Recently, news reports about the lack of personal ethics exhibited by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and the absence of empathy displayed by Cleveland child rapist Ariel Castro made me think about how attitudes toward personal responsibility may have changed since the 1970s.
These reports, along with others, brought back memories of a comment once said by my friend and mentor, Larry Mart: “My goal is a world of understanding and cooperation, brought about by everyone becoming a transactional analyst.”
I first met Larry in the early ‘70s at the Institute for Transactional Analysis in Sacramento — an organization founded by Thomas A. Harris, M.D. At the time, Harris was enjoying the fame and fortune he received from his book, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” which had become a bestseller in 1969.
The premise of his thesis is that people engage relationships in one of four “life positions”: 1) I’m OK, you’re OK; 2) I’m OK, you’re not OK; 3) I’m not OK, you’re OK; and 4) I’m not OK, you’re not OK.
Harris and other transactional analysts, such as Dr. Eric Berne, saw troubled people as operating from life positions other than “I’m OK, you’re OK.” The goal of psychotherapy is to get people to recognize these four categories and teach them to “transact” with others from the dual “OK” standpoint.
Mart, a clinical social worker, was a “true believer” in the TA system. He later separated from Harris and formed his own group — affectionately known as the “Frog Pond.” This was a place were a “frog” (the patient) could hopefully be transformed into a prince or princess.
During the 1970s, when transactional analysis was in its heyday, Mart did quite well. Many followers joined his cause and set out to help their psychologically conflicted fellow humans. Mart selected some in his group and encouraged them to become professional therapists. I was one of them.
At first, I was skeptical. Completing extensive graduate degree programs, along with a two-year internship and state licensing, seemed like a pipedream. But somehow, through daily goals, I achieved what I once thought was the impossible.
Mart’s dream of saving a troubled world with transactional analysis seemed to fade with each passing decade. Today, despite the efforts of thousands in many related fields, the world seems more psychologically confused and conflicted than ever.
I suppose there are a number of reasons for this. Here’s one possibility:
In the 1970s, people were looking to shed their unresolved, developmental dependency issues and find self-acceptance and autonomy. Their goal fit the TA matrix of “I’m comfortable with myself, and I accept you as well.”
But somehow over the years, the cultural paradigm switched from a goal of autonomy back to a state of victimization and helplessness. Thus, the TA life position of “I’m OK, you’re OK” became dominated by the other three positions. It became more fashionable to be a victim of uncontrolled circumstances caused by others, rather than to be a person of independence and personal responsibility.
The San Diego mayor has been accused of groping several women. His lawyer reportedly wants the city to pay for a legal defense because no sexual harassment training for the city leader had been provided. (“I’m OK, because I’m just doing what guys do, but you’re not, because you failed to train me appropriately.”)
Ariel Castro held three young girls as sex slaves for 10 years. At his sentencing, he claimed not to be a “monster” but someone who was abused himself as a child and therefore, wasn’t responsible for his behavior because of a self-described “sex addiction.” (“I’m not OK, but neither are you for failing to understand my ‘problem.’”)
Larry Mart’s dream of changing the world through transactional analysis slowly turned to dust over the years. Ironically, he died of mind-destroying Alzheimer’s back in 2011.
But his quest remains. No matter what methodology is used, the world continues its need for personal responsibility, along with an understanding and acceptance that all benefit from a posture of mutual respect.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.