and psychological wellbeing throughout our life. There are four primary life positions, each reflecting a specific combination of beliefs about oneself and others:
- I’m OK, you’re OK: This is the optimal and healthy position, where we believe that both ourselves and others have inherent value and worth. People with this position tend to have more satisfying relationships, effective communication, and a higher sense of self-esteem.
- I’m OK, you’re not OK: In this position, we believe that we are fundamentally valuable or competent, while others are not. This can lead to feelings of superiority, self-righteousness, or a tendency to engage in manipulative or controlling behaviour towards others.
- I’m not OK, you’re OK: In this position, we perceive ourselves as inferior or inadequate, while viewing others as more valuable or capable. This can result in low self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, or a constant need for validation and approval from others.
- I’m not OK, you’re not OK: This is the most negative and pessimistic position, where we believe that both ourselves and others lack value or worth. People with this position may struggle with feelings of despair, hopelessness, or a sense of disconnection from others.
Life positions are shaped by early life experiences, particularly the quality of interactions and relationships with caregivers and significant others. These fundamental beliefs can become deeply ingrained and resistant to change, influencing our perception of ourselves and others, as well as our patterns of behaviour and communication. Whilst an individual can often enter into a relationship in an open and positive way, they can often find that relationship turns sour as they subconsciously or consciously manipulate the interactions to reinforce a particular life position.
Life positions can be thought of as part of an individual’s “rules of engagement” during interactions with others. They represent the individual’s inner bias towards that particular interaction. However, an individual’s life position may be driven by underlying unfulfilled psychological needs which not only create a cognitive distortion, but also drive behaviours which seek to reinforce that individual’s life position. This can lead to various behaviours which can be destructive to self and others, in some cases leading to serious mental disorder.
Often, our beliefs and experiences will tend to reinforce potentially negative life positions, which can be detrimental in our relationships with others. We can have a look in more detail at how this happens.
What is a “I’m OK, you’re not OK” life position?
The “I’m OK, you’re not OK” life position is characterized by a sense of superiority, arrogance, and contempt for others. People who adopt this position often view themselves as better than others, and tend to blame, criticize, or manipulate others to get what they want. They may also have difficulty empathizing with others, and may lack trust and intimacy in their relationships. They may feel lonely, isolated, or insecure, and may use their power or status to compensate for their low self-esteem.
The “I’m OK, you’re not OK” life position is usually formed in childhood as a result of negative experiences with caregivers or authority figures. For example, a child who was abused, neglected, or rejected by their parents may develop this position as a way of coping with their pain and trauma. They may learn to distrust others and to rely only on themselves. They may also internalize the message that they are superior to others, and that others are inferior, unworthy, or dangerous.
The “I’m OK, you’re not OK” life position can be changed with the help of therapy, self-awareness, and positive experiences with others. By recognizing and challenging their distorted beliefs about themselves and others, people who adopt this position can learn to develop a more balanced and realistic view of themselves and the world. They can also learn to communicate more effectively and respectfully with others, and to build more satisfying and authentic relationships.
If a person had the life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” and applied that to their world view, would they tend to look for and exaggerate the impact of narratives which tend to confirm this position? Could this exaggeration be so extreme, that it effectively serves to traumatise the individual?
A person who adopts the life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” may have a distorted perception of reality that reinforces their sense of superiority and distrust of others. They may selectively focus on and magnify the negative aspects of other people’s actions, intentions, or beliefs, while ignoring or minimizing their own flaws or mistakes. This cognitive bias may lead them to interpret events or situations in a way that confirms their pre-existing assumptions and prejudices. In some cases, this confirmation bias may become so severe that it triggers a psychological trauma response in the individual. They may experience intense fear, anxiety, anger, or guilt as a result of perceiving threats or dangers that are not objectively present or proportionate. They may also develop coping mechanisms that further isolate them from reality, such as denial, rationalization, projection, or dissociation.
What is a “I’m not OK, you’re OK” life position?
A “I’m not OK, you’re OK” life position is a psychological state in which a person feels inferior, inadequate, or unworthy in comparison to others. This position is often associated with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or shame. A person with this position may have difficulty asserting their needs, expressing their feelings, or setting boundaries. They may also tend to avoid conflict, seek approval, or blame themselves for any problems. A “I’m not OK, you’re OK” life position can be influenced by various factors, such as childhood experiences, trauma, social conditioning, or cultural norms.
If a person had the life position of “I’m not OK, you’re OK” and applied that to their world view, would they tend to look for and exaggerate the impact of narratives which tend to confirm this position? Could this exaggeration be so extreme, that it effectively serves to traumatise the individual?
A person who believes that they are not OK, but others are OK, may have a distorted perception of reality that reinforces their low self-esteem and negative emotions. They may be more likely to seek out and magnify stories or events that confirm their inferiority and helplessness, while ignoring or minimizing those that challenge or contradict it. This cognitive bias, known as confirmation bias, can lead to a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and learned helplessness. In some cases, this cycle can be so severe that it causes the person to experience psychological trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. trauma is not only caused by external factors, but also by internal ones, such as beliefs, expectations, and interpretations of reality.
What is a “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” life position?
The “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” life position is a negative and pessimistic belief that both oneself and others lack value or worth. It is one of the four possible life positions in transactional analysis, a theory of personality and communication (The Behavioral Scientist, n.d.). Individuals with this mindset may struggle with feelings of despair, hopelessness, or a sense of disconnection from others. They may also exhibit eccentric behaviour, lose interest in living, or in extreme cases, commit suicide or homicide (Serenity Creations Online, n.d.). This life position is usually formed in early childhood as a result of traumatic or abusive experiences that damage one’s self-esteem and trust in others (The Decision Lab, n.d.). Some examples of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” statements are:
- Nothing matters any more.
- Everyone is out to get me.
- Life is meaningless and cruel.
- I hate myself and I hate you.
An example analysis of an online transaction
“I was in an online conversation, initially there were two of us, and we were enjoying a free exchange of ideas. Another person entered the chat, they decided to set their own rules for the chat where no-one else could talk while they wanted to talk, which of course did not happen, and they got upset because no-one knew about this rule.
They had not actually told anyone about the rule. In addition, it seemed they only wanted to chat with one of us, and it seemed to me that they considered themselves “not OK”, and wanted to only speak to someone they felt was also “not OK”. They regarded me as “OK” and seemed to want me to just be quiet.
After they got upset, the other person tried to help them, but it seemed that in the mind of this new person, the person trying to help thought themselves superior to them, and they changed their conversation into one where they were trying to get the person who was trying to help upset too.”
In the online conversation described, it appears that the new person who entered the chat had a life position of “I’m not OK, you’re OK”, which means that they felt inferior and insecure compared to others. They tried to cope with this by setting their own rules for the chat, which were unrealistic and unreasonable, and by trying to isolate themselves with one person who they felt was also “not OK”.
They did not communicate her rules or expectations clearly, and got upset when these were not followed or respected. They also did not listen to or appreciate the attempts of the other person to help them or empathize with her. They may have perceived the other person as having a life position of “I’m OK, you’re OK”, which means that they had a healthy and balanced view of themselves and others. They may have felt threatened or challenged by this, and they switched to another life position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK”, which means that they felt hopeless and cynical about themselves and others. They then tried to drag the other person down to her level by being hostile, defensive, and manipulative.
Some examples of the ego states and life positions in the conversation are:
- When the new person entered the chat and decided to set their own rules, they were acting from their parent ego state, which is the source of authority and morality. They may have internalized some negative messages from her parents or caregivers that made them feel unworthy or inadequate. They may have also learned some rigid or unrealistic rules about how to behave or communicate with others.
- When the new person got upset because no-one knew or followed her rules, they were acting from their child ego state, which is the source of emotions and impulses. They may have felt rejected, frustrated, or angry, and they reacted in an immature or irrational way. They may have also regressed to some childhood patterns of coping with stress or conflict.
- When the other person tried to help or empathize with the new person, they were acting from their adult ego state, which is the source of logic and reality. They may have tried to understand the situation objectively and rationally, and they may have offered some constructive feedback or support. They may have also respected the boundaries and feelings of others.
- When the new person switched to another life position and tried to bring the other person down to their level, they were acting from a life position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK”. They may have given up on themselves and others, and they may have adopted a negative and pessimistic attitude. They may have also projected their own insecurities or fears onto others.
Attachment theory and life positions
Attachment theory is a psychological framework that explains how humans form emotional bonds with others, especially in early childhood. According to this theory, a person’s life position is a basic belief about oneself and others, which influences their behaviour and relationships. One of the possible life positions is “I’m not OK, You’re OK”, which means that the person feels inferior, inadequate, or unworthy, while perceiving others as superior, competent, or valuable.
A person who adopts this life position may have experienced a lack of consistent and responsive care from their primary caregivers, leading them to internalize a sense of rejection, abandonment, or neglect. They may also have faced harsh criticism, abuse, or trauma that damaged their self-esteem and trust in others. As a result, they may develop insecure attachment styles, such as anxious or avoidant, that make them crave approval, validation, or affection from others, while fearing rejection, abandonment, or loss.
One way that such an individual may try to cope with their negative self-image and low self-esteem is by acquiring knowledge and using it as a source of power, prestige, or superiority. For example, they may pursue higher education, professional credentials, or specialized skills that make them feel more competent, confident, or worthy. They may also use their knowledge to impress, influence, or manipulate others, or to challenge, criticize, or undermine those who disagree with them. By doing so, they may shift their life position from “I’m not OK, You’re OK” to “I’m OK, You’re not OK”, which means that they feel superior, dominant, or righteous, while perceiving others as inferior, ignorant, or wrong.
However, this is not a healthy or sustainable coping strategy in the long term. Firstly, it does not address the underlying causes of their insecurity and low self-worth. It only masks their vulnerability and pain with a false sense of pride and arrogance. Second of all, it alienates them from others and prevents them from forming authentic and meaningful relationships. It creates a barrier of defensiveness and hostility that blocks empathy and compassion. Third of all, it exposes them to the risk of failure and humiliation. If their knowledge is challenged, contradicted, or surpassed by others, they may feel threatened, insecure, or ashamed. They may also lose respect, credibility, or status among their peers or superiors.
How can world-views such as the life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” be used to explain the development of the individual’s political views and affiliations?
According to this position, the person believes that they are superior, competent and worthy, while others are inferior, incompetent and unworthy. This position can influence the development of the individual’s political views and affiliations in various ways. For example, a person who adopts this position may be more likely to support authoritarian, conservative or nationalist policies that favour their own group and discriminate against other groups. They may also be more resistant to change, diversity or compromise, and more prone to blame or scapegoat others for their problems. On the other hand, a person who rejects this position may be more likely to support democratic, liberal or progressive policies that promote equality, justice and cooperation among different groups. They may also be more open to new ideas, perspectives and experiences, and more willing to take responsibility for their actions and outcomes.
How would a world-view such as the life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” cause an individual to be more susceptible to religious extremism?
A life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” is a psychological state that reflects a low level of trust and respect for others, and a high level of self-righteousness and superiority. Such a world-view can make an individual more vulnerable to religious extremism, as they may seek to validate their own beliefs and values by rejecting or attacking those who differ from them. Religious extremism can also provide a sense of identity, belonging and purpose for someone who feels alienated or insecure in their social environment. Furthermore, religious extremism can offer a justification for violence and aggression against perceived enemies or threats, as well as a promise of reward or salvation in the afterlife.
How would a world-view such as the life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK” affect a health worker to lose empathy for their clients?
Working in the health and healing sector can be rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also pose some challenges for one’s personal growth and wellbeing. One of these challenges is the tendency to adopt a life position that is “I’m OK, you’re not OK”, which means that one sees oneself as superior, competent and healthy, while seeing others as inferior, incompetent and unhealthy. This life position can create a sense of separation, judgment and arrogance, which can negatively affect one’s mindset and behaviour towards oneself and others.
To avoid the pitfalls of this life position, it is important to embrace one’s personal healing mission with humility, compassion and openness. humility means acknowledging that one is not perfect, that one has limitations and weaknesses, and that one can learn from others. compassion means feeling empathy and kindness for oneself and others, especially those who are suffering or struggling. Openness means being willing to explore new perspectives, experiences and possibilities, without being attached to one’s own beliefs or opinions.
By cultivating these qualities, one can create a more balanced and harmonious life position, which is “I’m OK, you’re OK”. This means that one sees oneself and others as equally valuable, capable and worthy of respect and care. This life position can foster a sense of connection, appreciation and cooperation, which can positively influence one’s mindset and behaviour towards oneself and others.
Many individuals have religious beliefs which lead them to conclude that non-believers may be punished or damned in the afterlife. This tends to reinforce any life position they may have that is “I’m OK, you’re not OK”. How can they best embrace their personal spiritual mission whilst avoiding any potential negative influences of this position on their mindset and behaviour?
One possible way to address this question is to consider the following points:
- religion is a personal choice and a matter of faith, not a universal truth or a source of superiority. Different people may have different beliefs and interpretations of the same religion, or follow different religions altogether. This does not mean that one is right, and the other is wrong, but rather that they have different perspectives and experiences that shape their spirituality.
- Non-believers are not necessarily immoral, evil, or doomed. They may have their own moral values, ethical principles, and sources of meaning and purpose in life. They may also have different views on the nature and existence of the afterlife, or none. This does not mean that they are less worthy of respect, compassion, or dignity than believers.
- The best way to embrace one’s personal spiritual mission is to focus on one’s own relationship with God (or whatever higher power one believes in), rather than judging or condemning others for their beliefs or lack thereof. One can practice one’s faith by following its teachings, rituals, and values, and by expressing gratitude, love, and service to God and others. One can also seek to learn from other faiths and cultures, and appreciate the diversity and richness of human spirituality.
The potential negative influences of the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” position on one’s mindset and behaviour include arrogance, intolerance, prejudice, discrimination, violence, and isolation. These are contrary to the core values of most religions, such as peace, justice, mercy, kindness, and unity. They also hinder one’s personal growth, happiness, and fulfilment. To avoid these influences, one can adopt a more humble, open-minded, respectful, and empathetic attitude towards others, regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds. One can also recognize that everyone is a child of God (or a fellow human being), and that everyone has the potential for good and evil within them.
The problem for the counsellor
Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a core concept in person-centred counselling, which means that the therapist accepts and respects the client as a human being, without judging or evaluating them. UPR implies that the therapist should adopt a life position of “I’m OK, you’re OK” during the therapy session, meaning that both the therapist and the client are equally valuable and worthy of respect.
However, this life position may be challenged by the fact that the client has come for help and needs the therapist’s assistance, which could create a power imbalance or a sense of superiority in the therapist. This could lead the therapist to move to a life position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK”, meaning that the therapist views themselves as better or more competent than the client. This could undermine the therapeutic relationship and hinder the client’s growth and Self-actualization.
To avoid this pitfall, the therapist should be aware of their own feelings and beliefs, and how they may affect their interaction with the client. The therapist should also practice self-care and supervision, to prevent burnout and maintain their own wellbeing. The therapist should also strive to empathize with the client’s perspective and feelings, and to communicate this empathy through active listening and reflection.
The therapist should also encourage the client to express their thoughts and emotions freely, without imposing their own agenda or expectations. The therapist should also respect the client’s autonomy and self-determination, and support them in finding their own solutions and goals. By doing so, the therapist can achieve a mindset that balances UPR with realism and humility, and that fosters a genuine and trusting therapeutic relationship.
A common situation person-centred counsellors face is when they feel the need to problem-solve for the client. This active desire could be the point where a counsellor sub-consciously switches from the OK-OK position to OK-Not OK. It’s certainly a warning that the OK-OK position is slipping.
It might be worth reminding oneself that one of the core principles of person-centred counselling is that the client is the expert on their own life and has the capacity to grow and change. Therefore, it is important that the client solve their own problems, rather than the counsellor problem-solving for them.
If the counsellor tries to give advice or solutions, they may impose their own values and assumptions on the client, which may not be helpful or appropriate for the client’s situation. Moreover, the counsellor may undermine the client’s self-confidence and autonomy, which are essential for personal growth.
By contrast, if the client solves their own problems, they may develop a greater sense of self-awareness, responsibility and empowerment, which can lead to more lasting and satisfying outcomes. The counsellor’s role is to facilitate this process by providing a safe, empathic and non-judgmental environment where the client can explore their feelings and thoughts freely and find their own answers.
Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. Grove Press.
The Behavioral Scientist. (n.d.). Life Position. https://www.thebehavioralscientist.com/glossary/life-position
Serenity Creations Online. (n.d.). Im Ok, You’re Ok – TA Psychological Positions. https://serenitycreationsonline.com/im_ok.html
The Decision Lab. (n.d.). Life Position. https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/philosophy/life-position