Life scripts

Life scripts

Dr. Eric Berne (1910-1970), a Canadian psychiatrist, was the founder and creator of Transactional Analysis (T.A.). T.A, is a theory of personality, communication and human relationships which provides powerful psychotherapeutic tools for growth and personal or organisational change. It is founded on the premise that every human being is essentially positive and has a potential to develop. Using this premise, anyone can make use of the set of tools T.A. provides to develop their own awareness, private life and spontaneity.

Berne observed that everyone he worked with in his psychotherapeutic process followed what he called a “life script”, a sort of pre-established plot for a drama the person feels forced to act out, independently of whether he or she identifies with the character or not. When you’re following the script, what you’re doing is acting according to a definition of your character written by somebody else. According to research carried out by Berne throughout his career, a child’s life script is adopted during his or her childhood, influenced by parents and parental figures. The script is reinforced by the experiences and events he or she goes through in the process of growing up.

Fortunately, research has also proven that scripts are not closed, but can be changed. What is more, rewriting the script happens when the scriptwriters are ourselves, when we decide to rewrite our scripts in our own way by becoming progressively more aware of the elements that condition us, and to realise what our legitimate desires are and how we want to live our lives.

Berne considers that a life script contains in it the most significant things that will happen to a person. This is not a fate determined by the gods; it originates in the beginnings of our lives, in our childhoods, in the early decisions a young person makes to adapt and survive in his or her surroundings, that become installed like a program that leads us unconsciously in our futures –unless we decide to become aware of the unconscious beliefs and decisions that rule us. Our life scripts are thus based on decisions made during our childhoods, with the information and resources we had available at the time, that lead to the creation of a certain position, hopes and path in life. At the time, these seem to be an apparently reasonable solution for the child’s existential situation.

Dr. Berne often repeated the saying, “People are born princes and princesses but then their parents turn them into frogs.” He held that if there are no pressures on a child to do otherwise, important decisions in life should not be made before adolescence; but the life script is a result of premature, forced decisions made under pressure long before they should be.

As self-esteem, that much-repeated term, is founded in early childhood, as are our sense of our own and others’ worth, the idea is to become aware of the elements that make up the life script. The following are important parts of it:

– Injunctions: commands or the “curses” in fairy tales. These are prohibitions or inhibitions on the child’s behaviour. They are always aimed at stopping the child from doing something, and are directly related to the parental figures’ desires, fears and angers. Injunctions vary in their intensity, in the area they restrict, and in the damage they can do. They go from “Don’t live,” to “Don’t be yourself,” “Don’t belong,” “Don’t achieve that,” “Don’t feel,” or “Don’t think.” According to Berne, injunctions are messages that reach the child (non-verbally, normally) by being repeated on a daily basis by parents or people with a strong emotional influence on him or her; or exceptionally after a dramatically-experienced circumstance. There is a very long list of injunctions that can be placed on us; because of its importance I will go into how it is generated and resolved in another article, to be written soon.

– Attributions are another important element in the writing of the life script. As the name indicates, an attribution tells the child what he or she must do or must be. Unlike injunctions, which are limiting, attributions load the child with what is expected or wanted of him or her. Like injunctions, the list of attributions could be infinite: “You’re just like your uncle,” “You’re so much like your granddad,” “You’re… good, naughty, clever, clumsy, healthy, fragile, special, different, terrible,” etc. Labels repeated time and time again and can be hung on the skeleton that builds the mobile, flexible identity of a child who seeks love, protection and recognition.

Changing your life script means analysing different dimensions of your life, related to desire, beliefs, choices and vocations. It’s not a quick or simple job: confronting some of the dimensions of memory, and examining the meanings you give to circumstances and people in your past and present, requires systematic work and takes courage, patience and a profound desire to change. All of this in order to redefine your own identity, if you can, as well as the beliefs and what you have been allowed to do in the most important issues in life: love, sex, religion, your vocation, politics, pleasure, wealth, etc.

The future of every human being depends on many different things, but we should never forget our own responsibility as one of the biggest, if not the biggest factor in it. This responsibility is expressed in the will to and capacity for generating change in ourselves and our circumstances. And, particularly, in the determination to take on the management of our own lives by making whatever changes we need to and giving up whatever we have to. Because perhaps the achievement of true freedom lies in being able to give up what we are for what we can become; that is, when we are finally able to write and live our own life script.

PS. Among the abundant bibliography that revolves around Transactional Analysis and the study of Life Scripts, perhaps the work of Claude M. Steiner, entitled “The scripts We Live” and published by Kairos, is one of the key references. It is one of the most complete, exciting and desirable ones on this topic. A reading that will not leave us indifferent and that invites us to reflect about our own life’s script.

Álex Rovira

Alex Rovira