Written by therapist Doxa Zannou
In part 1 and part 2 of my Transactional Analysis series, we discussed the three ego states in which we function (The Child, The Adult, and The Parent). We also explored how these ego states affect our relationships, manifested in healthy or unhealthy transactions. In this month’s article, we will now turn to life scripts and life positions. Transactional Analysis posits that we live our lives according to life scripts and life positions that we are not always conscious of, and that nonetheless dictate our values, passions, and goals.
Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, noted that we tend to have a basic understanding of the world, ourselves, and our relationships to other people, by the time we are 5 years old. Our worldview or belief system is based on the relational patterns we have been exposed to, especially with our primary caregivers.
Life scripts are unconscious relational patterns influenced by our implicit, experiential beliefs, survival reactions rooted in our bodies, and explicit judgements. These scripts usually form in periods of relational stress at critical points in our development. These beliefs and decisions are reinforced by verbal and non-verbal communications in our lives. We then continue living out these scripts as we grow older, and this can prove maladaptive because certain scripts inhibit our here-and-now rational responses, spontaneity, and open-mindedness in our present relationships.
Scripts develop as a result of repeated failures in significant relationships wherein individuals experience misattunement, rupture and/or disruption, and have to come up with a worldview that helps them cope with the fact that their developmental needs were not met. Hence, scripts are a way for us to self-regulate or self-soothe. While they are significantly shaped by our unconscious, implicit memories, these scripts can show up in our somatic responses as physiological discomfort, subdued or heightened affect, and relational transference. Since these responses are encoded in our biochemical makeup and in our core, cognitive, belief system, they serve as a blueprint or ‘life plan’ for how we view ourselves, others, and the world, as well as how we relate to each other in various circumstances.
Of course, scripts are also partly shaped by modeled behavior, suggestions, attributions or comparisons, and overt or covert messages from primary caregivers, and peers. Injunctions and permissions are commands or demands to do or to not do certain things. Examples of injunctions include:
- Don’t trust anyone
- Don’t be you
- Don’t be a child
- Don’t feel
- Don’t think
- Be perfect
- Be strong
- Please everyone
- Be Yourself
The scripts we form in our childhood then lead us to adopt one of four positions:
- I’m OK – You’re OK
- I’m OK – You’re Not OK
- I’m not OK – You’re OK
- I’m not OK – You’re not OK
The first position, I’m OK – You’re OK, tends to be the healthiest because people have a secure sense of self, display healthy confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, and respect others even when they disagree with them. People who adopt this position believe that they have inherent worth and dignity, and that others do too. They tend to be open and honest, and willing to understand and work with others.
The second position, I’m OK – You’re Not OK, describes people who project their insecurities and difficulties on other people, and may therefore be blaming, hostile, and critical individuals. They tend to have a sense of self-grandiosity or superiority, and project their contempt, anger, and disdain, at others who are deemed inferior and incompetent. People who adopt this position can only see themselves as “OK” if others are considered worse, and lesser-than, and they are unable to acknowledge their own shortcomings.
The third position, I’m not OK – You’re OK, describes individuals who are plagued by feelings of self-doubt and believe they are fundamentally flawed, inadequate, inferior or useless. They can be depressed, and may feel powerless in bettering themselves because they always compare themselves to others and believe they are doomed to always fall short. They therefore minimize their own achievements and strengths, and are always eager to please others because external validation is what gives them a fleeting sense of self-worth.
The fourth position, I’m not OK – You’re not OK, describes individuals who are also full of hopelessness, but this feeling is exacerbated by a pervasive sense of futility in the world. They believe that no one is good enough, and that everyone, including themselves, are inherently bad or broken. They tend to withdraw from the world, and at their worst, they are likely to destroy themselves, and others (ie: murder-suicide crimes).
The importance of Life Scripts
What makes life scripts so important is the fact that we live our lives wanting to make them come true. They are like self-fulfilling prophecies because we filter our experiences through our life scripts, and dismiss perspectives or opinions that do not line up with our preconceived notions of ourselves and others. This can be destructive if our life scripts inhibit our sense of self, and our ability to form meaningful relationships with others. Thankfully, Transactional Analysis posits that we can remedy this problem because we have agency in how our life scripts came to pass. Indeed, even though we have limited control over our childhood environments or social conditioning, we are sentient beings who use the information around us to come to specific conclusions, beliefs and decisions that can be unlearned once we acknowledge these.
Awareness of our Life Scripts
In conclusion, another critical aim of transactional analysis in therapy, is to be aware of our life script, and to change the parts that are maladaptive and unhealthy. In doing so, we can show up in our relationships fully present, and healed, and willing to connect to others from a place of security, trust, and respect. We can avoid engaging with people who harm us, we can set boundaries that protect us, and we can focus on building relationships that are fulfilling and life-giving.
The therapeutic relationship and alliance is critical in this process because, at its best, it provides a new prototype for what a healthy relationship should look like. Clients tend to show up in therapy the way they show up in their personal relationships, and while others may not know how to help you heal from your self-sabotaging or unhealthy relational patterns, a therapist is equipped to identify these beliefs and patterns when they show up, and to work with you on changing them for the better.
Many therapists value empathy, unconditional positive regard, and trustworthiness in their work with clients because these help build a strong therapeutic relationship where shame is disempowered. Indeed, shame does its most powerful work in the shadows, and it prevents us from being authentic or honest about our pain because we fear being judged, condemned, or excluded. Vulnerability is however the antithesis to shame because it allows us to own our story, face the shadows that control us, and pull these shadows into the light so we can find true, sustained healing.
If you are aware of how your life script has affected you, and continues to affect your relationships, I would love to connect with you! Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today!