Sunday, July 15, 2007

Understanding Seinfeld's "The Opposite" with Transactional Analysis

In this post I wish to demonstrate the basic terms of Transactional Analysis (T.A.) with the help of one of the best Seinfeld episodes ever.

Why This Is Worth Reading
I have been wanting to write this for a long time, but delayed until I could find a way to explain this theory in a short format. Finally I realized that this is impossible, and I am proceeding with it because the theory is well worth understanding.
There are simply so many things that can be understood and discussed with it. For instance, the following questions can and will be discussed in future posts with the tools of Transactional Analysis:
Creativity - what is it? Why are some people creative and others not. Why do religious people have so much trouble being creative and where would America be without the infinite creativity of Black people?
Religion - what is religious experience? What is the difference between religious people and believers? Why do secular Jews hate orthodox Jews so much?
Criminality - what do criminals and policeman have in common? Why will crime never stop in these conditions?
Capitalism - what is the psychological meaning of capitalism, what does it try to do to us?
Society - why is it so messed up and what can we do about it? Specifically, what is wrong with Israeli society? Is Western society really going down the drown? What is going on?

These are but a few of the fascinating questions that we can deal with intelligently after we learn about this theory.
But to get there we must do some studying first. I used a Seinfeld episode to demonstrate hoping that it will make it easier. Be sure to watch the video, it's priceless.


Seinfeld – The Characters
Seinfeld was a very popular sitcom about Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian, and three of his friends – Elaine, Kramer and George, the hero of this episode.
Jerry Seinfeld is a successful comedian who lives alone. He is clean and neat and seems quite successful. Of the four friends he is the only one that seems to have a job and a steady financial income. He is the steady center, observing and participating in the ups and downs of his friends, while he himself keeps an even keel most of the time.
Elaine – Jerry's charming one time girl friend. She is very emotional and expressive. She lights up the room, has an infectious laugh, and without her the series would be very bland.
Kramer – Jerry's crazy neighbor. Has no job or any discernible income, he jumps from one fantastic endeavor to the next, never completing anything but never getting bored or discouraged either. Completely oblivious of his surroundings and the effects of his actions on other people. He can be at times generous and caring but more often is extremely self-absorbed and unintentionally hurtful.
George – A balding, near-sighted short man . George is extremely insecure, and somehow always manages to do the wrong thing and land himself in absurd situations and worse – out of jobs. George is a complete failure, and his parents never let him forget it. Currently, he has no job, no girl, and absolutely no prospects. In this episode he goes to the sea and comes back with a revelation:

The Opposite
One of the most popular and well-known episodes. If you haven't seen it you can see clips on YouTube, for instance this five-minute clip is a fine one.

And there also is a synapses of the episode here.
After reaching rock bottom, George comes to the conclusion that everything he has ever done in his life has been wrong,

"Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life has been wrong, be it something to wear, something to eat – it's all been wrong."
To which Jerry eventually replies:
"If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right."
And George agrees:
"Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing and I would regret it for the rest of the day…"

In the rest of the episode George proceeds to do the exact opposite of what he has always done, netting a girl, a dream job and most importantly, a ton of confidence. Suddenly, George can do no wrong.
This is an amazing turn of events and I believe it is an excellent illustration of some deeper psychological truths. George was on to something and we can all learn from his experience, even if it was fictional – after all, art is but an imitation of life.
But in order to correctly understand ourselves we need a model, a theory to piece together reality in a meaningful way. Transactional analysis is one such theory which will serve us here very well.

Transactional Analysis
Transactional analysis was invented by Eric Berne, a psychologist who became disillusioned with Freudian practice and who thought he could formulate a more accurate and more easily understood psychology (needless to say, he was ostracized by the psychological community). The most popular presentation of his theory was written by his colleague Thomas Harris in the bestselling "I'm O.K you're O.K." and I will mostly be referring to the more simplified theory as presented in that book.

I'm OK You're OK
This book is an attempt to understand our interactions with others and with ourselves. It points out, explains and defines basic psychological phenomenon. Thus it provides a vocabulary that helps us name things, and once we have the words we can communicate with ourselves and others and attempt to understand and eventually change the interactions.
It is simple enough to be understood by most people but still complex enough to be accurate. I read this book many years ago and I have reached the point where the understanding of interactions with other people comes to me almost automatically. I can also understand my own inner dialog and recognize when I am being "possessed" by my Parent, Free Child or other players in our daily drama, although, to be honest, understanding what's happening does not necessarily mean that I can change it at will.
Anyway, it turns out that we are not alone, and we share our inner lives with many other players.
So now, let me introduce the actors, those who try to pull your strings and direct your actions to suit their own needs, even when quite contrary to yours.
T.A. recognizes three basic states of mind: The Parent, The Child and The Adult. All of these are formed by the age of five and are for the most part unconscious.

The Parent : contains all the information we received, and did not receive from the people we were dependent upon as babies and small children. The Parent is the voice of authority, the giver of rules and laws, customs and regulations. The Parent has an ideal picture of an ideal world and we must live up to that ideal, or else we will not survive.
Every state has specific vocabulary and emotional content to go with it.

Common Phrases:
You must (or mustn't), Don't (or Do) do it!, You should (not), always, never, everybody (does it), and most famously "Thou shalt not…"

Emotional Tone: The Parent is always judgmental. The judgment can be positive or negative but the evaluation is always there. The Parent cannot be reasoned with and it does not refer to reality. The Parent Knows and that's it. You either do as it says or suffer it's disapproval, which for the baby is equivalent with being disconnected from the life-giving Parent, in other words – equivalent to death.

Consequences: As adults we follow the Parental injunction feeling that we must, but usually not recognizing the force behind it. More importantly, we do not understand why it is so very difficult to disobey the command and do the opposite.

Example
: Your parents. Teachers, policemen and Army officers also have very dominant Parents.

Basic Stance
: I'm OK - You're not OK.

The Adult – this is the rational, unemotional player. The Adult receives information, analyzes it dispassionately and files it away or acts upon it. The Adult deals with reality as it is, without any preconceptions and prejudice. The Adult is a data processing computer gathering information from within and without and checking its utility.

Common Phrases
: statements of fact. This is true, this is not. This accords with the facts as known to me, this does not. The facts of the case are these…

Emotional Tone
– none, of course.

Consequences
: A strong Adult means that our activities will be effective since they are closely related to reality. A strong Adult is constantly learning from experience and adjusting accordingly. A weak Adult means a weak connection to reality, and action dominated by the Parent's decrees, or by emotions of The Child.

Example
: Famous fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The Terminator and most other sci-fi robots.

Basic Stance:
I'm OK - You're OK

The Child

The Child feels and senses. The Child is made up of the emotional content of our experiences from birth and onward. The child is spontaneous. The Child is curiosity, and love and excitement and creativity and empathy as well as rage and anger and frustration and anguish and sorrow and despair. But most of all, the Child is "Not OK." In other words the basic emotional state of any child growing up in an environment that is trying to mold him, is that of inadequacy, of being unsuitable, wrong and, simply put, "Not OK".

Common Phrases
: I want, I need, I feel now and most emotional expressions.

Emotional Tone
: "all out", in other words whatever the emotion expressed, The Child is completely engrossed in it, to the exclusion of all else.

Consequences
: The Child is a result of adaptive behavior to the original Parent, so consequences vary accordingly: The Child may be Adaptive, Rebellious, or Free.

(note: these distinctions are not from the book but they are extremely useful nonetheless)

The Adaptive Child – adjusts his behavior to the demands of The Parent, seeking approval of the Parent at all times.

Example
: Policemen and Army officers have a very strong Adaptive Child which is one reason they enlisted in the first place - to receive orders they can follow and be sure that they are OK. People who work in bureaucracies and of course every child is an example of this too.

Basic Stance:
I'm not OK - You're OK.

The Rebellious Child – adjusts his behavior to be in constant opposition to that of the Parent. This type of Child is defined by his anger towards the Parent and anything resembling a Parent such as normative institutions. Action and words are always angry, and most importantly, the rebellion is always short-lived and futile and ultimately uncreative since this Child is always referring to the Parent and rarely to himself where true freedom lies.

Example
: Everything Sixties: the Black Panthers, Anti- War demonstrations, doing drugs and free sex and not studying, and also most teenagers regardless of the decade they live in.

Basic Stance:
I'm OK - You're Not OK

The Free Child
– this child is free from the Parent, and he is free to be curious and happy, to behave spontaneously, to be creative, to feel what he feels and to express it as and however necessary.

Example
: Artists. Writers, musicians, painters, dancers. Michael Jackson moonwalking, Jimmy Hendrix playing the guitar, Miles Davis improvising, black kids break dancing on the sidewalk, Dr. J dunking from behind the backboard as well as Bach, and Beethoven and Kandinsky and, well - the list is endless.

Basic Stance:
I'm OK - You're OK.

Summary of the actors in our personal drama:
We each possess a Parent, an Adult, and A Child who may exist in three different states. We differ from each other in the contents of each part, and in the interactions between them and it these interactions which determine our personality.

Interactions Between Different Parts

Contamination
: Ideally the three parts are kept separate, but that is quite rare. Usually the parts infect each other. Here a few examples:

Adult contaminated by Parent
This means that wherever the Parent dominates, the Adult is unable to receive data from the world and update itself accordingly. For instance a strong parental decree that "Jews are killers" will preclude any information from the world to the contrary. On this specific subject the person is not rational. Politics are rife with this sort of contamination, which is why reasoned political discussion is so rare and why elections are about images which are irrational and not facts and theories which are in the realm of the Adult.

Adult contaminated by Child
This occurs when feelings intrude upon the scene and interfere with the proper functioning of the Adult. Childhood fears can have such an effect. For instance some people are afraid of bugs and can be absolutely terrorized by a beetle that is harmless and can be killed easily besides.

In both kinds of contamination the variations are endless. People who are perfectly rational can become idiots when it concerns certain subjects such as: black people or Jews or Arabs, men or women, math or reading comprehension, engines or cooking, or doing the laundry. Suddenly the Adult is suspended. But that is not the worst case scenario. Sometimes whole parts may actually be excluded from every day life.

(The Child may also be contaminated and so can the Parent creating dozens of possible permutations, too many to discuss here.)

Exclusion: These are extreme cases in which one of the three parts of the personality is completely excluded from life.

Exclusion of the Free Child: in this case the Adaptive Child is completely dominant. Such a person has learned that the consequences of being spontaneous, happy and childish, of not conforming to the Parent, are so terrifying that he has learned to do without. These are the sad, humorless people who work for hours on end, and never take vacations and never laugh or surprise themselves.
Example: Michael Douglas in the movie "The Game". The movie is also a good example of what it really takes to dig yourself out of such a psychological disaster.

Exclusion of the Parent
: If the Parent had been too harsh and too hard to take, it may be rejected and divorced from the rest of the personality, creating a person who has no Parent and therefore also no conscience – a profile of a very self-centered person who may also be a dangerous criminal.

Exclusion of the Adult
: in some cases the Adult has been impaired to such an extent that it does not exist. This means that the only reality is the internal reality of the Child and it's Parent, creating quite the madman.

The Ideal Personality
Ideally the Adult will examine all the data in the Parent and determine what is true and useful and discard the rest, and then proceed to do the same with the contents of the Child. This will leave us with a very strong Adult accompanied by a Free Child. In this state one can experience reality directly, without the annoying interference of the Parent("This flower is called a daisy. Daisies are nice flowers" etc...) , and also react spontaneously as well as appropriately due to the strong Adult. This state is also known as as being Buddha…



Seinfeld and T.A.
Now we can get down to business. First we will tag the characters and then go on to the episode itself. It is important to remember that there are really almost endless combinations of the various states, and that a person can go through many states sometimes even switching from one to another within minutes. This is clearly seen when a Parent switches to an Adaptive Child and vice-versa. Thus, an officer behaves towards his superior as an Adaptive Child but to his inferiors he acts like a Parent. That said, most people can be characterized by their dominant state, the one that is most typical of them.

Jerry Seinfeld himself is I think a good example of a person with a very strong Adult. He displays very little emotion – even when performing his comic routine. He thinks things through and his actions are usually appropriate to the situation. Of all the characters his life is the steadiest. His basic stance is certainly non-judgmental, one that is I'm OK-You're OK as befits the Adult.

Kramer is a true original. Everything he does is original, including his famous entrances. This is typical of a Free Child. Kramer clearly has absolutely no regard for conventions and laws and he is also completely absorbed in satisfying his own whims. regardless of the price other people pay. I would say that Kramer has a very strong Free Child coupled with a very weak Parent.

Elaine is charming. She smiles and talks a lot and does the things that women are supposed to do when in company. She is emotive but definitely not original. She does a lot of criticizing and scolding and judging in the series, especially with George And Jerry. Elaine has a strong Parent coupled with an Adaptive Child.

George Costanza is clearly doing his best to conform to his Parent. He is inherently Not OK, always out of his element, always criticizing himself. Fortunately for him he is a miserable Adaptive Child and this, eventually, prompts him to change things. I say "fortunately" because any adaptation sacrifices parts of the personality so even a relatively "successful" one is no cause for joy.

What is The Opposite of the Parent?
So, what happened to George? What does it mean for him to do "the opposite?"
For an Adaptive Child doing the opposite can mean one of two things – becoming a Rebellious Child or a Free Child. In this case it is clear to me that George is not rebellious – he completely lacks the anger typical to the rebel - as shown in the video above. In fact George seems to be completely at ease with himself. He is calm and confident and brave and he is successful – all sure signs that he is doing what he is meant to do, meaning that he is acting from within himself – from the Free Child.
When confronted with an opportunity to hit up on a woman, George's first reaction, what he terms his "instinct", is to shy away - this is the Adaptive Child conditioned to be afraid and Not OK. But when challenged by Jerry to do the opposite he declares:
"Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing and I would regret it for the rest of the day..."
Living out of time is typical of the Adaptive Child. In fact only the Free Child actually lives in the here and now because to do so one must act spontaneously, one must be present in mind and body. The Adaptive Child is so busy trying to comply with the Parent and wondering if what he is doing is OK, that he barely stops to notice what is going on in the world. The Adaptive Child lives out of step, never acting until it is too late, and living out a life of missed opportunities, regrets and wishful thinking. George does manage to free himself from his horrible Parent (and they really must be seen to be believed - a pair of Toxic Parents if I ever saw one).

Unfortunately, in real life it is very difficult to reach such a point – divorcing the Parent - without considerable effort. Epiphanies may occur but in real life they are not generally sustainable without, again, a lot of conscious effort.
In the final analysis only a thorough examination of the contents of the Child and the Parent can make you free, and this usually occurs only when all other options have been pursued and failed.

11 comments:

mother in israel said...

Interesting analysis. How are you doing?

Lady-Light said...

You have some great questions there--one of the reasons I chose "Tikkun Olam" as my the title of my blog. Before I comment, I want to tell you that I have "tagged" you for the Meme of Eight , so go read my blog, and please add me to your blogroll--I would be honored!

Lady-Light said...

Ah, what is wrong with Israeli society; now that is a question worth discussing. I would love to start a dialogue with you about this. I actually went to a few T.A. sessions at one of my former workplaces; very interesting...

Jerusalem Joe said...

MIS - glad to see you here. I am also very happy that someone actually read this - I was so afraid that it would just be too long.
As for me - thanks for asking. I'm doing surprisingly good.I started out looking for work as a translator, and quickly added other information services, such as summarizing. Along the way I also found out that I am an excellent editor, and I really enjoy doing it.
So I'm working, doing a little bit of everything according to whatever happens to come my way.
The thing that really amazes me is how quickly this has taken off and how successful it is turning out to be.I've already landed a contract to translate a series of books and to edit another one, a very difficult academic book.
I'm having a ball!
I still cook, but just for the fun of it, at home...

P.S. Have you turned off the feeds on your site? I wish you didn't. I much prefer reading a preview of the posts.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Lady Light,
First, of course I will add you to my blogroll. and I apologize for not doing so sooner. Thanks for tagging me.
As for the dialog, I invite you to write a post explaining what is wrong
with our society, or any aspect of it, using the psychological theory of your choice, including T.A.

mother in israel said...

JJ, I'm glad your work has taken off. I should probably take a similar route but I am diddling around with other ideas. I already know that I am good at editing and summarizing.

Which feeds do you mean? I haven't turned off anything. I did set it to make only the first paragraph visible in the feed, so that if people see the post via webster, they need to go to the blog (and view the ads). Is that what you mean?

mother in israel said...

PS I told my son, who is a big Seinfeld fan, about your post and he asked to see it. I'll let you know his reaction.

Jerusalem Joe said...

MIS,
I'm sure you would make a great editor - you are extremely clear-minded.
I am getting your feed on netvibes and I am seeing just a blank square. I used to get a preview of the post which stopped about a week or so ago.
How old is your son?

mother in israel said...

I also use Netvibes and get the feeds for my own blog like I do for every other blog. He's 15.

Lady-Light said...

Did I ever respond to your request for a post on what's wrong with Israeli society? I apologize for not remembering. I'd like to comment on that request: I once wrote about what happened to us, a serious car accident, and the incompetent police response, and the lies by the driver (Arab)who caused the accident. I wrote about the general lack of empathy/service/willingness-to-get-off-one's-duff-and help-even-if-it's-one's-job- attitude, and it seems from the comments I received that I was "airing dirty laundry in public" ("a shanda for the goyim," etc., etc.).
So I am a little wary of doing this again. It can be construed as "leshon hara," if there is no "to'elet" to it.
Another point: I don't currently live in Israel, so what right do I have to criticize Israeli society?
What is your take on this?
(Let me think about it...)

Jerusalem Joe said...

LadyLight,
You did not do a post on this subject. I do not see any reason not to.
How can we know what will be to'elet and what won't be?
I find hard to believe that our enemies need stories from our dailies lives in order to attack us, when they lie much more effectively...
I see no reason why, as a Jew, you should not speak your mind about your country.If you do it with love for it and its people then you will not go wrong.