May 3, 2008
Continuing our 30 days of Christmas in spring, today I’m going to offer you a gift of self-awareness. You will probably have to invest a little money in this one, but, as the feller said, nothing ventured-nothing gained.
I’ve always considered myself an explorer of the human condition. As Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This was my mantra long before I knew that someone who had lived more than a couple thousand years before me had also figured it out. By the time I started high school I had also figured out that most people, myself included, made bad choices for no apparent reason. This puzzled me. Why would people do things that were obviously to their detriment? Why did I do things that on further examination seemed stupid?
Somehow I came on a book by a psychiatrist named Eric Berne. I had read a lot of psychology books by thr time I found this one and like many people I considered a lot of what they had to say silly. Some of it might apply to some people and some it might apply to me but unlike other sciences they didn’t seem to offer a framework for understanding the basis for human interactions. Berne’s book, WHAT DO YOU SAY AFTER YOU SAY HELLO?, did just that. Thomas Harris had written one of the first self-help books in the 1960s from a part of Berne’s work called I’M OK, YOU’RE OK and later John Bradshaw would build a self-help dynasty on just the child ego state paradigm which he called the “inner child” but the only real influence these men had was to belittle the precepts in Berne’s book as “pop” psychology. Instead of these abbreviated versions of the theory, Berne’s magnum opus presents a realistic and workable theory of human behavior was laid out from cradle to grave and in the years since I’ve read it I’ve seen it verified again and again. I don’t think it explains everything for everyone but it is a fascinating viewpoint on human behavior.
I also risk belittling Berne’s theory by condensing it, but I wish to give you enough of a taste to whet your appetite. Simply put, the book posits a trio of mainsprings of human action- transactional analysis, script analysis, and games.
Transactional analysis is the study of human interaction. Berne supposes a trio of ego states: the child, the adult, and the parent. These are roughly analogous to Freud’s id, superego, and ego but go much deeper in explaining the voices everyone hears in their heads.
The Child is the spontaneous, intimate, fun-loving part of a person. It is free of inhibitions but somewhat naïve. It has the domain of creativity and open love. It is engaging and free. It can also be petulant and afraid. It fears a lack of control in it’s life and can act out accordingly.
The Adult is the rational mind. It is the inner computer that, like Freud’s Superego, mediates between the other two ego states. It acquires data and rationally makes decisions. But it is not always in control.
The Parent is the programmed mind. It’s the part of you that tells you to wash your hands before you eat, or wear a seatbelt, or to always be on time. It is what humans have in place of instincts. Early instruction that your parents gave you to get you through life, good or bad, resides here.
Transactions are either complimentary or crossed. An example of a complementary transaction might be lovers in their Child ego states exploring each others bodies, or a group of people playing a game together where each is open to their own feelings and mindless of the score. OTOH, a crossed transaction might be when one person is in their Adult ego state and another is in their Child or Parent ego state. An example of both of these kinds of transactions would be a typical exchange between two people on the subject of dinner:
“When will dinner be ready?”
“In about 10 minutes.”
Both people are in their adult ego state. One is asking for information and the other is supplying data.
“When will dinner be ready?”
“Leave me alone, don’t you see that I’m going as fast as I can?”
Here the first person is simply asking for data (adult) while the second is responding from their child ego state to the first person’s parent ego state. This results in a crossed transaction and both people are frustrated.
The second part of Berne’s theory is called Script Analysis. It deals with the life plan that people make for themselves while still very young. This is often based on a combination of what they see the grown ups around them do (most especially their parents) and the stories they are familiar with while they are making these determinations. This explains a lot of what the bible calls the sins of the fathers being perpetuated on the heads of the children. Berne refers to children as Martians. They are strangers in a strange land trying to make sense of it. As a result, they tend to interpret what they see and hear literally.
An example might be:
Daddy drinks. The young child interprets this as drinking is good since daddy is good. He asks his daddy for a drink of what he’s having. Daddy says, “You’re too young to drink.” Daddy thinks he has told his child not to drink. What he has actually told his child is that he should drink when he gets older. And the child follows this instruction. We wonder why the children of alcoholics are so prone to be alcoholics. We say that it’s a genetic pre-disposition. But that doesn’t explain why a child that grew up in the living hell that constitutes being a child in a alcoholic home would ever take the first drink. Berne gives us a framework to explain that.
Life Scripts easily fall into the plots of familiar fairy tales and myths. (Perhaps that’s why we continue to tell them.) Cinderella finds love in spite of a horrible home life. Little Red Riding Hood is consistently fooled by men pretending to be something they are not, even though the signs are all there. Humpty Dumpty has an event in his life that allows him to give up. Sisyphus takes on impossible tasks. Scripts can result in winners or losers and are difficult to give up even when they are discovered. As the son of a woman who had four long term relationships in her life, all with alcoholics, this made a lot of sense to me.
The third part of this framework for human behavior is game analysis. Games are, simply put, a substitute for real intimacy. (The theory also goes into “pastimes” but to deal with them, just as to do justice to the other two parts of the triad, I’d be taking on a load that would expand this article to the length of the book). These games aren’t the games you might be familiar with but they are interactions that everyone will find familiar on some level. A psychological game has a number of indispensable parts- a come on, a response, and a switch. Games fall into easily categorical types and are numerous. If you have someone in your life that frustrates you, chances are they are addicted to one or more games.
Popular games include:
IGYN, YSOB- I’ve got you now you son of a bitch. Where a person expects the worst of you and always finds it.
NOKTIS- Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen- Where the point isn’t the trouble but the fact that nobody knows. Compelling the person to constantly regale anyone who will listen with their latest catastrophe.
Yes, But- This one goes like this: “Little Bobby is acting out at school.” “Have you tried Ritalin?” "Yes, but he’s allergic.” “Have you tried a time out?” “Yes, but he never stays in his room so it doesn’t work.” “Have you tried taking him to a therapist?” “Yes, but its too expensive.” And so on.
Berne gives a framework for finding what you are doing that is sabotaging your life, your interactions, and your ability to be intimate with another person. There are many more subtleties to his theory. What he calls the tee-shirts people wear (a popular one might say “I’m proud I’m an alcoholic” on the front and “remember, it’s a disease” on the back) is one such insight. The whole “I’m OK, You’re OK” subject of Harris’ book is another. (Bullies have an intrinsic “I’m OK, You’re not OK” mindset, as do criminals. Co-dependants have an “I’m not OK, You’re OK” worldview.)
I’ve read a lot of psychology both before and since. I’ve been trained in psychology, sociology, and psychiatric illness in college. But I’ve never found anyone who could explain why people do what they do as completely and dependably as Eric Berne. Read his book if you want to really know why people do what they do and tell me if you don’t find insight in it, because I’ll be anxious to hear.
(The links supplied to Amazon.com are strictly for convenience and are not sponsored. Berne's books should be available to you from the library as well)