The Psychology Of Relationships:

Life Script

Life script is another major theoretical concept within transactional analysis.

Basically, life script is the idea that we tend to have an unconscious life plan - like a story - that we make up as children about ourselves and our lives, which we tend to keep to and follow even when we are adults.

In other words, life script is a personal life plan developed under parental, familial, social, cultural and religious pressure. It is mostly complete by the age of seven.

To make this process a bit more understandable, here is an example: let's call our case illustration Jane. Jane grows up as the fourth child in a family of five, her mum and dad are busy people, trying to make ends meet.

Jane doesn't get a lot of attention at home, but learns to read very early on and develops a good rapport with her oldest sister reading children's books. In response to this scenario, Jane will make specific script decisions about herself, other people and the world in general around her.

For example, she might decide that she really always needs to be a good girl, quiet, studious and compliant to make the most of the relationships around her. She might also decide that the way to be is to work loads, just like her parents.

She might take on board a sense that the world is a place in which people struggle and that you have to work really hard to make ends meet.

life scripts involve fundamental decisions about the selfThese script decisions are made in response to family and cultural messages but based on the child's very limited information and reality processing skills. Such a decision becomes an emotionally laden commitment to live in a certain way (in Jane's case possibly laden with all the loyalty and love she feels for her family and parents).

This "certain way" becomes an unconscious life plan or a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about what's possible for us. This life plan is built to make sense out of the world and to protect us: for example, Jane could have perhaps complained about the lack of support in her family, but as a child might then have been excluded from her family as complaining wasn't part of the family culture.

But any script can become self-limiting in adult life. It might mean we don't take up opportunities even if they are there, because they are outside our script.

Let's imagine what happens to Jane as an adult. Let's say she achieves well at work and develops her career in an outstanding way.

She marries a man who is also very invested in his work and they get along fine. So far Jane has stayed within her script of "work hard", "life is a struggle", "men like my dad who do well are attractive".

You could say she is doing well too. However, there are also blind spots which her script has created. She doesn't spend a lot of time socializing and she doesn't notice when people want to spend time with her. The only friend she has is someone she met at a book club.

They still spend a lot of time talking about books (like she did with her sister), but actually Jane and her friend are neither emotionally open nor do they feel close to each other.

Jane married a man who was more invested in his career than in spending time with her and she often feels lonely beside him.

She may have broken up with an earlier boy friend, who was much more loving, because she thought he was lazy (or what the parent ego state in her head would have called lazy), because he wanted to sit around and have a good time with his friends on the weekends. 

Jane may also not have been able to appreciate his warmth and kindness, because it was completely off her radar. Jane may suffer from physical pain due to overworking, like back pain or frequent infections.

She would be a prime candidate for depression as she neglects her emotional and psychological well-being and gives out a lot more energy than she takes in.

To reiterate, life script is an ongoing process of a self-defining and sometimes self-limiting psychological construction of reality. As long as we stick with it, life seems to be more predictable.

However, the price we pay for a sense of certainty is that we are excluding new possibilities - even the good ones. The question you might want to ask yourself now is: what might your own script look like? One way to determine this is to look at your favorite fairy tales or mythological stories.

Which story did you like best as a kid? Often children use fairy tales as a model for their own life stories or they experiment with different scenarios. For example, Jane might have liked the story of Odysseus, who endured a lot of hardship over the 10 years he needed to travel home after the Trojan war.

It is a story that involves hardship, endurance, persistence, intelligence, loyalty and ultimate victory over ongoing difficulties.

You could let your mind run free and think about how you expected your life to turn out as a teenager. Some people think that they will never meet anybody (a script decision about being alone) or they expect to do well in the world or in relationships.

One can see that some people's script allow for more happiness than others. We can therefore classify scripts in three different categories: winners, losers and banal scripts. A winner's script allows for the person who designed it to get what he or she wants in the end (like in the story of Odysseus, who does find his way back home).

So someone might think as a child that one day they will be happily married and they fulfill this expectation in their lifetime.

Loser scripts are those that end up with the person who lives them getting what they want. In some way Jane's script might be a losing script. She might have added on as a child that she really didn't think she could keep up all the good work and that things would tend to fall to pieces despite all her hard work.

If Jane lives out this script, she may get fairly seriously depressed, lose her job, and end up sitting at home on her own for the rest of her life.

A banal script is one which is built on mediocrity, nothing much is gained and nothing much lost. Jane could have also designed this sort of ending for herself: she might work quite hard for the rest of her life, but feel like she never really made it.

Her husband and friends might stay emotionally distant and she might feel unfulfilled and alone.

If you are not sure about what your script might look like, have a look at the exercise to discover your own script.

Whatever type of script you have written for yourself as a child, even if it is a winning script, it is still a pattern of thinking and behaving in the world which restricts some of your options.

The ideal, therefore, is to become script free, or be able to apply the strengths in your script consciously. For instance, Jane could keep her drive to work hard and use it to be successful, but might also learn how to be emotionally close and have fun. We talk about being script-free as being autonomous.

Autonomy is behaving, thinking or feeling in direct response to here and now reality rather than reacting to things based on a script belief. Imagine, if Jane didn't have all this baggage, she might take time out for herself in response to feeling low, rather than working even harder to be able to ignore the feelings for a little while longer.

Autonomy is manifested by the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy.

And of course, once you know what your unconscious life plan is you can change it. You decided on it as a child, but you can now change your mind as an adult. Remember that whatever you decided about yourself and your life as a child, it was done from a very limited perspective. What seemed a generalized truth about life then might not be true for you anymore today.

The emphasis on the decision of the child in script formation is based on the premise that "what has been decided can be re-decided". Re-decision is an emotional, cognitive and behavioral process. Scripts can be changed and disbanded all together. As an adult you are free to write your own story - and have fun doing it!

If you want to find out more about how this applies to your relationship, have a  look at applying scripts. Other related psychological topics are games, relational needs, life positions, and transference.

Last updated 05.03.16

May 3 2016

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