Do you keep getting into the same situations many times over? You could be bound to your “life script”.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE SCRIPTS
Very early in our lives, we learn to build a narrative that informs how we make decisions, how we think about ourselves, and what we think of other people and the world around us. In psychology, precisely in the branch of Transactional Analysis, this narrative is referred to as “life script”.
A life script can be described as a template we use to organize what we think and do and shape our self-image. Although life scripts helps us make sense of the world around us, especially at a young age, they can prevent us from making choices which are aligned with who we are deeply and can limit us in a number of ways, personally and professionally. And yet we seldom realize where they comes from or even know that they exists at all.
Unless we uproot our unconscious stories, we can spend our entire lives rehearsing and performing our life scripts. In this article, we explore in further depth what life scripts are, how we can recognize our own, and how we can work with them to change our thoughts and actions.
WHAT ARE LIFE SCRIPTS?
Between the ages of 0 and 7, our perception of the world around us and our understanding of the future is based only on our experiences to date. Our emotional (or limbic) brain starts to form a non-verbal and often limited understanding of how life works based on our actions and the consequences family and society show us.
We may learn that if we cry, an adult gives us attention or that if we throw a tantrum, they become frustrated and withdrawn. We recognize that in order to be safe (and therefore loved) there are certain things we need to do; we also learn attributes about ourselves.
For example, if a boy frequently knocks things over, he will eventually be told that he is clumsy. If people regularly tell him this while laughing at his blunders, he may draw the connection that “being clumsy makes people laugh” or, on a more negative note, “people don’t care when I’m hurt.”
Life scripts have a particular use, especially when we are children: they help us make sense of the world that surrounds us. They provide us with a template we can use over and over again to give meaning to the recurring situations and events we experience.
THE ROLE OF CAREGIVES
All script messages received by a child have been shaped by their caregivers. As such, they will contain the parent’s fears, unmet needs and unresolved conflicts. For instance, if a mother has anxiety about taking care of her child as a result of being told growing up that she was careless, she may frequently tell the child it needs to be more careful. As a result, the child will inherit that same script message: “I am careless. In order to be loved, I need to get everything right.”
While script messages can be both positive and negative, it’s important to outline that the intentions and thought processes of our caregivers often have no correlation with the script messages we form. If a mother is very busy, for example, and cannot give full attention to her child when it is crying, she may seem distracted. Though she may be saying “I love you,” the child may receive her distance as a message that they are unwanted.
HOW ARE SCRITP MESSAGES FORMED?
We create a script when we experience an event that forces us to make a specific decision or act in a certain way. We then produce the same decision or behavior many time over in future situations, even when they are no longer appropriate.
Script messages are conveyed verbally and nonverbally; nonverbal messages can actually be more powerful when they show a mismatch between words and actions. For instance, if a mother tells a child she is listening to them but does this while cleaning the house, the child can interpret “I am unwanted” or “I am too much.” Picking up on these non-verbal cues is critical to a child’s survival in an evolutionary sense, but can prove damaging when they are unable to understand the situation entirely.
Across verbal and nonverbal cues, there are a few main ways in which script messages are imparted and strengthened.
Direct instructions can have a big impact on our life scripts, especially when accompanied by non-verbal cues. For example, if the mother in our previous example was to say “leave me alone” and “don’t pester me,” as well as showing physical signs of unavailability, the child would be even more likely to receive messages like “I am unwanted.”
Children learn by copying other people’s behavior; ideas about how one should act are learned by watching the results of what others do. For example, if a child’s mother often gets what she wants by giving the silent treatment to the father, the child will learn to ignore others in order to get a reaction from them.
If children are regularly told something about themselves, they will most often decide that it is true and act in a way that affirms it. For example, if a daughter is often described as “the caring one,” she may find herself paying less attention to her desires and needs and put the ones of her younger siblings first.
These attributions can be even more powerful when stated to a third party. For instance, if a boy’s mother tells a friend that their son is “a troublemaker,” they may be more likely to live up to this idea.
If she tells other family members that their first child is “the golden child”, it is likely that they feel they can’t make mistakes or mess up. Children are often given family roles to play, and this can heavily impact upon their life scripts.
While often script messages take a few repetitions to become embedded, a single traumatic event can construct a significant part of a life script. The death of a parent or loss of a sibling, for instance, can lead the child to feel profound desolation and a sense that life is not worth living
Emotional abuse, for example, can lead a child to feel shame, distrust for others and a sense that life is innately cruel.
HOW CAN LIFE SCRIPTS IMPACT US AS ADULT?
Whether we had mostly positive or negative script messages imparted on us (and for most of us it was mixed), life scripts will continue to impact us as adults unless we stop to observe them.
When it comes to our career and professional life, we may find ourselves following ambitions that are not ours, for example, or trying to hone qualities that we have been told we have that may not actually come naturally to us.
For example, if a child is told that they are a lot like their father Marcus, a successful lawyer, they may find themselves becoming articulate and well-spoken, and even following the same career path of their father until they realize that it doesn’t actually interest them.
They can also, of course, impact us in a number of negative ways. We may find ourselves chasing relationships that do not fulfill us based on messages we absorbed as a child, for instance. If we feel that we are “too needy” for example, we will unconsciously seek people who affirm this belief and who may be unable to meet our needs.
Overall, if we continue to revert to our life script, which we will inevitably do when we cannot recognize it, our ideas of what we can expect from other people and the world are limited to the experiences we had as a child.
HOW CAN WE RECOGNIZE AND CHALLENGE OUR LIFE SCRIPTS?
When we understand the concept of life scripts, we can explore which ones are active within us. This way, we can decide to re-write a particular script and, most importantly, change its outcome. While it is impossible to ever get rid of our life scripts, we can learn to unearth and challenge them.
One way to revisit our life scripts, especially when we have a good reason to think that they are at play in our professional or personal life, is to seek the support of a professional coach.
Coaching gives us the opportunity to create space between our adult selves and the stories that repeat from our childhood. With the support of the coach, we can recognize when stressed or triggered that these narratives come up, and decide to create and consider instead other beliefs about the world, ourselves and others. This gives us the autonomy to act other than our script messaging.
If you feel you could be bound to your life script, professionally or personally, I invite you to reach out and discover more in a fully confidential chemistry call. Use the link below to get in touch
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Steiner, C. (1990). Scripts people live: Transactional analysis of life scripts. Grove Press.
Lapworth, P., & Sills, C. (2011). An introduction to transactional analysis: Helping people change. Sage Publications. Do you keep getting into the same situations many times over? You could be bound to your “life script”.