There is a classic book titled ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ by Thomas Harris that outlines four major life positions: a) I’m not OK – You’re not OK (Futile position); b) I’m not OK – You’re OK (Depressive position); c) I’m OK – You’re not OK (Paranoid position); d) I’m OK – You’re OK (Good life position).
Much research has been done on how each of these life positions emerge into people’s personalities from their childhood experiences and how this affects their thinking and behaviors in adult life. For example, ‘I’m not OK – You’re OK’ comes from having been ridiculed as a child, perhaps from dominant parents, teachers, or bullying peers. As a consequence of this, such people end up having low self-esteem, feel powerless, and put others before them in order to fulfill their ‘pleasing others’ driver.
Another commonly found position is that of ‘I’m OK – You’re not OK’. Here, people have a sense of superiority feeling vis-à-vis others around them. They selectively choose the dimensions that they are feel superior about and brag about them in a relative manner to highlight the limitation of the others. On the other hand, they discard the dimensions that others might be better at as being inconsequential. People in power positions – managers, parents, and authority figures – can easily fall into this trap given the relatively superior position they are in.
There is an intrinsic evolutionary need in all of us to feel better about ourselves as compared to others. A classic social comparison effect in Psychology is called the ‘better-than-average fallacy’. An example of this goes as follows. Ask a room full of people this question – ‘How do you compare your driving to other people in your peer group? Please estimate your own driving skill within the group.’ Typically, 5-10% estimate their skills to be below average, around 90% feel they are above average, and around 75% feel they are in the top 30%! And this pattern occurs in a variety of domains including intelligence, skills, and good looks. Basically, we all feel that we are more deserving than others.
This kind of ‘I’m OK – You’re not OK’ creates a challenge for learning and development. One natural consequence of this life position is that there is a constant urge to show off and impose one’s superiority. From your own life experiences, you might have noticed that some people are busy bragging about themselves and their achievements at home or office. Furthermore, the listening skills are severely impaired. It is usually difficult for such people to develop an appreciation towards others and acknowledge others being better. If they do find someone else being better at something, then their comparative evaluations kick in – trying to find ways to show their own equal level of achievements or ways to discount these others.
Providing feedback to such individuals – both in the office and the home environments – can be a challenge. Their inability to listen to and accept their mistakes exacerbates the issue. They are able to rationalize everything they did. Ironically, research shows that this position is related to a victim mentality too – blaming others for all their miseries. This combination of minimal self-reflection into one’s own behaviors and actions along with maximal fault-finding in others’ hampers learning.
When we consider ourselves as OK and frame others as OK, there is no requirement for comparative evaluations, no feelings of being superior to others, and no need for finding faults in others. Such people are quick to accept others achievements, viewpoints, and arguments. At the same time, they are also comfortable with themselves and there is a constant desire to improve and to become a better version of oneself.
Several lessons can be drawn from this simplified 2X2 matrix thinking of life positions. For example, in interactions with others, knowing which frames are the two parties in would help. An ‘I’m OK – You’re not OK’ along with ‘I’m not OK – You’re OK’ can fit well with each other. However, when positions misfit such as both people being ‘I’m OK – You’re not OK’, conflict and confusion will arise. Moreover, understanding others’ life positions can help in pre-emptively understanding their behaviors. Recent work from researcher Tony White has suggested other nuanced positions such as ‘I’m a bit more OK than you’ or ‘I’m not OK but you are worse’.
Instead of being in the victim-mentality, having unbridled obedience towards others, or being in the aggressive zone with finding ways to establish superiority over others, a conscious effort can be made to move towards a harmonious mix of self-reflection, self-confidence, and appreciation of others.