Life script

Aleksandra Bubera

Interview with Sanja Kostić, published partially in the Večernje novosti daily on September 4th 2011.

What is a life script and how does it affect the way we form our identity?

– A person’s life script is an unconscious life plan that they “make” in childhood.

A life script is actually made up of a number of script decisions. A script decision is a faulty belief or faulty representations of beliefs regarding an important life question, and this decision is made based on script conclusions.

Children acquire script beliefs from a combination of parental influences, their own environment, insufficient information, and also because of a specific way of thinking. A child thinks differently than an adult, so there’s a pretty good chance they will get something wrong. Children are prone to magical thinking and they make concrete connections between events. For example, a child might say: “The man on the TV who is in charge of the Sun and rain said that the weather will be nice tomorrow”.

We say that scripting is unconscious, as it happens quite early on (between the ages of two and seven) which means that we forget a great deal. As a result, we forget how and when we reached some conclusions and decisions, so we don’t review them later on. Instead, we act on them automatically. To us they are axioms, i.e. truths that are not to be questioned.

We can compare this with the following experiment: imagine that we subject a person to hypnosis, and while they are in this trance state, we suggest them to walk over to the table and re-arrange the flowers in the vase once they’re out of the trance. We also instruct them to forget receiving these instructions. The person awakens from the hypnotic trance, approaches the table and re-arranges the flowers. When we ask them why they did it, they offer a rational explanation: e.g. they like the flowers better this way than the way they were before. However, the real reason is that they’ve received these instructions in an altered state of mind. This process in which a person tries to justify their behaviour in a way that makes sense is called rationalisation, and this is how the script works in life.   

So, when we are quite young, we decide that we will behave in a particular manner when it comes to certain things. We forget all about that afterwards, and we rationalise our behaviour. That is why our life script controls our life, unless we find a way to become aware of it and review our decisions and conclusions. This revision process is universal. We can all remember a time in our lives when we corrected some of our misconceptions. Nevertheless, we often believe that we are making autonomous decisions and choices (autos+nomos – living under one’s own law) about many important life questions, while in reality we’re acting based on a long-ago adopted, outdated and often incorrect life plan. 

For instance, a child wants to pursue a career in singing. Unfortunately, singing is seen as negative in their family so the child decides that it’s not good, and later in life chooses to pursue law – a respectable profession, with good earnings etc. (rationalisation in line with their family’s wishes). They still wants to sing, however, and are often frustrated by their chosen profession.

At what age do people start forming their behavioural patterns?

– We start forming these behavioural patterns practically from the moment of birth, since the relationship that the child has with their mother (or caretaker) is really important.

Children have a developmental need for love and bonding, for constant stimulation and care. If these are lacking, the child’s psycho-physical state will be significantly impaired, which research has proven time and again. Adults still want love, stimulation, connection – they contribute greatly to the adult’s quality of life. However, if these are in short supply, the adult’s mental and physical health won’t deteriorate the way a child’s would.  This is why a mother’s care and her bond with the infant determine from the very beginning how safe the child will feel later in life, whether they will feel like they can be protected, loved, whether they will feel it’s possible to satisfy their needs and wishes.

Real socialisation begins when children are about a year and a half old and have already developed some skills and abilities (walking, talking a little, etc.). This is the time when the child first comes to terms with other aspects of relationships that exist in addition to love and care – boundaries, requests, etc. So, the life script is formed between the ages of two and seven. Children at that age are quite young, their thinking is underdeveloped and they believe everything adults tell them because their life depends on adults. They overestimate the significance of many events and situations and that’s why they experience them far too emotionally. All this increases the chances of reaching faulty conclusions and basing decisions on them – misinformed conclusions and decisions based on that conclusions which will be used as guidelines later in life.

What affects personality the most? That is, what do we base our decisions, conclusions, beliefs, convictions, values, etc. on?

– Script decisions can be made under an external influence or a child can reach a wrong conclusion on their own due to insufficient information and concrete thinking. Still, the most significant source of messages based on which the child draws conclusions about herself, others and the world are the people who are the most important to the child, meaning parents, family, friends and other authorities. The more important the person is to the child, the greater the effect of their messages on the child. 

Children do not embrace everything that is communicated to them; however, chances are greater for a child to accept a message, when:

  • the message is communicated by a person very important to the child;
  • the message is repeated often;
  • the message is more intense (and followed by more intense emotions);
  • a similar message is repeated by several people;
  • the child received few or no opposite messages.

Messages can be communicated through actions, too. Often they aren’t remembered as verbal – rather, the child learns by modelling their parents’ behaviour. For instance, if the parent regularly makes negative remarks about, let’s say, people of another nationality or a group of football fans, even though  they aren’t speaking to the child directly, the child will overhear them and probably adopt this belief. Likewise, the child observes the relationship between their parents, and whether they’re abusive or gentle to one another, the child will adopt this type of behaviour as “normal”.

Parents also shape children’s self-perception. They tell children what they’re like. So if they call the child stupid and inadequate, the child will believe them. The child will believe them just the same if they call her capable and smart. Children also learn very quickly which behaviours are rewarded by their parents and which are ignored. This too shapes the child’s behaviour later in life.

How aware are we of our life script? Can we change or upgrade it and how?

– Most people are not aware of their life script as, by definition, it is an unconscious life plan.

What people are aware of is that they have a problem in life – a difficulty or struggle. Only when they decide to address the root causes do they realize that they, in fact, have some faulty beliefs.   

Faulty beliefs in our lives act as “self-fulfilling prophecies”. This means that if a person believes that they’re stupid, they will act accordingly. They will behave in a stupid manner and prove to themselves that they truly are stupid and will have “real” arguments to support this claim. I’ve often in my psychotherapy practice come across people who believed they were stupid and incompetent, while I found it rather obvious that they weren’t.

It’s quite common for such a person to keep doubting their own intelligence even after they take an intelligence test and find out they have a very high IQ (intelligence quotient), as they are able to find a lot of evidence that supports their belief that they are stupid.

This illustrates that our beliefs often have a much stronger impact on our behaviour and life than reality does. That is why we say that people bend reality and adjust it to their belief system. Our belief systems are inert, they strive to remain unchanged, even when presented with strong evidence to the contrary.   

The good news is that we can become aware of the faulty conclusions we had once adopted. We can become aware of the fact that we once believed we were, for example, incompetent, ugly, unlovable, and this is the first step towards changing those beliefs. Beliefs can be changed – this is the natural course of life. We all remember believing in witches and Santa Clause, and then afterwards realising they didn’t exist.  

Luckily enough, reality also helps change our beliefs by constantly refuting them. However, most people still need help – from friends, authorities, psychotherapists, role models or important life events. Psychotherapy is a proven, efficient method to change our beliefs. That is, in fact, what psychotherapy primarily focuses on – correcting our faulty beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. Of course, there are other ways to achieve this, some of which I mentioned earlier.

How does our life script affect our behaviour? Can it hinder us or interfere when it comes to important life decisions?

– Our life script can greatly influence our behaviour. If a certain decision is related to an area of life in which we have a script belief, our decision will be in line with the script.

Does our script make life predictable, given that we know how we should behave to meet expectations and what to expect based on such behaviour in any given moment?

– Yes, it does. If my client and I come to understand their life script, the decisions and beliefs that it’s made of, we can predict with great certainty how their life will turn out. Often even how it will end – unless they do something to change their belief system. Unfortunately, some people have script beliefs that they are bound to be unsuccessful, suffer, go crazy or commit suicide. Luckily, these beliefs can be corrected as well.

If a person has a realistic understanding of the world, themselves and other people, they are autonomous. Autonomy means being able to live your life in line with yourself and your wishes (as much as circumstances allow for it, of course) and not limiting yourself to living within the boundaries imposed by your script.

It also means fighting for yourself and making your life as good and fulfilled as circumstances allow. It means not seeing imaginary obstacles where there are none, while at the same time assessing the actual ones. Overcoming these obstacles if possible, and learning to accept the insurmountable problems as such.

Bear in mind – a person with erroneous beliefs will believe many solvable problems to be insurmountable because they see themselves as insufficiently competent, for whichever reason, to tackle these issues.

How does our life script affect emotions and love, beliefs and opinions on relationships?

– Relationships, love and emotions are important life questions. If we have faulty beliefs regarding these matters, we will behave accordingly. For instance, if a person believes that they are unlovable or that they aren’t good enough or attractive enough, they will act as if it were true. Consequently, it is highly likely that they will be perceived as less valuable or attractive by other people, thus greatly reducing their chances of having a quality romantic relationship. 

Our beliefs are reflected not only in our actions, but also in what other people notice about us right away. For example, if a person believes they are competent and attractive, it will be reflected in their posture, walk, use of body language, gesturing, tone of voice, the way they speak to people. If, however, the person believes they are ugly and stupid, it will be visible in the aforementioned ways. This is something people are quite skilled at noticing, even when they are consciously unaware of it. It is often the grounds for intuition, liking or disliking. This is why it is often said that the change should come from inside.

To illustrate – at the beginning of the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” we can see what the protagonist thinks of herself, and how she gradually changes her opinion. As she does, her appearance, behaviour and relationships change accordingly. In the end she becomes to show as smart, attractive, determined, persistent, desirable – quite unlike the loser; people often thought her to be.

So – this is the exact same person – identical potentials and capacities. But once she changes her beliefs, she shines her brightest and starts living in an entirely different manner.

How does our life script determine the manner and patterns we use to choose and find partners?

– Similarly to what we just discussed. If a person believes they deserve subpar treatment, they won’t object to a partner treating them that way. In contrast, if they expect to be treated decently, with respect and kindness, they won’t settle for anything less than that.

There has been some interesting research about the similarities and differences between relationships that started with “love at first sight” and relationships in which people fell in love after knowing each other for some time. It turns out that both these types of relationships have the same ratio of successful to unsuccessful outcomes. What this tells us is that we’re quite quick to recognise the people that fit into our life script, or, hopefully, into our autonomous choices.

Psychologists also say that life patterns affect how we behave in relationships and how we perceive them, how we think about giving, taking, control…

– Like everything else in life, (actual circumstances notwithstanding), our relationships are mostly defined by how we believe relationships should (or have to) be.

The relationships that work best are the ones in which both partners have similar beliefs about what relationships should be like. These partners are on the same page. Since there’s a myriad of beliefs about romantic relationships, chances are we won’t often find a person with the same beliefs about relationships that we have. This is what leads to so many misunderstandings and disagreements in partner relationships. And it’s also the reason that it is quite difficult to find people who we would be compatible with.

But it is also important to mention that there isn’t only one “Mr/Mrs Right” with whom we can have a quality relationship. There are many people with whom we share beliefs and values and with whom this would be possible. And since beliefs aren’t set in stone, it is also possible that we become more compatible over time. Through growing and developing together, we might both reach a set of beliefs that will allow us to function harmoniously. 

Development is the natural course of life. That is why it’s important to be with a person who wants to grow in a similar direction and at a similar pace as we do. When we do, it’s one of the most beautiful things we can experience.

Does a quality love relationship require that we share a similar “life scenario” with our partner, have similar life priorities and values? And does that mean that opposites do not attract after all? Or do we still need a bit of variety?

– It is important that we and our partner share the same value system. Especially when it comes to core values. We’ve all heard about relationships falling apart because one or both partners weren’t willing to compromise about some important life questions, e.g. where to live, how to raise children, matters of money, religion, family relations etc.

The issue of  similarities and opposites has probably been around ever since people started consciously contemplating these topics. There are various theories, debates and research. Looking at this topic from a developmental point of view: sometimes it is better for a person to choose someone who is similar to them as this will lead to better understanding and stability in the relationship. On the other hand, this can deprive the relationship of positive friction and growth through constructive conflict.

Again, if you chose someone quite different from you, it would require both partners to put substantial effort into development, growth and adjustment. It would take considerable flexibility to accept the other person as is. Often in such relationships, what drew us to the person in the first place, later starts bothering us the most. If partners are significantly different, and are not ready to work, put a lot of effort into personal development as well as into their relationship, chances of it working out are slim. It’s not impossible, though.

We often choose partners who are somewhat similar to us in core life values, and differ from us precisely in the spheres where we ourselves feel that we need a different developmental path. If both partners are aware of this and are willing to change, it can lead to faster growth for both people involved and to the relationship developing as well.

However, we also know that the people we fall in love with are not only the ones with whom we have the best chances of growing. In fact, they’re often also the ones with whom we have the best chances of confirming our faulty beliefs and negative life outcomes. A relationship with a person like this can have drastically different outcomes. What it comes down to in the end is whteher we are ready to face reality and do what needs to be done to correct our faulty beliefs. If we do, we can continue at a higher level of development – together. Many relationships fall apart at this point. This happens because the partners involved are not able to overcome their disappointement with reality and accept it as a chance for improvement. Instead, they take a step back and often seek a new partner – usually one with whom they repeat the same pattern.

When we see the same outcomes repeating regularly in life (whether in relationships, friendships, at work, etc.), it’s time to take a step back and think about it. This doesn’t happen by chance very often. Most likely it’s a consequence that script decisions have on our life. If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you always got. And in order to start doing things differently, we need to change the beliefs that lead to these actions in the first place.

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