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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Life Scripts

Life Scripts

The seeds of contradiction are sown early, in “contracts” entered into by parents and their children. Generally, these contracts are written and enforced outside awareness and passed along from one generation to the next through “scripts” internalized and read unconsciously. This idea of scripts comes from a psychological model called “transactional analysis” (often referred to simply as “TA”), a neo-Freudian methodology developed into a therapeutic method by Eric Berne in the 1960s, and presented in his bestseller, Games People Play. TA focuses on social transactions, as these provide a good way to asses the contracts that shape a person’s development. According to TA, the rules for living (permissions and injunctions) are passed along early and will largely determine a person’s life path for good or ill. Among the more maladaptive roles are three identified by Stephen Karpman in something called the “Karpman Drama Triangle,” viz., the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. Each represents a scripted identity that leads to suffering and self-defeating behavior as the person “reading” the script moves around the triangle, initiating and responding in a set of interactions driven by an ulterior motive (“games”) to a predictable outcome, and switching from one role to the next as the game requires.

Philosophically, we can understand “games” or stances as ways of being rooted in deep and largely unexamined assumptions about the world and our place in it—in other words, reality and identity. During the early years especially, even before they have acquired language, children are keen observers of what appears to work and what doesn’t. Inwardly, they are “taking notes,” learning, and drawing conclusions. As our very survival depends on our being loved and accepted, parental censure or rejection can be devastating, inflicting deep wounds, and undermining the child’s confidence, which can set the stage for lifelong consequences that undermine emotional, psychological, and spiritual health and well-being. Perhaps caught in their own unresolved life scripts, driven by guilt, blame, or shame, many parents may not realize that what they say to their children, especially repeatedly, has the power to bless or curse them, and to impose upon them self-definitions that are hurtful and destructive. Empathetic, encouraging, nonreactive parents who are mindful and respectful of boundaries and give their child room to grow into selfhood and autonomy bless their children with messages of love, acceptance, and support. Parents who are rigid, on the other hand, who impose their will on their children, do too much for them, withdraw love conditionally, or are abusive in any form may unwittingly curse their children with the messages they send verbally, nonverbally, through modeling, or through the assumptions they harbor about the child. Statements such as, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “You’re always getting into trouble,” and the like become parental imperatives in a child’s logic. These parents may believe they’re lamenting shortcomings in their child’s character, that they’re trying to correct or even protect their child from whatever dire consequences they fear may come to pass, but in fact, in the depths of the young, receptive psyche, such statements become predictions that the child will work unwittingly but relentlessly to fulfill throughout his or her life, even when the consistent results are suffering and defeat. It’s important to add here that TA goes beyond Freudian “life-predictive” theory in pointing out that the script is based on decisions that the child makes in the attempt to deal with the world. The parent has an enormous, irresistible influence, but the scripts are fundamentally decisional. The reason this is important is that it conserves our ability to rewrite these scripts (or discard them) as adults. We aren’t condemned to live out the childhood script once those formative years are behind us, though sadly, many will.

According to TA, each of us embodies the three ego-states of Parent, Child, and Adult. When adults respond as children in their interactions, they’re reading from a script. Upon being offered a suggestion for improvement from an employer, for example, they may feel blamed. Those who act parentally toward other adults, such as rescuers and enablers, are also displaying “scripty” behavior. The aim of self-work in TA is to strengthen the client’s Adult so the client can be present, making it possible to receive and work with information in a sane and grounded way—and to resolve any “games” that show up when the Adult is “contaminated” by either the Parent or the Child.

At the end of the day, our full individuation as adults can depend on our tearing up the old life contract that we “signed” in childhood. Getting clear enough to recognize, challenge, and ultimately declare the old contract null and void takes some doing. This psychic coming of age is the business of self-work in many models, not just TA, and it isn’t easy. For one thing, the early agreements may be so deeply rooted in our sense of who we are that they can be tough to identify and call out. Once they have been identified, there’s the further matter of the courage to stand up to them, and to begin to replace them with something more in keeping with self-care. Challenging the old ways of being may uncover deep fears and prohibitions designed to protect the payoffs that led us to agree to the contract in the first place. The feeling is not unlike that of standing up to a bully. The soul that has undertaken its liberation from an old script may have to endure a few dark nights—but if we persevere on the path of self-work, calling forth the needed courage and making good use of whatever support is available to us, the rewards are inestimable. Limitations that seemed to dog us through decades finally can fall away, so that we are no longer tyrannized by old agreements that in serving us, also took us hostage.

Philosophical counseling is not TA. Its methods are not Freudian, for one thing. Yet the work is remarkably similar to this down-to-earth approach to resolving long held contradictions, examining root assumptions about identity and reality, reevaluating choices—even those that we’ve been making unwittingly—and discovering the inner resources for clarity, resolution, and healing that reside within each of us. One of the features of TA that made it so popular among eclectic therapists was its friendly, accessible language. It spoke to people where they live, working within the premise that mental health problems are readily observable in social transactions, and that any disorder in consciousness can be treated and remedied through methods that resolve Parent/Child contaminations of the Adult and help the individual to come out of scripts and into the living present. Philosophical counseling, in a similar way, works with the client’s current reality and identify commitments to determine whether they are supporting or hindering his or her ability to be present-in-the-world, which means to live a sane, grounded life free of contradictions, self-combat, ancient overlays, and unfinished emotional business. Where these commitments come from is far less important in philosophical counseling than it is in psychoanalytic sessions. Through philosophical self-work, we can gain self-knowledge and become aware of what’s driving us, what’s bothering us, what’s holding us back, what we’ve been believing, what we’ve been allowing to define us, and this self-knowledge can illuminate whatever next step we need to take to begin living a life without childish scripts and old, obsolete contracts.

Viewed in this light, every problem, no matter how oppressive or intractable it may seem, is an opportunity, a direction waiting to be recognized and taken, a call to self-awareness, and a gift of freedom from old constrictions and compromises that gave us life by taking life from us. TA tells us that the more time we spend “out of script,” the more we loosen the hold of the old contract. Philosophical counseling adds that there is a dialectical element in this sort of self-work, an idea that we may find just as heartening, since it implies that any life-negating script tends to negate itself. This isn’t just theory. I’ve never seen a problem that didn’t contain its own solution. If we will hang in there, reach out for help when we need it, and see the thing through—we can tear up the old contracts, come home to a less sullied self, and at any age, begin again—knowing, perhaps for the first time, how wonderful it can be to be young.