Have you ever experienced deja vu? That feeling of familiarity – the same fight with your significant other, your new job echoing the challenges of the last one, or a familiar power struggle with your family? You might be noticing your Script.

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, noticed his patients expressing this struggle. Berne was a psychiatrist who observed that people seemed to have repeated life experiences, and each time the same thing happened, the client would notice how familiar it felt. For example, a client with perpetual bad boyfriends or a businessman with repeated small mistakes that cost his company significantly. Inevitably, with each familiar experience, the client would report feelings of familiarity – sadness, grief, and shame. Berne had a name for this repetitive story that kept happening – he called it the Script.


According to Berne, a script is “A life plan made in childhood, reinforced by parents, justified by subsequent events, and culminating in a chosen alternative.” Berne hypothesized that people create a life plan in early childhood, as early as twelve,  and unconsciously stick to it in adulthood – even when it is painful. This plan includes what kind of relationships they will have, if they will be successful in their career or not, the feelings that predominate in their lives, and many other elements within the Script.

Berne noticed that the destructive experiences the clients were having that brought them to therapy in the first place were just the client’s Script decisions. For example, someone with difficulty in relationships might decide, “It isn’t safe to trust others” in their script. Or the business man above might have an early script decision “it isn’t safe to succeed”, and spends his life unconsciously furthing his own failure rather than success.

Berne noticed that his patients’ thinking, feelings, and behaviour, while currently destructive, always made sense in the context of their childhood experiences. Berne called all of these strategies Script. He noticed that when people came into therapy, they were stuck using outdated strategies. As kids, the strategy made sense as a way of getting taken care of. However, those same strategies are getting in the way of their happiness as adults.

Here is an example.

Roger comes into therapy because he is working himself weary.  His wife is threatening to leave him, and he can’t sleep. Despite this, Roger feels compelled to continue to work hard; he can’t seem to stop.

As a kid, Roger noticed that when he ‘performed’ at home, his father would shower him with attention and praise (‘strokes’). Unconsciously, Roger learned that ‘survival’ depends on continuing to work. Roger worked hard to get good grades, played sports, and kept busy.

Roger’s wife has begun to complain about his overworking. However, Roger would feel threatened now if he just ‘stopped working so hard,’ as his wife demands. Roger has unconsciously connected his lovability and ‘okayness’ with how hard he works. Deep below his conscious awareness, even in his cells, Roger believes that not overworking means losing an essential source of recognition. The last time he stopped overworking, he fell into a deep depression.

Roger is stuck in his Script.

He feels compelled to continue working too much, even though it might cost him his family, his wife, and perhaps even his health.


Autonomy is the opposite of Script. Autonomy is the “recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy” (Berne, 1964).  Berne describes awareness as the ability to “live in the here and now” (p. 158). When autonomous, we respond to our present moment without the clutter of our early script decisions. Spontaneity is the “freedom to choose and express one’s feelings.” This means we have full access to all our feelings, wants, and needs and can use our problem-solving skills to address these. Berne described intimacy as the willingness to seek connection and closeness to others. Intimacy is contact with people free from the ‘psychological games’ common in our transactions with others.

Autonomy is when we use clear thinking, integrate with authentic feelings, and take action to get what we want.

The goal of therapy is to develop our autonomy and minimize how often we operate from our Script.

For Roger, that means coming to therapy and learning that it’s possible for him to exist and get validation and recognition from sources other than work. He can also understand that being rather than constantly doing is okay. Through the healing process of therapy, Roger can learn that he doesn’t need to work himself to death or feel lonely to feel OK about himself.

Like Roger, when we learn about our script processes and make new decisions based on our here-and-now reality, we free up our energy and creativity to get what we want.