What’s your life story? Take a nostalgic trip with our industry expert John Perry……………..
‘You have written your own life-story. You began writing it at birth. By the time you were 4 years old, you had decided on the essentials of the plot. At 7, you had completed your story in all its main details From then until you were about 12 years of age, you polished it up and added a few extras here and there. In adolescence, you revised your story, updating it with more real life characters. Like all stories, your life-story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has its heroes, heroines, villains, stooges and walk-on characters. It has its main theme and its sub-plots. It may be comic or tragic, enthralling or boring, inspiring or inglorious. Now that you are an adult, the beginnings of your story are out of reach of your conscious memory. You may not have been aware, until now, that you wrote it at all. Yet without that awareness, you are likely to live out the story you composed all those years ago. That story is your life-script.’
Adapted from Stewart, I, and Joines, V, 1987, TA Today, Nottingham, Lifespace Publishing, p. 99.
Suppose for now that you have, indeed, written the story of your own life.
Write down your answers to the following questions. Write quickly and intuitively, accepting the first answers you bring to mind.
What is the title of your story?
What kind of story is it? Happy or sad? Triumphant or tragic? Interesting or boring?
Use your own words, putting them down just as they come to mind.
In a few sentences, describe the closing scene: how does your story end?
The Script is a Life Plan
The notion that people’s grown-up life patterns are affected by childhood experience is central to many psychological approaches. Where script theory is distinctive is in its suggestion that the child lays down a specific plan for her life, rather than simply a general view of the world. This plan is laid out in the form of a drama, with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end.
Another distinctive feature of script theory is that the life plan ‘culminates in a chosen alternative’ (Berne, E, 1975). When the young child writes his life drama, he writes the closing scene as an integral part of it. All the other parts of the plot, from the opening scene onwards, are then planned to lead up to this final scene.
In script theory, this closing scene is called the payoff of the script.
When, as adults, we play out our script, we are unawarely choosing behaviours which will bring us closer to our script payoff.
The Script is Decisional
Berne (1975) defines the script as ‘a life plan made in childhood’ –ie. the child decides upon the life plan. It is not determined solely by external forces such as parents or the environment –ie. it is decisional.
It follows that, even where different children are brought up in the same environment, they may decide upon quite different life plans.
(Berne relates a story of two brothers who were told by their mother, ‘You’ll end up in an asylum’. One of the brothers became an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital. The other became a psychiatrist).
Unless we take time to discover and work with our script, we are likely to remain unaware of the early decisions we made, even while we live them out in our behaviour and interpret reality so that it appears to justify our script decisions.
Winning, Losing and Non-Winning Scripts
Scripts can be classified under 3 headings: winning, losing (or hamartic) & non-winning (or bland).
Winning Script: Berne defined a winner as ‘someone who accomplishes his declared purpose.’ ‘Winning’ also implies that the declared purpose be met comfortably, happily and smoothly. If I decide, as a child, that I am going to be a great leader, and eventually, I become a successful, fulfilled general or politician, I am a winner. If I decide to become a penniless hermit, and go on to become that hermit, living happily in my cave, I am a winner. ‘Winning’ is always relative to the goals you set for yourself.
Losing Script: By contrast, a ‘loser’ means ‘someone who does not accomplish a declared purpose.’ Once again, it’s not just the accomplishment that matters, but the degree of comfort that goes with it. If I decide to become a great leader, join the army and finish up being drummed out in disgrace, I am a loser. But I am also a loser if I decide to be a millionaire, become one, and feel perpetually miserable because of my ulcer and the pressure of business.
First, Second and Third Degree Losing scripts
Losing scripts can be classified as first-, second-, or third- degree, according to the severity of the payoff.
A first-degree losing script is one where the failures and losses are mild enough to be discussed in the person’s social circle – eg. repetitive quarrels at work, mild depression, or failure at university.
Second degree losers experience unpleasant script outcomes that are serious enough to be unacceptable topics for social conversation –eg. being fired from a series of jobs, being hospitalized for depression, or being expelled from university for misconduct.
A third degree losing script culminates in death, serious injury or illness, or a legal crisis. Third-degree pay-offs might be imprisonment, lifelong psychiatric disorders, or suicide. The term ‘hamartic’ is sometimes used to describe third-degree losing scripts and their pay-offs.
The word is derived from the ancient Greek ‘hamartia’ meaning a ‘basic flaw’. It reflects the way in which a losing script, like an ancient Greek drama, seems to lead inevitably to the tragic final scene – eg. Amy Whinehouse/Kurt Kobain, etc.
Someone with a non-winning script is a ‘middle-of-the-roader’. He plods along from day to day, not making any big wins, but not making any big losses either. He doesn’t take risks. This kind of script is often called ‘banal’. At work, a non-winner will not become the boss. He will not be fired either. Instead, he will serve out his time, be awarded a golden clock, and go into a quiet retirement.
Cautions on classifications: Many of us decide on scripts which are a mixture of winning, non-winning and losing. In my unique set of childhood decisions, I perhaps set myself up to be a winner at brainwork, a non-winner at physical activity, and a first-degree loser at personal relationships.
Any script can be changed: By becoming aware of your script, you can discover any areas in which you made losing decisions, and change them to winning decisions.
• Would you say your script has been mainly winning, mainly losing or mainly banal?
• Do you identify specific areas of your life where you have set yourself up to be a winner, a loser, or a non-winner?
• Are there areas in which you have so far been a loser or non-winner, and would like to be a winner?
• If so, for each of these areas, write down how you would know you were winning instead of losing or non-winning in that area? What would be your winning outcomes?
• Then for each area, write down at least 5 actions you can take to bring about your winning outcomes.
• Do one of these actions each day.
The Script in Adult Life
As grown-ups, we sometimes respond to here-and-now reality as if it were the world we pictured in our early decisions. When we do so, we are said to be in script. When we get into script, we are usually not aware that we are re-enacting childhood strategies for dealing with the world. We are likely to get into script when the here-and-now situation is perceived as stressful and resembles a stressful situation in childhood.
For example: I have a disagreement with my line manager, during which I stay out of script and discuss our differences in a grown up way. But then my line manager calls in the Director and I flip into script. Faced with the Director, I activate the same physical reactions, feelings and thoughts I used to have as a child when my father loomed over me like a giant, shouting words I couldn’t understand. Without realizing it consciously, I have made the Director become my father. And I respond as if I were a terrified child of 3 again. The present situation is a rubberband back to the early situation.
The Script and the Body
We make some of our earliest decisions with our body as well as our mind. –eg. an infant wants to reach out for its mother or father. But he discovers that his parent often draws away from him. To quell the pain of this rejection, he suppresses his bodily urge to reach out. To stop himself, he tenses his arms and shoulders.
Many years later, as a grown up, he may still hold this tension, but be unaware that he is doing so. He may experience aches and pains in his shoulders or his neck. Under massage, he may feel the tension and then release it. With that release, he is likely to release also the flood of feelings he has repressed since infancy.
Eric Berne wrote of script signals. These are bodily clues that indicate that a person has moved into script. Perhaps she will sigh deeply, change position, or tense up part of her body.
Why Script Understanding is Important
The life script gives us a way of understanding why people behave in the ways they do. This understanding is particularly important when examining ways of behaving that seem, on the face of it, to be painful or self-defeating.
According to script theory, we behave in such ways in order to reinforce and further our script. When we are in script, we cling to infant decisions. For us, as infants, these decisions seemed the best possible way of surviving and getting our needs met. Without conscious awareness, we seek to set up the world so that it appears to justify our early decisions.
And, each time we confirm our script beliefs in this way, we take a step closer to our script pay-off.
The Script and the Life Course
‘The script is what the person planned to do in early childhood, and the life course is what actually happens.’ (Eric Berne).
Your life course is the result of four interacting factors:
heredity, external events, script & autonomous decisions.
Heredity: My inheritance of genes largely determines my physical make-up and also influences my mental characteristics – though there is still no agreement on the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate.
(Perhaps I decide as a child that my destiny is to be a famous athlete. If heredity has given me a body that is only moderately fast and strong, I may need to think again!)
External Events, Script and Autonomous Decisions
External events: Perhaps, my early decision was to live to a ripe old age. I may be unfortunate enough to die young in a car crash, even though I did not set myself up in any way for such an outcome. A chance external event has cut across my decision to live.
Script: If you get into situations that repetitively seem to ‘go wrong’ for you, you may unawarely be setting those situations up – ie. you are in script, without realising it. (eg. repeatedly making the ‘wrong’ relationship or career choices).
Autonomous Decisions: When you deal with the here-and-now reality as an adult, making use of your full grown-up resources, these decisions are script-free or autonomous.
The goal of personal development is to facilitate autonomy and script release.