Life-script in Transactional Analysis

Life-script in Transactional Analysis

excerpts from
Introduction and Definition

The idea that we all have a life-plan, written in childhood and lived in adulthood, is a central idea in Transactional Analysis theory. The concept, originally developed by Eric Berne in the 1960s and subsequently expanded on by many writers and researchers, is defined by Berne in What Do You Say After You Say Hello as ‘a life plan made in childhood, reinforced by the parents, justified by subsequent events, and culminating in a chosen alternative’.

A Life Plan

The idea of script as a ‘life plan’ is described by Berne in terms of ‘Aristotelian’ drama, consisting of ‘prologue, climax, and catastrophe’ (Berne, 1961, p117). Alternatively we can think of a three act play: Act One represents the protagonist’s childhood; Act Two represents adulthood, where the protagonist may struggle against script and even seem to break free from the inevitable ‘chosen alternative’ or script pay-off (although this may be due to following ‘counterscript’ rather than truly breaking free from script); and Act Three (the ‘catastrophe’) is where the protagonist runs out of energy and is unable to continue the struggle against script. Consequently script destiny takes its course (Steiner, 1974, p31).

It is the specificity of the life plan in TA theory that separates it from other psychological schools, which tend to downgrade the importance of childhood experience in forming a general view of the world. TA theory suggests that ‘a child lays down a specific plan for her life’ (Stewart and Joines, 1987, p100).

The other distinctive aspect of TA theory is the concept that the script culminates ‘in a chosen alternative’ (or payoff in the theory). The payoff is decided by the young child and every part of the drama is designed to lead inevitably to the final scene. It therefore follows that when we engage in ‘scripty’ behaviour, our behaviour lead us closer to the chosen payoff.

A key part of script theory is the ‘decisional’ nature of the life plan. This means that an individual’s script arises from decisions made in childhood, rather than solely from environmental or parental factors. Different children brought up in the same environment may well make different decisions resulting in quite different life plans. The script decisions made in childhood need to be differentiated from adult decision making, as young children do not have the same mental faculties as adults, and their decision making is mainly based on feelings, emotions and bodily sensations rather than grown-up logic and reality testing.

Parental influence, while not directly writing a child’s script, is nonetheless central to its development, through the messages (both verbal and non-verbal) delivered to the child. These messages form part of the child’s frame of reference and consist of many definitions – of self, of others and of the world – which are integral in the conclusions that the child forms about itself (Stewart and Joines, 1987, p189). It is important to recognise that the early script decisions we make are outside our grown-up awareness, although we may live them every day in our behaviour.

Berne’s definition of script also suggests that the early script decisions are ‘justified by subseque nt events’. This justification is usually arrived at through interpreting reality in a way that supports our script-driven view of ourself, others and the world. This interpretation can involve selectively (if unconsciously) ignoring relevant information, or over-emphasising irrelevant information.

Script Decisions

The script decisions we make in childhood have a significant impact on the course of our lives. Claude Steiner considered that these key early personality decisions are made prematurely, before we have sufficient information and decision-making faculties to properly take them. He hypothesised that if a child was left to develop naturally, important decisions about life would be deferred until adolescence (Steiner, 1974, p69). Unfortunately this natural development is routinely interrupted, and a child is subjected to various constraints and pressures – parental and environmental – that require adaptation to survive and have essential needs met.

The quality of the decisions made at such an early age depend entirely on the abilities of the child’s own Adult ego state (the Little Professor) at the time of the decision. A young child thinks and feels in ways that are quite different to grown-ups, and the logic of an infant can be puzzling. The world of an infant is a world of extremes – ecstasy, terror, rage – and very early decisions will reflect these extremes.

The position of a child at birth is one of ‘basic trust’ – an expectation that the mother will respond unconditionally to the child’s needs (Steiner, 1974, p71). When this unconditional protection is withdrawn (at least in terms of the infant’s own perception of the world), the child is forced to consider an important question, namely ‘what must I do to get what I need around here?’. The answers to that question will, inevitably, be largely contained within the ‘script messages’ that come from the child’s parents (and other parent-figures).

Script Messages

Script messages can be verbal, non-verbal, modelled, or attributed to a child. The non-verbal messages are especially potent, and consist of body tension, expressions, tones, smells and movements. Events in a child’s environment – loud noises; parental absences – can also deliver powerful script messages.

Non-verbal messages (potentially reinforced by subsequent verbal messages) influence script decisions made in the earlier parts of childhood, especially in the period before the child has acquired speech. These messages are considered in TA theory to originate from the parent’s Child ego state and the received messages (or the child’s interpretation of them) are stored in the youngster’s Child ego state.

Child ego state messages are classified into injunctions and permissions. Injunctions are negative non-verbal messages which, if expressed in words, would begin ‘Don’t …’ Permissions are positive non-verbal messages which would begin with ‘It’s OK to …’ These messages, and the decisions made in reaction to them, form the foundation of life-script, referred to in TA theory as ‘script proper’ (Stewart and Joines, 1987, p132).

Verbal messages – the ‘voices in our heads’ – are stored in the Parent ego state and are known as ‘counterinjunctions’. These messages, which originate from a parent’s own Parent ego state, lead to a set of alternative decisions called ‘counterscript’.

Counterscript consists of commands and definitions of the world issued to the child – for example ‘Be Good’, ‘Work Hard’, ‘Be A Big Boy’ – requiring ‘acquiescence to the cultural and social demands that are transmitted through the Parent’ (Steiner, 1974, p89). Counterscript can be positively used to fit in with society (and as such may seem to run contrary to the demands of script proper) but may carry with it a negative payoff (for example a Work Hard counterscript might lead to ulcers or a heart attack).

A grown-up sometimes uses counterscript to ‘cover’ a more destructive script injunction. For example a non-verbal ‘Drop Dead (Don’t Exist)’ injunction might be covered by ‘Work Hard’ counterinjunction. A child’s logic might conclude that ‘as long as I work hard I’m OK to continue living’. This can lead to a paradoxical negative outcome if ‘working hard’ leads to premature death.

Living the Script

During the course of our lives we spend periods of time ‘in script’, displaying behaviours and feeling emotions and sensations that may not be useful or relevant to the events or conditions of the ‘here-and-now’, but were relevant at some time in our childhood. We also spend periods of time ‘in counterscript’, displaying different behaviours and feeling different emotions but potentially equally irrelevant to the ‘here-and-now’. Finally we can spend time out of script – responding to the ‘here-and-now’ appropriately using grown-up problem solving and reality testing abilities.

We all have unique content to our scripts, but analysis of a large number of life-scripts has revealed that people live out their scripts according to six, and only six, patterns: Never, Always, Until, After, Almost, and Open-ended. These patterns appear to be common to everyone, without regard to age, sex or cultural background. Eric Berne corollated the six patterns that people use to live their scripts, or “structure the time between the first Hello … and the last Good-by” (Berne, 1973, p205) with characters from Greek mythology.

‘Never’ script people are forbidden to do (or get) the things they most want to do (or have). They complain ‘I never get what I want’ and they are tantalised by temptations that are out of their reach, as was Tantalus who was condemned to suffer through Eternity never eating or drinking, but with food and water just out of his reach.

‘Always’ script people ask themselves ‘why does this always happen to me?’ Like Arachne, who after unwisely challenging the goddess Minerva to a needlework contest and was turned into a spider, they are condemned to continually spin out the same web for Eternity. They are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, over and over again.

An ‘Until’ script requires it’s followers to complete a series of unpleasant tasks before they can take any reward or pleasure. Like Hercules, who had to live as a slave for twelve years before being promoted to a god, someone with an Until script will say: ‘I can’t do something fun, until I’ve completed this less fun thing.’

The ‘After’ script is illustrated by Damocles, who was allowed to enjoy the high life until he noticed the sword hanging over his head. The message is ‘have fun today, but you’ll pay for it tomorrow’.

‘Almost’ scripts are like Sisyphus, condemned to push a huge rock up a hill, only to find that it rolls down again just as he nears the top. The classic pattern is: ‘I almost made it this time’. Taibi Kahler has suggested that there are two types of Almost script: Type 1 is the Sisyphus script; Type 2 is illustrated by the high-achiever, who manages to push the rock to the top of the hill, but rather than enjoying the success merely looks around for the next hill and starts again.

The ‘Open-ended’ script follows the story of Philemon and Baucis, who were turned into trees as a reward for the good deeds of their lifetimes (almost literally left to vegetate). People who live an Open-ended script are like actors who only have the first part of their script – they reach a certain point in their lives and find themselves lost. This might be illustrated by ’empty-nest’ syndrome – where parents look forward to their offspring leaving home but are at a loss as how to structure their longed-for free time.

The Importance of Script and Script Analysis

An understanding of life-script is important in TA because it gives us an understanding of why people do what they do, and gives us insight into techniques that help people to change their self-destructive or painful behaviour. Once we begin to understand what our script patterns and behaviours are, we can begin to take Adult control and choose to behave differently.

Central to TA practice is the idea that every time we break away from, or step out of, script we loosen the grip that script has on us. Berne’s six script patterns, for example, once recognised, give us the opportunity to deliberately take a different course of action with legitimate expectation of a different outcome.

When we analyse our scripts to determine the injunctions, permissions and counterinjunctions that were given to us as children and were fundamental in the script decisions we made, the analysis gives us an opportunity to re-examine those decisions in the light of adult awareness, and, if appropriate, change those decisions in order to happier, more fulfilled and more content lives.


Berne, Eric (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, New York: Grove Press Inc.

Berne, Eric (1973) What Do You Say After You Say Hello, New York: Bantam Books.

Steiner, Claude (1974) Scripts People Live, New York: Random House Inc.

Stewart, Ian and Joines, Vann (1987) TA Today, Nottingham: Lifespace Publishing.

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