Life Scripts: Unconscious Relational Patterns
By Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D.
Life Scripts are a complex set of unconscious relational patterns based on
physiological survival reactions, implicit experiential conclusions, and/or
explicit decisions, made under stress, at any developmental age, that inhibit
spontaneity and limit flexibility in problem-solving, health maintenance and
in relationship with people (Erskine, 1980/1997).
Scripts are often developed by infants, young children, adolescents and even
adults as a means of coping with disruptions in significant dependent relationships
that repeatedly failed to satisfy crucial developmentally based needs. These
unconscious script patterns most likely have been formulated, reinforced and
elaborated over a number of developmental ages as a result of repeated ruptures
in relationships with significant others. Life Scripts are a result of
the cumulative failures in significant, dependent relationships! Such
Life Scripts are unconscious systems of psychological organization and self-regulation
primarily formed from implicit memories and expressed through physiological
discomforts, escalations or minimizations of affect and the transferences that
occur in everyday life.
These unconscious relational patterns, schemata or life plans influence the
reactions and expectations that define for us the kind of world we live in,
the people we are and the quality of interpersonal relationships we will have
with others. Encoded physically in body tissues and biochemical events, affectively
as sub-cortical brain stimulation, and cognitively in the form of beliefs,
attitudes and values, these responses form a blueprint that guides the way
we live our lives. Such scripts involve a complex network of neural pathways
formed as thoughts, affects, biochemical and physiological reactions, fantasy,
relational patterns and the important process of homeostatic self-regulation
of the organism. Scripts formed from physiological survival reactions, implicit
experiential conclusions, relational failures, prolonged misattunements and
neglects, as well as chronic shock and acute trauma, all require a psychotherapy
wherein the therapeutic relationship is central and is evident through the
respect, reliability, and the dependability of a caringly, involved, skilled
real person (Erskine, 1993/97).
Unconscious Processes. The purpose of a serious in-depth psychotherapy
is the resolution of a client’s unconscious script inhibitions or compulsions
in relationship with people, inflexibility in problem-solving and deficiencies
in health care. Such a “script cure” (Erskine, 1980/1997) involves
an internal reorganization and new integration of affective and cognitive structures,
undoing physiological retroflections, decommissioning introjections and consciously
choosing behavior that is meaningful and appropriate in the current relationship
or task rather than behavior that is determined by compulsion or fear or archaic
coping reactions. The aim of an in-depth and integrative psychotherapy is to
provide the quality of therapeutic relationship, understanding and skill that
facilitates the client becoming conscious of what was previously unconscious
so that he or she can be intimate with others, maintain good health and engage
in the tasks of everyday life without preformed restrictions.
What most people generally consider as “conscious memory” is usually
composed of explicit memory – the type of memory that is described as
symbolic: a photographic image, impressionistic painting or audio recording
of what was said in past events. Such explicit or declarative memory is usually
anchored in the capacity to use social language and concepts to describe experience.
Experience that is “unconscious” usually lacks explicit recall
of an event because it is sub-symbolic. Sub-symbolic memory is potentially “felt” as
physiological tensions, undifferentiated affect, longings or repulsions, and
pre-reflective relational and self-regulating patterns (Bucci, 2001).
When we define Script as a complex set of unconscious relational patterns
based on physiological survival reactions, implicit experiential conclusions
and/or explicit decisions made under stress we are including script
patterns that are formed from explicit memory embedded in conscious or preconscious
decisions of a previous developmental period. Additionally, we are also describing
the structured result of implicit memory as well as unconscious procedural
ways of relating to others, unconscious bodily processes, the unconscious aspects
of acute trauma and dissociation, the unconscious effects of cumulative misattunement
and neglect, unconscious introjection and/or pre-reflective unconscious organization
of attachment styles, relational-needs and self-regulation. Each of these antecedents
of a Life Script requires a specific form of therapy to enable the unconscious
experiences to become conscious and to facilitate the emergence of new patterns
of thinking, feeling, body process, behavior and interpersonal contact.
Injunctions and Decisions: Explicit Memory. Berne (1972), English
(1972), Steiner (1971), Stuntz (1972), and Wollams (1973) have each described
script as being formed by parental injunctions and a child’s acquiescence
to the parents’ messages. Their ideas vary in how injunctions are communicated,
the critical developmental periods when a child is most susceptible to such
messages, and the psychological lethalness of both injunctions and the resulting
compliance. Each of these theorists basically views script as an interaction
of injunctions, counterinjunctions, compliance and early developmental protocol.
Generally therapy of these script dynamics is described by these authors as
consisting of explanation, illustration, confirmation and interpretation.
Steiner (1971) put particular emphasis on the coercive power of the parents’ overt
and ulterior messages to lethally shape a child’s life while Bob and
Mary Goulding (1978) described a list of such injunctions that formed the basis
of a child making script decisions. Their examples of script decisions are
examples of explicit memories wherein an actual scene from childhood is consciously
remembered, a corresponding parental injunction is identified and the child’s
original decision to comply with the injunction is articulated. Because these
memories and the resulting script decisions are explicit forms of memory they
may be amenable to a redecision therapy. As a result of this conscious awareness
of how the script was originally decided, with an awareness of the life long
consequences, and with the therapist’s support, a life changing redecision
is possible (Erskine, 1974/1997). Several examples of how redecisions are an
effective form of script therapy when the script dynamics and decisions can
be explicitly remembered are in Bob and Mary Goulding’s book “Changing
Lives Through Redecision Therapy” (1979) and their videotape “Redecision
Therapy” (1987), as well as in Erskine and Moursund’s “Integrative
Psychotherapy in Action” (1988/1998).
Allen & Allen (1972) suggested that the therapists’ permissions
to live differently than the parental injunctions dictate are an important
element in counterbalancing or altering the effects of such script forming
memory because the permissions provide new explicit memories of an involved
other person who is invested in the client’s welfare. In a 1980 article,
I identified the behavioral, intrapsychic and physiological dimensions of “script
cure” and established the theoretical basis for the Script System, originally
referred to as the Racket System (Erskine & Zalcman, 1979/1997). The Script
System provides a model of how script beliefs are formed from explicit decisions,
implicit and pre-symbolic experiential conclusions, and/or introjections and
are actually lived out in current life where they are expressed through behavior,
the quality of relationships, fantasy, internal physical sensations and selected
explicit memories (Erskine & Moursund, 1988/1998).
Implicit Memory: Cumulative Misattunements and Experiential Conclusions. Not
all Life Scripts are based on parental injunctions or script decisions. Unconscious
conclusions based on lived experience account for a major portion of Life Scripts.
Implicit experiential conclusions are composed of unconscious affect, physical
and relational reactions that are without concept, language, sequencing of
events or conscious thought. Implicit script conclusions may represent early
childhood preverbal or never-verbalized experiences that, because of the lack
of relationship, concept and adequate language, remain unconscious. Later in
life these unconscious conclusions are sensed and expressed through a sense
of unfulfilled longing or repulsion and unexpressed or undifferentiated affect.
They may also be sensed as confusion, emptiness, uncomfortable body sensations
and/or a procedural knowledge of caution in relationships. These physiological
sensations are sub-symbolic or pre-symbolic affective memories.
In my clinical experience many client’s Life Scripts are an expression
of procedural, sub-symbolic and implicit memories of conditioned affective
and sensorimotor responses, repetitive self-regulating behaviors, preemptory
anticipatory and inhibiting reactions that culminate in unconscious conclusions. Such
implicit experiential conclusions provide a variety of psychological functions,
such as orientation, self-protection and a categorization of experiences.
Implicit memory refers to the processing of subliminal stimuli, physiological
sensations and affect, as well as lived experience that, rather than becoming
conscious as explicit memory, remain unsymbolized and therefore unconscious
until there is an interested and involved other person who facilitates internal
contact, concept formation and linguistic expression.
Implicit script conclusions may unconsciously express developmental needs
that were not satisfied, crucial relational interactions which never or seldom
occurred and the repeated failure of optimal responsiveness by primary caretakers.
When primary caretakers are repeatedly distressed, anxious or angry, crucial
infancy and early childhood relational interactions may never have occurred.
Examples of such crucial parent-child interactions are vital eye-to-eye contact,
soothing touch, or the reflective mirroring on the parent’s face as the
child is either delighted or distressed. Such repeated parental failure to
attune and respond to the developmental needs of the young child constitutes
psychological neglect. These failures are not necessarily - or even usually – the
result of deliberate and conscious choices on the part of caretakers. They
are more often caused by parental ignorance, fatigue, or preoccupation with
other concerns; or the parents may be tangled in script patterns of their own
that are incompatible with meeting the child’s needs. The child, however,
is unlikely to understand adult preoccupation or fatigue or script manifestations
and may well fantasize intentionality when none is present. “Mom has
no time for me”; “I’m not important enough.” “Dad
doesn’t even look at me; he must be really mad at me because I am so
bad.” Such implicit experiential conclusions, over time, form an unconscious
Children who grow up with or go to school in an environment of psychological
neglect, prolonged affective misattunements or repetitive ridicule, often fail
to develop a sense of competency, self-definition or the capacity to make an
impact on others. As a result, they often give up any notion that they can
influence the course of their own lives or make an impact on other people.
Their necessary sense of security, self-value, efficacy and agency, or self-definition,
can be slowly and repeatedly undermined by disparaging comments, ridicule or
humiliating remarks from parents, teachers, siblings and other children. The
result may be a pervasive sense of shame and the conviction “something’s
wrong with me” (Erskine, 1994/1997). In some situations, children and
adolescents may unconsciously overcompensate by becoming extremely competent,
demandingly self-definitive or insistent on making an impact on others. The
affective memories of such repetitive neglect, misattuntment or criticism,
although implicit rather than explicit or conscious, shape conclusions about
self and a style of attachment that may linger for many years. The result of
such neglect is referred to as cumulative trauma, a delayed reaction
to scores of implicit memories of significant relational disruptions and repeated
nonverbal conclusions about self, others and the quality of life (Lourie, 1996;
Erskine, Moursund & Trautmann, 1999). Many personally disturbing feelings
and script beliefs about self-value, belonging within a group, or the capacity
to learn have their origin in the unconscious physical and affective responses
to the cumulative criticism, disregard and rejections that may have occurred
in school or on the playground. As well as the early child-parent-sibling interactions,
the interpersonal dynamics between peers from pre-school to university have
a significant influence in forming unconscious procedural patterns and script
beliefs about self, others and the quality of membership in a group. The attitudes
and behaviors of teachers may also be significant in shaping unconscious identification
and/or experiential conclusions.
Body Script. Life Scripts are often encoded biochemically within
bodily tissue. In almost every case of script, whether formed by explicit decisions,
unconscious experientially based conclusions or survival reactions, there may
be a corresponding biochemical and physiological response within the body.
Because of the intense sub- cortical brain stimulation and biochemical activity
at the time of script conclusion or decision, the person may be unable to freely
express emotions and act in accordance with needs (Damasio, 1999). The amygdala
and lymbic system of the brain are overwhelmed and the natural physiological
and affective expression may be turned inward - - a physiological retroflection
(Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). This retroflection that is paired
with a lack of safety, an unexpressed protest, unexpressed fear, or a shutting
down of physical action, is often maintained years later as a physiological
structure, habitual action or inhibition of expression. When misattunement
and neglect from significant others have persisted over time, these inhibiting
retroflections actually become the person’s physiological sense of “this
is me”. The stiff neck, the muscle pain in the shoulders, the grinding
of teeth, the clenched fist, are what the client has always known. These manifestations
of body scripts are encoded as physiological, as well as psychological, structures.
Life Scripts that have an origin in either acute or chronic trauma, or even
cumulative neglect, are almost always physiological – the script
is within the body – as a result of the survival reactions within
the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the brain and the corresponding
muscular tension (Cozolino, 2006). These psychological survival reactions often
reoccur as automatic and sudden responses that involve various organs, muscle
groups, or even the total body, because of the brain’s stimulation of
neurotransmitters and hormones that affect every organ system (Van der Kolk,
1994). The sudden reactivation of physiological survival reactions are not
conscious (until after they have occurred) because the associational networks
of the brain have become “fear conditioned” and are paired with
other script dynamics such as core script beliefs, behavioral patterns, and
a conglomerate of emotional memories (LeDoux, 1964).
When stress or neglect occurs early in life, is prolonged or extreme, brain
functioning and behavior become organized around fear, rigidity and an avoidance
of stimulation and exploration (Cozolino, 2006). The earlier the misattunement,
neglect, or physical and emotional trauma, the more likely that the script
will be within the body and not accessible through language or a narrative
form of therapy and, in many cases, not available to consciousness. Several
writings and research reports on early child development support the idea that
script is formed by sub-symbolic physiological survival reactions and unconscious
conclusions in response to the quality of both early and ongoing significant
relationships (Beebe, 2005; Bloom, 1997; Field et al., 2003; Lyons-Ruth et
al., 1986; Tronick & Gianino, 1986; Weinberg & Tronick, 1998).
An effective and complete psychotherapy aimed at script cure must identify
and ameliorate the physiological restrictions, inhibitions and body tensions
that interfere with affect, expression of current relational-needs or the maintenance
of good health. When I engage in body script therapy, the treatment goal is
to energize the body tissue that was inhibited and rigidified when developmentally
based physical and relational-needs were unsatisfied and primal feelings were
repressed. Body script therapy may be the entrance into doing affective or
cognitive therapy or it may be a concluding step in the treatment of specific
script restriction. Interventions at the level of body script include those
approaches that lead to somatic change, such as attentive awareness to bodily
process, deep massage work, tension relaxation, proper diet, exercise and recreational
activities that enhance the flow of energy and movement of the body.
Script cure at the physiological level is a letting go of tensions, body armoring,
and internal restrictions that inhibit the person from living life fully and
easily within his or her own body. Changes in body script are often evident
to an observer as a more relaxed appearance, freer movement, increased energy,
and an established weight level that is appropriate for the person’s
frame. People report having a greater sense of vitality, an ease of movement,
and an increased sense of well-being.
A description of the methods that are useful in the cure of physiological
aspects of Life Scripts is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, it is
the responsibility of the psychotherapist to focus on bodily processes, physiological
reactions, retroflections and early childhood coping strategies, and even minute
movements or silences as an expression of the physiological reactions that
are imbedded in a life script.
Introjection: Whose script is it? Introjection is an unconscious
self-protective identification with aspects of the personality of significant
others that occurs in the absence of full contact, where crucial needs were
unfilled in a dependent relationship. Introjection provides a psychological
compensation for unsatisfied relational-needs and disruptions in essential
interpersonal contact. An external relational conflict is avoided but the conflict
is, instead, internalized where it is seemingly easier to manage (L. Perls,
1978). Therefore, introjection is accompanied by physiological survival reactions.
Many aspects of a person’s Life Script may actually be the result of
introjecting parents’, teachers’ or significant others’ feelings,
bodily reactions, attitudes, script beliefs, behaviors and relational patterns.
It may be imperative in a thorough treatment of Life Script to identify the
origin of the client’s depression, disappointments, bitterness, spitefulness
or internal criticism. Are such attitudes, beliefs, anticipations and behaviors
the result of one’s own life experiences, conclusions and decisions?
Or, are these the assumed thoughts, feelings, behaviors and coping systems
of a significant other that have been introjected? Is the script the result
of a self criticizing defense against awareness of the internal influence of
an introjection (Erskine, 1988/1997)? The therapeutic explanation and identification
of the many aspects of introjection and the necessary psychotherapy are important
in the treatment planning and selection of methods that lead to script cure.
The specific methods in the treatment of introjection or vehement self criticism
and actual case examples are detailed in several other writings (Erskine, 2003;
Erskine & Trautmann, 2003; Erskine & Moursund, 1988/1998; Erskine,
Moursund & Trautmann, 1999; Moursund & Erskine, 2004). In a thorough
psychotherapy aimed at script cure, it may be essential that the psychotherapist
addresses the internalized elements of the personality of significant others
and either provides a therapeutic interposition or a complete decommissioning
of the introjection (Berne, 1961).
Transferences of Everyday Life. Although Life Scripts may be formed
at any developmental age, in my clinical experience, tenacious Life Scripts
are not formed by explicit decisions alone but are most commonly formed from
a composite of implicit experiential conclusion, survival reactions, and introjection. The
implicit memories of these script forming conclusions, survival reactions and
introjections are not directly available through the client’s explicit
memory or in any organized narrative about his or her early life experiences.
Such early memories and implicit conclusions are revealed through bodily reactions,
pre-reflective relational patterns, transference within the therapeutic relationship
and, most commonly, through the transferences of everyday life (Freud,
1912/1958). The hurts and angers with family or friends or the fearfully anticipated
reactions of coworkers, the disregard for one’s health or general welfare,
and the habitual worry, repetitive fantasies or obsessions are examples of
the unconscious transference of early emotional memory into the current events
of everyday life.
Berne defines scripts as a “transference phenomena” that may be
reenacted over a lifetime and that are derived and adapted from “infantile
reactions and experiences” and the “primal dramas of childhood” (1961,
p. 116). In an effective psychotherapy, it is often necessary for the psychotherapist
to help the client construct a narrative of his or her early emotional and
relational experiences in order to gain an understanding and resolution of
his or her transferential reactions. This is often accomplished through the
therapeutic method of implication wherein the therapist co-constructs
with the client meanings for his or her experience and provides both concepts
and a sense of the significance to the affective and physiological memories.
Transference both within the therapeutic relationship and the course of everyday
life is often an expression of “the first traumatic experience, the protocol” and
the cumulative “later versions or palimpsests” (Berne, 1961, p.
124) of the Script – the unconscious experiential conclusions.
Transference within a therapy relationship, and even more commonly and frequently
in the relationships and activities of everyday life, is an expression of the
effects of previous relational disruptions and failures, as well as an expression
of relational-needs and a desire to achieve intimacy in relationships. It is
an unconscious enactment of past affect-laden experiences and psychological
functions such as self-regulation, compensation or self-protection (Brenner,
1979; Erskine, 1993/1997; Langs, 1976). Transference is a manifestation
and expression of the unconscious dynamics of Life Scripts.
Elizabeth: an unconscious search for love
The following case example of Elizabeth’s unconscious search for her
mother’s love is an illustration of how her Life Script was the result
of implicit experiential conclusions, cumulative parental misattunement to
her affect and relational-needs and an explicit script decision. In Elizabeth’s
psychotherapy we explored her bodily sensations and physiological survival
reactions and how she may have introjected her mother’s depression when
she was an infant and pre-school child. My phenomenological and historical
inquiry, affective, developmental and rhythmic attunement, and therapeutic
inference revealed that the very young Elizabeth was deeply affected by her
mother’s depression. One of our therapeutic tasks was to separate her
own unconscious reactive early childhood depression from the introjected depression
of her mother and to provide a sensitive therapy to both aspects of the depression.
Our psychotherapy focused on making her unconscious affect and physiological
experience conscious and attending to her developmental needs for a dependable,
consistent and involved relationship. Interwoven through this case illustration
are some examples of how the script was manifested in everyday life and the
necessity for a relational and integrative psychotherapy aimed at achieving
a script cure.
Elizabeth looked like a lost child when she began her psychotherapy. She described
herself as “empty, lost and confused”. In her initial sessions,
she wondered if she had “inherited a depression” because she often
felt “so empty inside”. She dressed poorly, even though she had
a well paying job. Her clothes neither fit her well nor did the colors or patterns
match. Her hair often looked uncombed and in need of a cut. My early impressions
of Elizabeth were that she was a neglected and unloved child.
Elizabeth was married and described her relationship with her husband as “we
mostly just live together” without much physical contact. She saw no
problem with her marriage because she and her husband often did things together
such as going to many cinemas and she was pleased that he did the grocery shopping
and all the cooking.
Elizabeth’s father once angrily told her that Elizabeth’s mother
was “depressed” and that the depression was why her mother “abandoned” the
family when Elizabeth was five years old. Her father would get angry and critical
if Elizabeth ever asked any questions about her mother. There were no photos
of Mother nor was there any contact with members of Mother’s family.
Mother ceased to exist. There was never any conversation between Elizabeth
and her father about her mother’s disappearance. Elizabeth’s father
never made any acknowledgement of Elizabeth’s emotional loss of her mother
and certainly no validation of her intense grief and need to be loved. She
unconsciously concluded during her childhood years that her feelings, emptiness
and longings meant “I’m a bother to people”.
Elizabeth could not consciously remember anything about her mother. She could
not recall what her mother looked like. Father admitted that he had destroyed
all of the photographs of Mother, including wedding photos and photos of Elizabeth
with her mother when she was a baby and preschooler. The result was that she
walked the streets of New York City searching for a face that could be her
mother’s. Elizabeth’s longing for love was unconscious. She was
only aware of the emptiness inside and of a desperate “search”.
She had no consciousness of her needs for mothering and loving. Whenever I
inquired about any relational-need Elizabeth might have, or about her mother,
she would unconsciously stroke her lips or hair. I recognized these unconscious
gestures as a need for security and early mothering even though she could neither
think about nor verbalize her needs. Her self-soothing initially had no meaning
to her until we talked about her lip and hair stroking many, many times and
related the self-soothing to the need for mothering affection and soothing
touch. Even though she had no consciousness for her need for mothering, she
acted out her unconscious needs in the transference through her helplessness
and demeanor of neglect.
Elizabeth found it incomprehensible that I would think about her between sessions.
She had no sense that she could make an impact on me. Unlike other clients,
Elizabeth never missed me when I traveled. She often said that she did not
know what to talk about in our sessions. She expected me to be critical of
her. In our early sessions, she was able to identify this expectation of my
potential criticalness and related it to explicit memories of her father’s “constant
criticism of everyone”. During this phase of therapy, she became conscious
of having made an explicit script decision between the ages of 10 and 12 to
be cautious of everyone because “people are critical”.
Elizabeth could recall some stories and explicit memories of interactions
with her father, particularly about special events or vacations where they
did activities together, such as going to football games or swimming. But,
Elizabeth had no capacity to either conceptualize or talk about feeling cared
for in a relationship, nor did she have any awareness of her relational needs.
During the psychotherapy, Elizabeth’s implicit memories were transformed
into explicit stories.
Elizabeth described how she would tighten her body in bed rather than snuggle
into her husband. Through ongoing phenomenological inquiry about her sensations,
affect and internal images she eventually said “I think I could not snuggle
into my father. His embrace was hard and he was always in a hurry or critical”.
This comment was the opening in our examining several transferential reactions
in her marriage and also to the realization of her disavowed anger at her father
for the absence of loving in her family. She began to wonder about the cause
of mother’s alleged depression and why the mother might have left the
I never did any therapy with Elizabeth’s possible introjection of her
father’s attitudes or feelings. If I had had the opportunity I would
have investigated if it was also he who was depressed, particularly after his
wife had left him when Elizabeth was five years old. It is possible that his “constant
criticism of everyone”, his destroying all the photographs and his not
ever speaking about Elizabeth’s mother was an expression of either his
depression or bitter resentment or both.
By the third year of therapy, I gently and persistently inquired about Elizabeth’s
early relationship with her depressed mother. I felt an intense tenderness
for the little girl she once was and an attunement to the needs of a neglected
baby and preschool child. I realize that I kept my eyes on her all the time,
particularly on her eyes whenever I caught a glimpse of her downward or inward
looking gaze. I experienced a simple innocence in her and a willingness to “please
at any cost”. My tender comments and reflections of her possible childhood
needs were met with confusion and/or distracting comments – comments
unrelated to her vulnerability, needs or relationship with her mother. These
juxtaposition reactions included Elizabeth’s disregard of my caring gaze,
words of tenderness or descriptions of the relational needs of a young child
- a juxtaposition between what she desperately needed from both parents and
for which there were neither implicit nor explicit memories. Her deflection
and distancing comments also expressed the unconscious Script Belief, “I
don’t need anything”.
Elizabeth had neither explicit nor implicit memory of either mother’s
or father’s vital eye contact, caring gestures or words, or any attention
to her loss, vulnerability or needs. Elizabeth had no concept of relational
needs, only the longing, empty searching for “something”. Her internal
working model, an implicit memory – or, in this case, her non-memory
because the events had never occurred – shaped her sense of confusion,
distress and emptiness in response to each of my caring comments. She could
not be conscious of the cumulative trauma of what never happened but
what should have happened in a loving family relationship. Instead, her unconscious
conclusion built up over many years of neglect was “I’m not loveable”.
My psychotherapy with Elizabeth often focused on her physical sensations as
an unconscious expression of possible needs that were not responded to and
remained unsatisfied while she was a child. I was particularly sensitive to
her unconsciously expressed needs for security, validation, and to rely on
someone who is consistent, dependable and attuned to her affect. The relational-need
to make an impact on a significant other, or to have the other initiate any
caring gestures, was conspicuously absent in her sparse narrative about her
family life. Each of these needs became an integral part of our psychotherapy
together. I repeatedly identified, validated and appreciated these essential
Interwoven in our therapy was a careful therapeutic attentiveness to Elizabeth’s
sense of shame – a shame she felt with her school peers about coming
from a one-parent family and having a mother who had disappeared. Elizabeth
described how she had often lied to the other kids by telling them about a
dramatic childbirth in which her mother had died heroically.
Through a great deal of phenomenological inquiry and explanation of the normal
needs of children – and by inference, her own needs – Elizabeth
and I co-created a story that began to make sense to her of her longings and
self-neglect, her frequent soothing gestures, her emotional discomfort with
both eye contact and affectionate touch and her endless search for a mother’s
My affective and developmental attunement served to continually inform both
of us of the unrequited needs of a young child. The tenderness, kindness and
gentleness that I strove to bring to the therapy provided an involved therapeutic
relationship – a relationship that facilitated Elizabeth’s valuing,
for the first time in her life, of her vulnerability and needs. At the same
time, I was facilitating her identification and understanding of the unconscious
script conclusion that “life is an empty search”. Putting this
unconscious conclusion into words in a number of sessions became important
to Elizabeth because it gave meaning to her longings, emptiness and search
for her mother. She slowly became secure enough in our therapeutic relationship
to finally grieve for her lost mother and to acknowledge her anger at her father’s
criticalness and emotional distancing. Her appearance improved slowly over
time. Periodically she was dressed in something new that fit her attractively.
One day, in the fifth year of therapy, she surprised me with a new stylish
haircut and coloring – an adult form of self-soothing. She experimented
in asking her husband to do things for her and to be more affectionate. As
a result, she reported on an increased intimacy with her husband. She no longer
searched for her lost mother’s face on the streets of New York City;
her unconscious search for love became conscious. She learned to be loved.
Psychotherapeutic Involvement. For clients who are similar to Elizabeth,
script cure necessitates a relational psychotherapy that addresses affect and
cognition, developmental and current needs, the transferences in everyday life,
behavior and fantasy, physiological reactions and health maintenance and the
psychological functions that perpetuate continual reinforcement of script beliefs.
It is necessary in a relational and integrative psychotherapy that the psychotherapist
provides an ongoing inquiry into the client’s phenomenological experience
of each developmentally dependent relationship which includes the influence
of parents, family members, teachers and peers on forming his or her relational
patterns and script beliefs. Such a therapeutically useful phenomenological
inquiry can only occur in an atmosphere of the psychotherapist’s sustained
attunement to the client’s affect, rhythm, developmental level of functioning,
cognitive style and relational-needs.
An effective relational psychotherapy includes the psychotherapist’s
acknowledgement of the client’s psychological experiences, validation
of his or her affect and attempts at meaning-making, normalization of the client’s
developmental attempts to adapt and cope with family and school stressors and
provides an interested, involved and caring presence of a real person who communicates
to the client that he or she is valued.
Script cure is the primary goal of an integrative psychotherapy. Script cure
is the result of an integration of affect, cognition and physiology so that
important aspects of one’s life are available to consciousness and that
behavior, health maintenance and relationships are the result of flexible choice
rather than compulsion or inhibition.
People who are no longer functioning in a restrictive Life Script report that
they have the capacity to contactfully express themselves in relationship,
internally they are emotionally stable because they are both unfettered by
predetermined and restrictive script beliefs and they are aware of their current
needs in relationship. They have a sense of self-definition, agency and authenticity;
their behavior is both contextual and sensitive to other people’s relational-needs.
Interpersonally, they are conscientious, gracious, curious, personable and
Scripts formed from a composite of physiological survival reactions, implicit
experiential conclusions, relational failures, prolonged misattunements and
neglects require a psychotherapy wherein the therapeutic relationship is central
and is evident through the respect, reliability and dependability of a caringly
involved, skilled real person. These Life Scripts are the result of cumulative
failures in significant and dependent relationships and, therefore, an
involved relational psychotherapy is necessary for script cure.
Post-script. A detailed description of the philosophy, therapeutic
perspective, ethics and methods of a relational and integrative psychotherapy
suitable for facilitating a cure of these tenacious Life Scripts is described
in Integrative Psychotherapy in Action (Erskine & Moursund, 1988/1998),
Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in-Relationship (Erskine, Moursund & Trautmann,
1999) and Integrative Psychotherapy: The Art and Science of Relationship (Moursund & Erskine,
Biography. Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D., is the Training Director at
the Institute for Intgrative Psychotherapy in New York City and Visiting Professor
of Psychotherapy at the University of Derby, UK. He is a licensed Psychoanalyst
and Clinical Psychologist, certified Transactional Analysis Trainer and Supervisor
and a Gestalt therapist. Richard has twice been a co-recipient of the Eric
Berne Scientific/Memorial Award for his development of the theory and methods
of Transactional Analysis.
Copyright. Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D. and the Institute for Integrative
Psychotherapy, New York, NY. July 16, 2007.
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