I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris

Thomas A. Harris, author of I'm OK - You're OK who studied with Eric Berne MD

Thomas A. Harris, author of I’m OK – You’re OK

Dr. Thomas A. Harris is the author of I’m OK – You’re OK, the 1969 bestseller based upon the ideas of Transactional Analysis by Dr. Eric Berne.  The late Thomas A. Harris was born in Texas. Harris attended Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia.  Upon graduation, Harris began his psychiatry training, and then entered the U.S. Navy as a psychiatrist.

After a long career with the Navy, Harris entered private practice in Sacramento, California in 1956. Around this time, Dr. Eric Berne of Carmel was getting ready to publish his new theory on Transactional Analysis. Dr. Harris went on to study with Dr. Berne, becoming a new breed of psychiatrists embracing the techniques of Transactional Analysis. After the phenomenal success of Berne’s Games People Play in 1964, Harris published I’m OK – You’re OK in 1969, his guide to Transactional Analysis based upon the work of Dr. Eric Berne.

After I’m OK – You’re OK, Dr. Harris went on to become a director of the International Transactional Analysis Association. Dr. Harris continued with an active life in psychiatry and practitioner of Transactional Analysis up until his death.

About I’m OK – You’re OK

In I’m OK – You’re OK, Dr. Thomas A. Harris takes the ideas of transactional analysis, as outlined by Dr. Eric Berne, and simplifies them for the mass audience.

In transactional analysis, as defined by Dr. Eric Berne – there are three observable ego states: Parent, Adult, and Child. With these ego states, one can simplify and understand interpersonal communication. According to Dr. Harris, most of us live out the Not OK feelings of a child, dependent upon OK Others (parents). This leads us to the position of I’m Not OK – You’re OK. But with an analysis of our personalities, Dr. Harris provides a framework with which to change our lives.

I’m OK – You’re OK may make it up there right next to the Holy Bible or maybe even The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook”  Life Magazine.

Interesting Review of I’m OK – You’re OK

You know a book is a classic when you see it featured in sitcoms. In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry opens the door of his apartment to find all-time hopeless case George Costanza spread out on the couch reading I’m OK – You’re OK. For Jerry, reading a self-help book with a silly title is just one more piece of proof of his friend’s loser status.

I’m OK – You’re OK is indeed an icon of the pop psychology boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Demand for the book was tremendous, and today it sits comfortably in the pantheon of self-help titles that have sold over ten million copies. But a lot of tacky things sold by the truckload in that era, like patchwork bell-bottoms, Bay City Rollers records and tickets to Evel Knievel events – what is different about this product is that it is still selling well.

To understand the success of Harris’s book, we must look at the trail blazed by his mentor, Dr. Eric Berne. Berne’s Games People Play, published three years earlier, was a surprise hit which brought academic psychology to a mass audience.

 Berne had developed something called ‘Transactional Analysis’. It was a boring term for an exciting concept, reversing the Freudian tradition that saw the world as ‘I’ or ‘me’-centred. For Freud, other people were not important as people – they were merely one’s ‘object relations’. Berne reacted against this, elevating relationships to the high table of study. He believed that an encounter between two or more people, a ‘transaction’, was psychotherapy’s elusive unit of analysis. Instead of asking a subject about themselves (as in psychoanalysis), one could determine the problem simply by being a witness to what is actually said or done in the course of a transaction. Berne (as well as Harris) would perform psychotherapy sessions based almost entirely on observations of what his subjects were doing, saying, and engaging in.

The ‘games’ that people played were like worn-out loops of tape we inherited from childhood, yet continued to let roll. Though limiting and destructive, they were also a sort of comfort, absolving us of the need to really confront unresolved psychological issues. Berne’s brand of psychotherapy involved asking the client what he or she wanted ‘fixed’ and proceeding to fix it. There was no assumption of underlying malaise. This new approach was of course the essence of self-help.

Harris used Berne’swork as a basis for his own, but instead of analyzing the games we play, focused on the internal voices that speak to us all the time in the form of archetypal characters: the Parent, the Adult and the Child (the PAC framework). All of us have Parent, Adult or Child ‘data’ guiding our thoughts and decisions, and Harris believed that transactional analysis would free up the Adult, the reasoning voice. The Adult in us prevents a hijack by unthinking obedience (Child), or ingrained habit or prejudice (Parent), leaving us a vestige of free will.

Transactional analysis may not be a household term, but in some minds it lived on. James Redfield has acknowledged Harris and Berne as crucial influences when he came to write one of the biggest-selling books of the 1990s, The Celestine Prophecy. The ‘control dramas’ that his characters engage in, and seek to be free of, are squarely based on the games and positions of transactional analysis; the survival of the book’s characters in fact depends on their ability to see beyond these automatic reactions.

Certainly, the Adult in Burns’ book can be equated with the ‘higher self’ that forms the centerpiece of so much self-help and New Age writing. Awareness of, and reliance on, this internal voice is a secret that all successful people share.

Review printed with permission from: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do; Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdoin.

Other resources on I’m OK – You’re OK

Another interesting article is this essay published in 2004 in the New York Times.  In this essay, the author argues that the “golden age” of self help books, as initiated by Eric Berne in Games People Play and continued by Thomas Harris in I’m OK – You’re OK is now over.  The essay very effectively compares these two works with the modern counterparts.