Figure Out What's Next

Don't Like Your Life Story? Change it!

career change motivation motivationfinder peter axtell purposeful living self-assessment Apr 10, 2018
rewriting life story

by Peter Axtell

drawing by Peter Axtell

You were born innately healthy…then what happened?

You developed early in life what Transactional Analyst Claude Steiner calls your "life script." The content of your life script comes from the negative and positive messages you received from the people close to you.

To survive, you arrived at an early decision. Then you spend the rest of your life (unconsciously) making that decision come true.

In this post, we'll explore what composes the early decision. We'll discuss how to identify your own initial decision and life story. And finally, how you can change that decision and therefore your life story. The goal is to stop becoming a victim of your injunctions and life script which is to say, become a psychologically healthy autonomous adult. This means you are in charge of your thinking, feeling, behavior, and your body.

What is your life story?

Like a movie story, you have a script for your life. It is a prediction of how your life will turn out. The question arises, how does the script get written? It is formed in early life and is the result of messages from your caregivers. There are two kinds of words. Injunctions and their corresponding counterpart, permissions. Injunctions usually begin with “don't” while permissions begin with “it's OK to.”


Therapists Bob and Mary Goulding identified 12 common injunctions. People don't have all 12, but usually, have several. As each injunction is internalized by the young child, a script decision is made and becomes part of the script or life story. You can look at the list and see which ones ring true for you.

This approach will give a critical insight into your own life story:

  1. Don't Be (Don't Exist). This one is probably the most extreme. Feelings associated with this injunction are worthless, useless and unlovable.
  2. Don't Be You. Usually a non-verbal message “don't be who you are.” This sometimes happens when parents wanted a boy and have a girl or vice versa.
  3. Don't Be a Child. Behave like a grown-up even though you're a child. This can happen if a child has to step up due to the sudden death of one parent.
  4. Don't Grow Up. The message from the parent is “don't leave me.” It is often a message the last born or only child gets.
  5. Don't Make It. This is an indication of jealousy from the parent of the child's accomplishments.
  6. Don't (Don't Do Anything). Everything is dangerous, so it's better to do nothing at all.
  7. Don't Be Important. You and your wants and needs are not important around here. “Don't ask for what you want.”
  8. Don't Belong. Compliance with this message is a feeling that you're “out of it in groups.” You are “different” from other children.
  9. Don't Be Close. Can be a ban on physical closeness and touch. The parents rarely touch each other.
  10. Don't Be Well (Don't Be Sane). Compliance here is to get ill in order to get attention from caregivers. “My child isn't strong you know.”
  11. Don't Think. The caregiver belittles the child's thinking. “Don't think what you think, think what I think.” This can also show up in a super intelligent child who has to hide and play small.
  12. Don't Feel. Modeled by caregivers who bottle up their feelings. “Don't feel fear don't feel anger, don't feel joy” and so on.

A child doesn't always follow the injunctions. Some children realize what is going on and turn an adverse injunction into a positive one. They can see that the injunction is the caregiver's message regarding themselves and the child doesn't have to take that on.

Permissions are the opposite of injunctions

The caregiver message starts with "it's OK to..." For example, “it's OK to be, it's OK to feel, it's OK to think” and so on.

The decision

When a child's expectations of protection while developing aren't met, then the script is adopted instead, and the child adapts.

In my own life, my father was absent when I was about four or five, and at ten he died. I was given a “don't be you” injunction from my mother (no blame here), and to get my needs met I adopted a Please Others Driver. Pleasing others was driving my behavior and has done so most of my life. I can remember at times feeling angry, but I stuffed that anger because there was a risk that if I didn't please my mom and others, I was not going to be OK. Therefore, I wasn't my natural, authentic self, I was an adapted version of myself. Every time I decided to be an adapted self, I added to my life script which dictated my life story. I wasn't autonomous, I was driven by my script, and that is a problem because there are parts of my script that impede me from becoming my highest self which is what I desire. Pleasing others is fine as long as it doesn't go to extremes which then causes problems.

Stay tuned, Drivers will be a topic of a future blog post.

Features of the Life Script

Claude Steiner wrote that there are three primary ways people's autonomous lives (the ultimate goal is autonomy) are blocked and distorted into scripts. He believed that there are three basic life disturbances: depression, madness, and drug addiction. His book Scripts People Live was written in 1974 and could have been written today (2018).

Steiner labeled particular scripts that corresponded to these three disturbances:

  1. This is due to what Steiner labeled as lack of “strokes.” The word strokes is synonymous with love. It's been proven that people can wither and die without love. Nobody can live without love, and the result is depression.
  2. In the extreme it's to go mad, literally. Other manifestations are an inability to cope with the world and the feeling that you have no control over your own life. People in this category are often labeled as lazy, stupid, and not knowing what they want. These judgements are based on the injunction that attacks a child's ability to think and to figure out how to navigate the world.
  3. No Joy. In 1974 Steiner noted that large numbers of people in the US were addicted to drugs. That fact has turned into an epidemic today.

These are extreme forms of the three major scripts.

Intermediate outcomes in everyday life

There are, however, everyday examples that are in the middle between the extremes of the three scripts.

Some examples: going from one unsuccessful loving relationship to another relationship destined to fail. Becoming a hardened, unhappy person or continuously in a crisis due to the lack of skill dealing with everyday problems.

Tying it all together

This might be hard to believe, but you unconsciously have written a life story for yourself that is very much like Aristotle's description of a three-act play. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The end is the payoff; it is the time that you have decided when you're going to die. The rest of the play is the script you are following unconsciously.

What if you want to change the life story you've written?

What if you uncover your life story and the script said you would die around 62? What if your script dictated you would go from one unsuccessful love relationship to the other and become an old maid or a cigarette smoking, whiskey drinking lonely bachelor? What if your script said you were a lifelong drug addict going down the tubes to madness and ending your life?

The good news

There is a way to change your life story if you don't like it.

You can rewrite your script. Here's how:

  • You must bring to conscious awareness what your script is. You can't rewrite it if you don't know what it is. There are exercises that will enable you to do this. One of them is where a trained person guides you through a journey back to the time when you wrote your script. I can't go into the whole technique here but simply put, you sit in a theatre as a spectator and watch your life unfold on the stage as a play while someone guides you and takes notes. It's a compelling experience, and it's not easy, but it's critical to change your script.
  • Bob and Mary Goulding developed a therapy call Redecision which is a methodology to rewrite your life script. It has been highly successful. Their book, Changing Lives Through Redecision Therapy, is an excellent resource. They have passed now but there are practitioners who are trained in this therapy.
  • You must be aware of your own injunctions, permissions, and drivers.
  • You must become a detective of yourself and how you operate and what motivates you.

The goal is autonomy

Being autonomous is to be free from your script and free from injunctions that are no longer appropriate as much as possible.

Dr. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, has described an autonomous adult as "a person who is able to solve problems in the here and now without drama."

Imagine how much less upset and reactive to the problems we all face we would be if we were more autonomous.

Question: What insights did you become aware of after reading this blog post?


The Inside-Out Career Design Podcast

Join Us as We Search for Answers to the Age-Old Questions of 
"What Should I Do With My Life?" and "What's Next for Me?"

Check Out Our Episodes