Learning to Look Out for Everyone, Not Just Number 1

By Richard John Stapleton, PhD, CTA

Here is my Chain of Ego States diagram, first published in an article titled “The Chain of Ego States” in the Transactional Analysis Journal, vol. 8, no. 3 (Stapleton, 1978).

According to Eric Berne, MD, the euhemerous of transactional analysis,          success equals adaptability plus flexibility.  What humans have to adapt and flex to are human group imagos and personalities in chains of ego states. 

According to Silvia Baba Neal, a certified transactional analyst in the UK, Berne defined a group imago as, “Any mental picture, conscious, pre-conscious or unconscious of what a group is or should be like.”

This definition covers a lot of ground.  What is a mental picture, whether conscious, pre-conscious, or unconscious?  What is a group for that matter?  A mental picture of a group would  depend on how a person visualizes things in his or her brain which would be a function of several variables, genetic brain architecture and neurological hardwiring, and also subjective messages exposed to in life plus any decisions made about the messages.  Would the picture include colors or would it be purely black and white?  Would it be accompanied with audio recordings as in some sort of documentary?

Regardless, it seems to me it is fair to say that all people have fantasies, ideas, and pictures in their brains of what groups are, what they are like, and what they should be like, based on previous experience.  Berne published a book titled Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups in which he discussed not only groups but organizations, that is, groups of groups.

So much for group imagos that have to be adapted to if you want to succeed.  What about personalities that have to be flexed to? 

They are the personalities of the people in the groups and organizations you have to work with.  What is a personality?  Well, it’s the way people come across to you and others.  How many adjectives can you think of to describe someone’s personality?  Cheerful?  Gloomy?  Stingy?  Generous? Loving?  Warm? Cold? Withdrawn? Engaging? Rejecting? Accepting? Conscientious? Selfish?  Introverted? Extroverted? Trustworthy? Untrustworthy?

Most likely if you really thought about it you could come up with a hundred or more adjectives to describe the personalities of individual humans. 

Eric Berne was a great believer in using Occam’s Razor when writing, getting to the heart of the matter in the most efficient way, using the fewest words that will get your ideas across, so he comprised all adjectives one might use to describe a human personality into three general concepts:  Parent, Adult, and Child ego states.  In other words, does someone have a Parent, Adult, or Child personality or persona?  Or, in a particular moment is someone coming across as parent-like, child-like, or adult-like?

In transactional analysis (TA) terms flexing to someone’s personality entails trying to satisfy the person by coming across as parent-like, adult-like, or child-like to get along with the person in a congruent harmonious way.

To get along you have to go along, not only adapting to the group imagos of fellow humans but flexing to their personalities, in groups and organizations.  Transactional analysis gives you concepts and techniques for discerning where you and others are coming from so as to consciously decide how to maximize your chances of success in organizational situations.

What is success?  It’s a matter of achieving your goals and objectives.  If you want to feel, think, or do something and you do it you’re successful.  Unfortunately what you want to feel, think, or do may not be what someone else wants you to feel, think, or do, which entails frustration, compromise, not being true to yourself, if you want to remain a member in good standing with the individual, group, or organization. The problem is particularly touchy if someone else happens to be your parent in a family or your boss in an authoritarian organization, such as a religion, corporation, military unit, or government. In such cases you have to fake it and pretend you agree if you do not, if you want to get along and go along.

The first group humans become a member of in most cases is a family, composed of a mother and a father, such as Number 1 in the Chain of Ego States diagram above, with various and sundry other kinds of groups and organizations to be encountered later in life with which one becomes a member, friends, churches, schools, universities, clubs, gangs, fraternities, businesses, corporations, military units, governments, a planet.

Ego states are states of being including thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, feelings, gestures, body language, and other signals determining how humans come across with others in communication episodes, whether parent-like, adult-like, or child-like.  Humans switch ego states depending on who they are communicating with and what sort of circumstances they are in, whether they are working, socializing, teaching, training, sitting in a classroom or church, or having fun with friends, hopefully using the ego state most appropriate in the situation.  Humans transmit messages from ego states in themselves to ego states in others in various combinations, Parent-Parent, Child-Child, Child-Adult, Adult-Parent, or whatever combination.  The diagram above applies to situations in which there is some sort of authoritarian organization involved, such as parents dealing with children, or bosses dealing with subordinates in various organizations.  Child-Child ego state script messages are known as injunctions, since they forbid feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of various sorts.

Script messages are transmitted socially and psychologically, social messages being represented in the Chain of Ego States diagram by solid lines and psychological messages being represented by dotted lines.  Social messages are verbalized overt auditory messages; psychological messages are covert non-spoken ulterior messages transmitted by body language, emotional states, and after the fact positive or negative stroking as people react to situations and feel and do certain things.

Scripts in families are created automatically when parents transmit various messages to their children from various ego states socially and psychologically, in and out of awareness.  Scripts are life plans generally decided before the age of eight by offspring based on script messages transmitted to them by their parents.  Since parents by and large transmit the same script messages that were transmitted to them before they were eight years old script messages in families can remain intact for many generations.  According to transactional analysts script decisions made before the age of eight have lasting effects, determining three general life outcomes:  winner, loser, and non-winner.  These decisions can be redecided and updated later in life but it’s not easy for most people.

Psychological Child-Child ego state script injunctions are what cause the most trouble for humans in their lives, causing them to inappropriately adapt and flex in various circumstances .  Script injunctions are often currently inappropriate and ineffective because ancestors had to adapt and flex to harsh inhospitable environments that no longer exist. While their script feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and messages may have been life saving for themselves in their time they may be detrimental and frustrating for their descendants in the here and now. The problem is most people do not have psychological permission to not obey their Injunctions, which means they cannot adapt and flex appropriately in some organizational situations even if they want to based on their own Adult decision making.

Opposing, or opposite, script messages transmitted by parents can put a child in a Not-OK bind throughout childhood and adolescence, assuming a divorce has not already occurred, causing considerable trouble within a family, since the child cannot please both parents, which can put both parents in Not-OK positions vis-a-vis each other if the child makes a decision about which parent is right, creating Not-OKness in the family system as a whole.  

What many humans need is psychological permission to violate and ignore their own psychological outdated obsolete family Child ego state script message Injunctions, not only to increase their own OKness, but the OKness of all living members of the family system. Violating your script injunctions is easier said than done once they become hardwired into your feeling, thinking, and behavioral system, i.e., your life script. Psychotherapy provided by potent psychotherapists is sometimes necessary for individuals to give them psychological permission to disobey one or more injunctions in order to be successful.

I became a certified transactional analyst, a CTA, after passing written and oral comprehensive exams administered by the International Transactional Analysis Association in 1978, after undergoing three years of intensive once a month training, all day Saturday and half of Sunday, at the Southeast Institute at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, working with scores of TA psychotherapists, teachers, and trainers, mainly from around the US, and I still haven’t gotten rid of some injunctions I would like to, which is not uncommon. Eric Berne himself had a Don’t be Close injunction that he never got rid of, despite having a very high IQ, or maybe because of it, dying single after three marriages at age sixty. Living in your head most of your time at home writing best selling books as Berne did is not the best way to maximize your chances of a successful marriage, however rich you get from millions of copies of books sold, as he did. Sometimes you just have to live with your injunctions. Despite them you be successful in some ways if you can find people, groups, and organizations that have scripts compatible with yours.

I have covered ego states and scripts in my books Business Voyages  and  Born to Learn: A Transactional Analysis of Human Learninglisting common Parent ego state script messages and Child ego state injunctions.  All parents do not transmit the same script messages creating considerable variety among family scripts and outcomes.  Certain life scripts conveniently fit certain roles, jobs, professions, careers, and what have you more than others, providing fresh compatible recruits for open slots generation after generation, assuming the economy does not dramatically change.  Unfortunately in recent years in the US the offshoring of high wage blue collar jobs to foreign low wage countries and the use of more and more automation has rendered many family scripts obsolete. 

Here are some chain of ego states organizational script messages I observed working in organizations and groups as a professor and consultant taken from a passage on pages 187-188 from Born to Learn: A Transactional Analysis of Human Learning, first published in 1978:

PARENT CHAIN OF COMMAND MESSAGES: Be productive. Work hard. Make money. Be strong. Hurry up. Be firm. Be slow. Be pompous. Be polite. Be serious and reverent. Be silly and irreverent. Walk fast. Use emphatic hand gestures. Make small talk. Don’t violate the chain of command. Go through channels. Be attractive. Be unattractive. Be short. Be tall. Look harried. Please me. Be perfect. Make the organization look good. Use innocuous, euphemistic words. Take your glasses off, and point with them. Wear a pinstriped suit. Dress nicely. Drive a Buick Electra. Play golf. Drink scotch. Cross your legs nonchalantly. Stroll coolly. Have another beer. Have some wine. Don’t wear a tie or dress nicely. Go bowling with the guys/gals. Ride a bicycle. Get a Toyota. Be a nice gal/guy. Act/be old/young.

ADULT CHAIN OF COMMAND MESSAGES: Hiring costs are $100; firing costs are $97. We need one thousand more units a month to keep up with the present sales rate. Enrollment increased/decreased X percent. X percent of our students /trainees report back that our teaching/training was beneficial to them. X percent of our students think they learn valuable, relevant learning in our classes/courses/programs. X percent of our customers rate our products or services as excellent, good, average, poor, or unsatisfactory.

CHILD CHAIN OF COMMAND MESSAGES: Don’t think. Don’t feel. Don’t be powerful. Don’t feel what you feel, feel what I want you to feel. Don’t be close. Don’t be you, be what I attribute you to be. Don’t belong. Don’t be well or sane. Don’t be sexual. Don’t be intelligent. Don’t be imaginative. Don’t make it. Don’t feel glad. Don’t learn. Don’t achieve. Don’t grow up. Don’t be energetic and confident. Don’t be spontaneous.

Some of the above script messages are easy to adapt and flex to and some are not. Most firings in organizations come about, not because of technical Adult incompetence, but because subordinates are unwilling or unable to adapt and flex to ego states and script messages flowing on the organization’s chain of command using their Adapted Child ego states, caused by messages rightly or wrongly put there over time mostly unconsciously by the organization’s leaders to gain the group imago and personality satisfactions they thought best and craved, however just and fair they were.

Witness the hirings and firings of immediate subordinates of the current Number 1 leader of the US government, Donald John Trump. One has to wonder about the script messages his parents transmitted to him. It seems to me most people could not successfully adapt and flex to them, and it seems to me most of the people who voted for him did so out of a Rebel Child ego state, caring less about the real truth of anything.

It seems to me Donald Trump operates out of a Free Child ego state about ninety percent of the time, coming from a life position of I’m OK, My voters are OK, but everyone else is Less OK or Not OK, and I am going to make the world pay, living in a fantasy world in which he feels and thinks anything he imagines or says is possible, as if he had been scripted before age eight in a family with almost no Parent or Adult script messages. It seems to me this is possible for someone with aloof wealthy parents growing up in New York City parented primarily by nannies who are afraid of losing their relatively well paying jobs, who assiduously cater to the whims of their charges, doing everything they can to please them.

It’s not that easy for most humans to take care of Number 1 in life much less look out for everyone; but given global warming and economic and political problems around Spaceship Earth one can build a case humans should at least give the idea of looking out for everyone some thought.  The capitalist economic system based on the premise that always looking out for Number 1 is always the best ethical policy no longer works for most people. 

Are there now more unsuccessful people than successful people aboard Spaceship Earth?  Based on incomes and wealth alone so it would seem.  If so, what should be done?  One idea is to get as many humans as possible from all OK positions involved in bottom-up Game-free discussion groups to think about and discuss what humans might do to increase the success of everyone and to increase the survival chances of the human species threatened by global warming and nuclear war.

To cope with problems and threats such as global warming, nuclear weapons, poverty, and income inequality, it seems to me a sensible doable strategy would be for humans to get together to discuss script messages using their Adult, Nurturing Parent, Free Child, and Rebel Child ego states to develop consensual ideas to be used by all humans aboard Spaceship Earth to adapt and flex with political parties and nations. A serious problem around Earth is separating relevant focal points from irrelevant noise in order to comprehend what is really going on, best accomplished in Game-free script-free group discussions.

It will do little good to play AIN’T IT AWFUL, a psychological Game identified and labeled by transactional analysts to stroke humans for being innocent helpless Victims of obsolete economic, religious, and political systems manipulated and exploited by rapacious sociopathic Persecutor oligarchs and leaders and their corrupt bought and paid for lackey politicians for selfish gain, however true that might be in reality. 

On the other hand, it will do no good for Earthians to stick their heads in the sand to passively pretend everything is just hunky-dory and swell, with everything coming up roses for everyone, living in small imaginary Candide-like best of all possible worlds, playing a psychological Game labeled GREENHOUSE by transactional analysts, in which players are rewarded with plastic strokes for making nonsensical positive comments about the environment and their lives.

Regardless of the causes of the Earthian plight, it seems to me individual humans should assume responsibility and take action for conserving energy as best they can in their daily lives to reduce greenhouse gases; but especially they should select politicians who will create economic and political policies and actions to correct environmental and social problems on a mass scale.  

An existential question right now is whether humans can learn how to look after everyone, not merely number one, to prevent the extinction of the human species.

In the last six months I have tried to set up a De-Gaming Democracy group as explained in my article, “De-Gaming and Saving Democracy,” here in Statesboro, Georgia, USA, where I live, hoping to engage citizens of various persuasions, whether red, blue, green, or any other color, in discussions of relevant economic and political problems and opportunities to develop consensual realistic approaches to the environmental problems we face, in what I call the Ogeechee Economic Forum Hour meeting the third Saturday of each month, with little success.  So far four participants have shown up.  It appears most people are not interested in, or are afraid of, transacting in Game-free script-free Adult ways in public dealing with environmental, economic, and political problems and opportunities.  Hopefully interest in this forum will pick up.  It seems to me right now that humans all around Spaceship Earth should get busy in Game-free script-free groups right now developing consensual answers for problems threatening their existence as a species.

For more information regarding the use of Transactional Analysis to create Game-free script-free groups and better democratic processes read my book Born to Learn: A Transactional Analysis of Human Learning.

For more information on how to co-construct better organizations and economic systems read my book Business Voyages: Mental Maps, Scripts, Schemata, and Tools for Discovering and Co-Constructing Your Own Business Worlds.

See my article “The Evolution of Spaceship Earth, Inc. for some management science ideas on how Earthians might eventually co-construct an economic and political system that is viable and satisfying for everyone.

One can build a case that humans are not only born to learn but born to live in groups and organizations, the first group exposed to being a family, with additional groups and organizations being joined throughout lives, with the major requirement for newborn humans being to successfully adapt and flex to their family script messages and ego states as they exist, primarily using their Adapted Child ego states; but it seems to me the time has now come for grown-up humans to change existing planetary script messages and ego states used to manage the most comprehensive organization on earth, the United Nations, using their Adult, Nurturing Parent, Free Child, and Rebel Child ego states, to cause all nations united with each other to create an organization similar to what I have visualized in my planetary group imago, what I have called Spaceship Earth, Inc.

Please forward, share, copy, print, or reprint this article any way you see fit. We welcome your comments, but please no ad hominem attacks. Just go to our RESPONSES page at the top of this page and let us know what you think. Don’t worry about being “right”. Just come out with it. Nobody knows what the right answers are for problems such as these in this article. Most likely there are no “right” answers for these problems, and the best humans can hope for is to develop consensual answers, right or wrong, that enable them to muddle through as they have been since time immemorial for more centuries. Unfortunately those answers cannot be the same ones humans have been using to manage Earthian states of affairs in recent centuries, especially in the last six decades, since it now appears that those answers could cause the extinction of the human species in the not too distant future.

Richard John Stapleton, PhD, CTA, Editor & Publisher, Effective Learning Report and The Earthian.