“The destiny of every human being is decided by what goes on inside his skull when confronted by what goes on outside his skull.” ~ Eric Berne
One of the core areas of psychology research and theory that fascinates me endlessly is narrative identity - the idea that we write our scripts for who we are, want to be, might be and could be.
I’ve written about this previously (and never miss an opportunity to inject a new piece with some reference to these concepts) and am intrigued by how - with a little awareness - we can actively curate a stronger sense of control over our life perspectives, outlooks and sense of self.
When you look a little below the surface of many positive psychology tools such as gratitude, journaling and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), what underpins many of these things is the sense of rewriting our internal narratives to create shifts in our minds.
In the psychological theory of self-talk - the internal chatter we use to discuss ourselves, our behaviours and our actions - narrative identity is also present. In short, it all comes down to how we think and feel about ourselves and how we, in turn, act on that. You probably don’t need me to tell you just how much what we think informs how we feel and behave, but I’m a firm believer in revisiting this regularly to remind ourselves because I have certainly got lost in my own thinking at times, believing half-truths and anxious thoughts to be my reality, despite this knowledge.
A few years ago, I received a newsletter from Samantha Clarke, someone I see as pioneering the ‘happiness at work’ movement before it was even a real movement. She refers to herself as a Global Changemaker and Neuroaesthetician, but when I first discovered her, she was going by Chief Happiness Consultant (I think) before that got taken over by the HR masses.
ANYwho, Samantha does some phenomenal work in the space of authenticity at work and building a career you fall in love with every day. She works with some of the world’s biggest organisations to help them develop high-performing, happy teams and figure out that ever-tricky concept of workplace culture. In short - definitely give her a look-up.
I came across said newsletter again recently during an inbox clean-up, and it snapped my interest by introducing me to Eric Berne. Now, I say introduce, but I’d read Berne’s intriguing book, Games People Play, many years ago, so it was more of a refamiliarisation with some core concepts I’d forgotten about, specifically Berne’s Transactional Analysis and Life Scripts theories.
A Script for Life
The idea of writing or creating a life script has become more popularised thanks to the social media churn of quotes asking us,
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Thanks, Mary Oliver.
Quotes like this nudge us towards the idea that we are much more in control of how we define our days than we often give credit. But it was Berne who first brought this into the world (to my knowledge, there is likely a plethora of additional research behind his work that came before him, but I haven’t dived that deep yet).
Berne suggests that from an early age, around four years old, our story and process for approaching life are shaped by our early experiences, conversations, and interactions with the important people in our lives.
In our teens, it’s revised a little but then “mostly cemented with our own versions of what we deem to be the heroes, villains, peaks and troughs of our life story” (similar to the idea of redemptive and contamination stories in broader narrative identity theory I’ve written about previously).
As adults, the story we’ve developed no longer forms a significant part of our conscious memory - it’s now fully integrated into living the ‘process’ of our script, informing our everyday behaviours that have been rehearsed repeatedly as we’ve developed this narrative. We’re unaware of living between these lines because it’s become normalised and accepted in how we move through our days. Usually, we’ve also received a certain amount of external feedback letting us know that the script we’re living by is ‘acceptable’ to others. This comes in many forms, such as securing successful friendships, jobs, relationships, and academic and professional achievements.
But even though this might be the case, there’s still cause to reflect on this script consciously and ask ourselves whether it’s truly serving us. We have a choice to stay in the 'life script' we’ve created or to build our awareness to reset the story - or parts of the story - that are no longer adding value and create a new way of being that serves the current version of who we are.
Or, perhaps more importantly, that serves the version of ourselves that we want to be - the authentic self that we may be grappling with living in more alignment with.
Berne’s Six Process Scripts
In his book, Sex in Human Loving, Berne proposed six process scripts that most of us fall into - these scripts set the scene for how we generally approach life. While they can be beneficial, they could inadvertently hamper our potential to live the life we authentically want.
Berne defines these scripts as “an unconscious blueprint”, and they are not without criticism (specifically around the various language and labels Berne himself has used to define these scripts further). But they can offer an intriguing peak into self-evaluation, helping us to develop our self-awareness further.
In her email, Samantha Clarke briefly summarises what these scripts might look like in action, although she doesn’t include the ‘Open End’ script. Here’s a review of these:
1. UNTIL: If you live in this script pattern, your mantra for life is "I can't do X until I have done Y". You consciously tell yourself that something good can't happen until something less good has finished.
2. AFTER: In this script, you process your life with the notion that you can have a good time today, but you will pay for it afterwards. For example, “If I take the evening off emails, I will have so much to catch up on tomorrow.” 3. NEVER: This script sees you referencing many things you want in life as unattainable with that word I believe we should banish from our self-talk lingo - never. For example, “I’ll never find a healthy relationship“ or “They always have more luck, things never work out for me how I want.” 4. ALWAYS: Similar to Never, the Always script sees an ‘all or nothing’ approach to life. For example, “Why does this always happen to me?”. If you think this sounds familiar, you might also be someone who finds themself moving from one unsatisfactory thing to another - whether that’s a job, relationships or even your living space.
5. ALMOST: While you might sometimes reach your goals and desires, it often feels like they’re not quite good enough - they’re almost good enough. Everything you achieve is layered by this lens that there is something better to reach for. You’re always almost happy.
6. OPEN END: In this script, you might do everything right, everything you’ve been told to do in the way you’re expected to and successfully completed those life tasks - but then what? I have many friends who did the whole ‘good life thing’ (go to uni, get a good job, marry a good person, buy a house, have children) and are now wondering - what next? The sense of not knowing or not knowing how to uncover the ‘what's next’ is a heavy burden and defines how you approach life.
A Script For Your Identity (?)
Okay, so it’s worth noting here that Berne dedicated much of his theory to fairytales and mythology, believing that these defined stories and narrative arcs provided us with life scripts for contemporary living. We all know that these stories provide sound moral guidance in many instances, but Berne took it one step further, and the scripts mentioned above have been devised and developed from various mythology.
Now I love when psychology does this because I feel like it’s an authentic nod to the heart of what we’re trying to do - connect people to themselves and each other - and it seems rogue and a little snobbish to ignore the wealth of incredible knowledge available about what it means to be human in these stories.
But in the scientific community, and psychology is still seen as a relative pseudoscience, building a theory for human identity based on fairytales was never going to sit well.
So, as I always advise with anything in psychology - take it with a grain of salt. If you are drawn to any particular idea, concept or notion - dig deeper. Explore why it connects; what are you dismissing in the process of selectively picking the part you believe is you right now?
We tend to have a terrible habit of only choosing information that backs up the good parts of who we want to be and don’t do a fair amount of justice to exploring the edges. It’s easy to dismiss something that might be accurate purely because you think it backs up a part of yourself that you potentially dislike. If you dismiss a piece of information or feel strongly in any way about it - ask why. Because there are some valuable self-insights in pushing back against our denials.
I also believe that when we view ourselves in this total way - bringing the good, bad and ugly into the light of who we are as a complete person - we offer ourselves the opportunity to develop a stronger sense of self-trust (hugely underrated - I’ll probably write more on this another time).
I like these scripts because I think we can all find some portion of ourselves in one or two of them, which can help us begin identifying how and why and when this script might have developed. It’s likely to be connected to past experiences we’ve internalised so entirely that we’ve forgotten they’re no longer valid to who we are or want to be in the future.
There’s a lot of value in excavating that part of the story we tell ourselves.