Life Scripts.

Written by Katy Lee.

‘Each person decides in early childhood how he will live and how he will die, and that plan, which he carries in his head wherever he goes, is called his script.’ (Berne, E, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1972, p31)

The theory of script, as developed by Eric Berne and his contemporaries revolves around the above principal. It adheres to the notion that, in early childhood, not only does a person set down a general view of the world for themselves but that they go as far as to create a comprehensive life plan that, unless awoken to, they will go on to live out. Early Transactional Analysts discovered that it was in fact early childhood decisions rather than grown up, adult planning which ultimately determined the destiny of the individual. So, no matter what they said they were striving for, what career path they wished to pursue, what type of man they were searching to marry, ultimately they appeared to be driven by some internal compulsion towards an often contradictory or at least very different conclusion. Because the script is formed in early childhoodit is based on feeling and intuition as at this time the child does not have the ability to translate its experiences into words. Therefore much of the script is formed at a non verbal level. In adult existence the script often lies in the realms inaccessible to conscious memory as generally the closest we can come to our early childhood years is through dreams and fantasy.  Therefore, though we may be living out and experiencing our childhood decisions in the here and now through our behaviour, we are likely to remain unaware of these decisions ever having been made. Berne’s most comprehensive definition of script can be found in ‘What Do You Say After You Say Hello?’ where he said; ‘A script is a life plan based on a decision made in childhood, reinforced by parents, justified by subsequent events, and culminating in a chosen alterative’ (Berne, E, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1972)

A script is adopted when a child’s inert expectations regarding protection and natural development are challenged. It is this that leads to what is called the script decision being made, where the child adapts all of their expectations to enable them to survive in their external environment. Steiner, a contemporary of Berne’s, has said  ‘The script is based on a decision made by the Adult in the young person who, with all of the information at her disposal at the time, decides that a certain position, expectations, and life course are a reasonable solution to the existential predicament in which she finds herself.’  (Steiner, C, Scripts People Live, 1974, p55) Put bluntly, a script is adopted so the child can get by in their home situation. For example if a child learns to get love and attention from their parents or parent figures they must be quiet and well behaved this will form a crucial part of theirscript, perhaps leading them to believe it is only possible to receive love under these conditions. i.e. ‘I am only lovable if I am quiet and well mannered’. Because the script is believed to be decisional it does not necessarily follow that different children brought up in the same environment will adopt the same or even similar Script beliefs and develop the same life plans. 

Though parents cannot solely be held responsible for determining a child’s script decisions they are a hugely influential force upon them. From the time they are born a child will receive messages from their parents on which they base their conclusions about themselves, others and the world. Because the world is perceived as a hostile, life threatening place to a small, physically vulnerable child early decisions are based upon extreme emotional experience. It is then no wonder that script decisions are often, themselves, extreme. Nor is it any wonder that a young child will make decisions based on the fact they perceive their parents as being all powerful and in total control. If a child is hungry and Mother does not come to feed them, will she ever come? And if she doesn’t come this means death or a life time of being alone. Further to this, due to the frame work for early script decisions being constructed of entirely different stuff to an adults basis for decision making, the child may go on the believe that because it’s Mother did not always come when he needed them to that therefore all people, or perhaps all women, are untrustworthy. It is then this belief that becomes fused into the very core of the child’s being and perpetuated throughout its adult existence.

When a child writes its life script it also writes the final scene, the closing scene. This is what Berne referred to as the ‘chosen alternative’. In TA language we call this the script payoff. Everything else that is written in childhood and played out is a build up to this final scene, the payoff. What this means is that in adult life we are likely to behave in ways and find ourselves in situations that ultimately bring us closer to this payoff.  To achieve psychological predictability and justify our script decisions in adulthood we chose to make reality fit our script decisions, our view of life, the world and each other unwittingly being driven towards the payoff of doing so. 

People often respond to the here and now realities of their adult lives as if the world were still the way they viewed it when they made their early decisions. In TA Today it is expressed that we do this because we are ‘still hoping to resolve the basic issue that was left unresolved in our infancy: how to get unconditional love and attention. Thus as adults, we frequently react as if we were still infants.’(Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis, 2006, p110). It is a common condition to fall into script, or script determined behaviours under stress or in a stressful situation. Another factor that can determine an individual behaving in this way is if there is a resemblance between the here and now situation or environment and a stressful situation experienced in childhood. An aim of personal therapy is to enable a person to deal with certain levels of stress before engaging in script behaviours and implement or improve their ability to solve here and now problems rather than reverting to script. 

Berne made a distinction between script content and script process. While an individuals Script content is entirely unique to them he has said that we can classify script content under one of three headings; winning, losing or harmartic, or non-winning or banal. A winner is defined as ‘a person who fulfils his contract with the world and with himself. That is, he sets out to do something, says that he is committed to doing it and in the long run does it…….If he accomplishes his goal, he is a winner.’ (Berne, E, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1972, p204). A winning script is relative to the goals which the individual sets for themselves. The goal can be anything, be it to become a wealthy statesman, a family man or a hermit living in a cave devoid of human contact. What defines the script as a winning script is that the goal is met comfortably and happily. By stark contrast a losing script or a ‘loser’ is defined as someone who does not meet their declared purpose or achieve their set goals. As with winning scripts it is not just the accomplishment of the goal that is important but the degree of comfort and happiness that go hand in hand with it. For example if someone’s goal is to be wealthy and famous and  they end up a factory worker living on the bread line they are a loser. But they would also be defined by Berne as a loser if they achieve their goal only to find themselves miserable and lonely because of the pressures of living the life of a celebrity and constantly surrounded by people who are only attracted to them because of their status and wealth. In addition to this it is possible that someone decides, in childhood, upon a goal that cannot be achieved without misery, limitation or suffering. If a person decides that ‘I should fail at everything I do’ and does so then this is also classified as a losing script, despite the achievement of the set goal.

The importance of achieving a ‘declared purpose’ in a comfortable manner is highly important and was so to Berne when he coined the expressions Winning and Losing/Winner and Loser. These definitions are not to be confused with achieving material wealth, possessions and status but more the manner in which a set goal is accomplished. However, in addition to this it is possible that someone decides, in childhood, upon a goal that cannot be achieved without misery, limitation or suffering. If a person decides that ‘I should fail at everything I do’ and does so then this is also classified as a losing script, despite the achievement of the set goal. Losing scripts can also be divided into first, second and third degree losing scripts depending on the severity of the eventual script payoff. 

Finally there is a third classification, non winning or banal scripts. In ‘Scripts People Live’ Claude Steiner defines a banal script as ‘melodramatic: they have no clear beginning or end, they go from bad to worse, they have no impressive, sudden reversals, no really suspenseful moments. Superficially, they may look good; but, in fact, they are devastatingly boring.’ (Steiner, C, Scripts People Live, 1974, p98). These scripts belong to people have to work very hard, not to become the boss or the leader, but to stay even. Berne has said they belong to people who say things such as ‘I could have been…..’ or ‘At least’. For example ‘I could have been a dancer if I had been more disciplined but at least I have all this to be thankful for’. Berne also stated that these types of people make excellent employees because they cause no upset, no trouble, are loyal and thankful and that they are socially very pleasant. 

‘Scripts are artificial systems which limit spontaneous and creative human aspirations’ (Berne, E, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1972, p213). If one is following a plan made before verbalisation and rational thought, where life is desperate and dramatic and one was physically vulnerable to their parents or care – givers and their environment they are living out their script and not responding to the here and now spontaneously or autonomously. Thusly they are placing limitations upon themselves, their development and their destiny. ‘Winning or losing, the script is a way to structure the time between the first Hello at mother’s breast and the last Good-by at the grave. This life time is emptied and filled by not doing and doing; by never doing, always doing, not doing before, not doing after, doing over and over, and not doing until there is nothing left to do.’ (Berne, E, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1972, p205). 

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