All the world is a stage....
In his pastoral comedy, William Shakespeare famously wrote 'All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players;' this got me thinking about the scripts that each of us live by- and, more importantly, whether our own individual narrative is still serving us the way that it did when we first wrote it.
In the world of psychotherapy, there are seemingly countless models that each provide a slightly different foundation and framework for our understanding of human psychology and behaviour. My own training journey led me to Eric Berne's theory of Transactional Analysis, a model that sees the therapist and client working together to uncover the client's 'life script', usually created in childhood as a direct response to their interpretation of messages they received, their environment and their caregivers.
As children we all receive messages, be they spoken or unspoken, about ourselves, about others and about society. There is a TA fable about a mother that told her two daughters 'you're both going to end up in a psychiatric hospital one day;' this premonition came to fruition differently for both daughters. The first interpreted the message rather differently to her sister and was admitted to a psychiatric ward as an inpatient- the second studied medicine and later became a psychiatrist. This fable exposes how our childhood decisions are highly subjective; each individual's experience is valid and it is through exploring these unconscious decisions that the script the individual has been unwaveringly adhering to can be brought to light.
Why is this important? Because once we bring our script to light, only then can it be changed.
Before we look at changing anything, let us first honour our own life script, for keeping us alive, for managing to elicit ( albeit conditional) love from our caregivers and for helping us get our needs met. We did the best we could with what was available to us at the time. And if you're reading this now, it's clear that you did a brilliant job because here you are! You survived!
So, if script is about survival then why on earth would I want to change it, you might ask?
Well the other thing about a narrative that was written and buried away inside your unconscious when you were around 7 years old is that it is probably pretty out-dated by now.
Imagine if you had installed an operating system on your computer when you were 7. While it would have become second nature to you after however many years of using the technology, wouldn't you want to install something a little more modern; something that might meet your updated needs more effectively?
I know it's a scary prospect- if you updated your operating system, you would have to learn to use new, unfamiliar software and you might need to let go of some old files and games. And you could gain so much more than you stand to lose, although right now that Child part that is inside all of us is probably shaking his or her head and digging their heels in at this suggestion. To that Child, letting go of your script is suicide. This part of you truly believed that you needed to do things like hiding your feelings, being a perfectionist and denying your authentic self, just to be accepted- so any suggestion of suddenly dropping these behaviours will feel deeply threatening. Therapy is about taking things slowly enough that every single part of you is on the same page, so that when you take steps to do things differently, you've got a great team of script-writers inside you.
A final word about ham.
My mother recently told me about a neighbour of my parents', from when they lived in New York shortly before I was born. Every Thanksgiving, this neighbour (Joan) would roast a leg of ham and invite her family around for a feast, as per American tradition. And every Thanksgiving, this neighbour would prepare the ham, by scoring it, then studding the joint with cloves and maple honey glazing it. But before Joan scored the meat, her husband would meticulously sharpen their meat cleaver and expertly chop off the narrow end of the ham, discarding three or four inches of perfectly good meat and bone. Joan and her husband had performed this culinary routine together on each and every of their 20 Thanksgivings together and probably would have continued if it hadn't been for their curious British neighbour who just happened to be helping in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, 1977. My mum was watching Joan cook and, upon observing the removal of a large portion of ham prior to preparation, asked Joan to explain this part of the process. Joan stopped for a moment, pondering to herself, before answering 'I really have no idea! It's how my mother taught me to prepare a leg of ham and I've never really questioned it.'
Joan was so perplexed by this ritual that she asked her mother later that afternoon at Thanksgiving dinner. Her mother replied:
'Your father and I had could only squeeze the smallest oven in to our little kitchen. Even when we bought the smallest ham, your father would have to cut some of the meat off for the joint to fit!'
Much hilarity ensued; but you see this story has an important message to all of us about life script. When we take a step back and ask ourselves about our automatic thoughts and behaviours, only then do we have the space to choose to do things differently. And sometimes it takes the objectivity of a curious 'other' to make us curious about ourselves.