Transactional Analysis (TA) is a set of tools for understanding people and their relationships; this article continues our series on key TA concepts.

Most of the key elements of Transactional Analysis theory (Ego States, Strokes, Transactions, and Games) can easily be observed by anyone who is paying attention to what people say and do. The question of why people do what they do in the first place led Eric Berne to the concept of the Life Script.

It was Berne’s belief that every child creates an answer to the fundamental questions:

  • Who am I?

  • Who are all these others?
  • What am I here for?

Children answer these questions by using a process of making decisions based on experiences.

These decisions lead to a relatively consistent, usually self-perpetuating “story” about one’s life. Berne’s most complete definition of the Life Script, in What Do You Say After You Say Hello, is “a life plan made in childhood, reinforced by the parents, justified by subsequent events, and culminating in a chosen alternative.”

The idea of a small child making a decision that shapes the rest of his or her life may not be easy to believe, but therapists frequently hear clients say things like “I decided that I had to always be very good so people wouldn’t notice that there was something wrong with me and go away,” or “I decided never to let anyone get close to me again.” It is not at all unusual for a child to respond to abuse or neglect by concluding that they are somehow to blame for it.

The general process of script formation begins when the child’s caretakers react to the child’s natural behavior with excessive anger, fear, shaming, ridiculing, upset or withdrawal. Berne labeled these parental responses “injunctions,” emphasizing that they were messages that tell the child what not to do — often without actually saying the words out loud.

Typical injunctions that have been identified are: Don’t Be; Don’t Grow Up; Don’t Be a Child; Don’t Feel; Don’t Think; Don’t Be a Boy/Girl; and Don’t Succeed. Injunctions are usually accompanied by explicit verbal messages that tell the child what s\he should do: Be Good; Work Hard; Please Others; Struggle, etc.

In response to the implied threat in the injunctions (“I won’t take care of you if you keep doing that”), the child learns to suppress his natural behavior. In effect, the child “decides” to discount that part of himself and to remove it from his answer to “Who Am I?”

As the child grows, s\he finds role models, myths and stories to use to create some kind of plan based on his early decisions; this plan leads to a “Life Course” which is a somewhat predictable, often dramatic series of events designed to fulfill the script requirements.

The Life Course often involves “casting” others to play certain roles (The Rejecting Female, The Critical Boss, etc.).

Script decisions put artificial limitations on the person’s natural attempts to get his needs met; as a result, the decisions always lead to behaviors that reinforce the original choice. For example, a boy who decides not to get close to women (mothers) because they hurt him, still has a part of himself that needs closeness; as an adult, he handles this internal conflict by getting close to women, but he consistently attracts the kind of woman who is likely to be hurtful.

When he later gets hurt or betrayed, he can reinforce his original decision, saying to himself “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted her; women are all alike!” He then remains isolated for a while, until his need for closeness arises again, and he repeats the script pattern.

Since Life Scripts are based on decisions, they can be changed. The process involves recognizing the theme being carried out by repetitive patterns, looking for the original decisions that created those patterns, and making new decisions.

It is important to understand that this is not an intellectual process. Script decisions are made by a child in distress and pain, and they are not going to be given up simply by saying the words. It is necessary to be in contact with that Inner Child, to nurture and understand and be responsive to her, and to help her make new decisions based on the availability of a genuine caretaker — you.

[tags]Personal Growth, Emotional Problems, Self Help, Self-Improvement, CoDependency, Inner Child, Relationships, Transactional Analysis [/tags]


For further information about Transactional Analysis, visit the websites for the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) and the USA Transactional Analysis Association (USATAA).

There is a major TA Conference scheduled for San Francisco in August, 2007; details HERE.