Seems like a big question. And it is. It’s us asking, what do I want to do in life, what do I want to achieve, which path should I take, why am I here? Big questions.
Until we realise that a path is not a result: it’s a series of steps. Starting with one step. In a certain direction. Perhaps not the direction you’ve been taking so far. When you ask yourself openly “What’s my next step?” this whole dilemma becomes much easier. Much less daunting. Because we can’t – and would we want to? – map out our entire life path in advance. That might feel safe, sure. But where’s the flexibility? For resilience has to be built into life to cope with the curveballs it inevitably throws at us.
The now famous Myers Briggs personality test can give us insight into our personality traits, and from those the suggested occupations and careers that might be suited to us. Try this link to take a free, simplified version of the test. And these guys have created an entire matrix of best careers (and relationships!) apparently suited to us based on our Myers Briggs personality “type”.
Writing lists can also help. Try jotting down, quickly without thinking too much:
Connecting the dots is an interesting one: as Ghandi said “Happiness is when what you think, say and do is in harmony”. Doing… There is no substitute. Experimenting is perhaps the best way to help us find our path. Try things. Do things. Have experiences, reflect and learn from each one.
Knowing what you want and your first steps to getting it feels good. It protects and motivates us. It can allow us to achieve great things. There’s a security that comes with it. An inner satisfaction and energy. We can leave aside the time question around it (for how long will I want this? How long will it take to get it?) – and just focus on the calm fact that this thing you have decided upon is what you want now. And you’re doing it.
That is all we can ever do.
All of the above relates to our conscious path. The cognitive plan our thinking brain lays down in the here and now. The map says go west. But in many ways, this may be just a surface plan, depending on how aware you are of your hidden life plan.
For we all also have a hidden life plan. The plan we aren’t so readily aware of. The plan laid down by our emotional brain. When our map says go east. And this plan can limit, control or wreak havoc on what we think, say and do without us being aware of it.
As children, we made many life plans. There is a secret path we decided on as kids, before we even knew we were deciding it. We chose this path unconsciously in response to feedback we consistently received from the world around us. We didn’t know we were doing it at the time. It was written internally in response to experiences we had and messages we received as children. And it’s been our north star ever since.
Most of these messages came from our parents, but also from teachers and peers. They showed us – often non-verbally and non-explicitly – who were were and how life is. In psychotherapy this is called our “Life Script”. And this name is apt because it is quite the epic script. It is often sweeping and undermining and overbearing. It’s usually rigid, generalising and unforgiving. It is inherently childish, making pronouncements like “I’m a loser” or “I will save the world”.
It affects our view of ourself, of men, of women, of people, of the future. And because our Life Script is formed between 0-7 years old, and after that unconsciously refined and affirmed, it forms a silent bedrock for our approach to our life and our work.
We needed our life scripts as children. It helped us get what we needed back then. It may even have helped us survive. And (unless we become aware of our personal script) we keep playing it out. Making choices that justify it and prove it right.
Because life would be very scary if the bedrock of our beliefs was proved wrong after all.
An example. Say when I was only two years old my father starts to teach me to read. He is a very busy lawyer and often the only time he focusses on me is when he teaches me to read. At 3 years old he sends me to a prep school where I have to take tests and get gold stars for doing so. My experience is that reading and tests are important. I get rewards (praise and stars) and recognition (dad’s attention) when I engage in them. I may therefore decide that “I must be good at reading and tests in order to be ok and be loved round here” and I extend this, as I grow, to “I must be the top student”. Fast forward to life as a grown up and I continue studying avidly, taking one professional exam after another to climb to the very top of my career ladder, overworking myself to gain recognition – and I do indeed get recognition (at work, amongst my peers, perhaps in my wider profession). And this further reinforces my script – I prove it to myself, and so my life carries on ok, as “normal”.
Another example. I’m the youngest sibling of four. My mum treats me like the baby. She still cuts my spaghetti for me when I’m 10 years old. I rarely have to do the same tasks as my siblings, or take responsibility. I’m taken care of. When this happens, my family feel good, they feel needed and I feel loved. I decide that it’s good not to take care of myself; that I need taking care of by others. Fast forward to life as a grown up and I find myself unable to take the lead in a team, unsure of my knowledge and skills, avoiding challenging myself and always looking for someone else to take responsibility. I end up on a performance management plan.
To let go of these life scripts feels very uncomfortable, like we are under threat; it feels so alien that it seems to threaten our very safety. Because when we were children our security really was affected by the approval and acceptance of the family around us. That’s a precarious position to be in.
So there is a payoff for us in following our script as adults: it feels familiar. It appears to help us gain acceptance, avoid rejection and get we want and need in life. We probably don’t even notice we’re doing it.
Our life scripts have a way of holding us back.
Our scripts are not absolute and are not about the outcome: they are about the degree of comfort or happiness that goes with the outcome. Unless we wrestle ourselves free from our limiting conditioned scripts and decide to open up our options and do what we find fulfilling, we are “destined” to either lose (be unhappy) or be neither – neither fulfilled nor unhappy – and instead live a boring, risk-free life.
Having a losing script means unhappily achieving our declared purpose. If say, my mum was a single working mum and CEO of a bank, as a child this is all I know; so later I decide to go to university, which I hate, join a grad scheme at a bank, which I hate, and get miserable and ill from the stress and burn-out, but I carry on anyway go on to become CEO of the bank. Because I made a unconscious decision as a child, followed that conditioning all my life, I end up unhappy achieving an outcome that simply doesn’t suit me.
With a banal middle-of-the-road script we don’t take any risks at all. We’re not happy or unhappy in any significant way. We may end up pausing at some point and thinking “Is this all there is?” or looking back in old age and thinking “Well, I guess life wasn’t that bad” but actually feeling deeply disappointed by it all.
As adults we don’t necessarily need our script any more. Some bits we may want to hang on to. Some bits may no longer be accurate or helpful. Once we become aware of our script we can choose our next step in life, free of our early decisions. We start to live by our own internal compass. And that is different to following a map. A compass needle shifts depending on your position, but also has a consistent direction.
There are various ways to uncover the various elements of your Life Script. It can be a bit complex, with many different aspects, roles and feelings attached. But it will usually have a beginning, middle and end. So perhaps start with that. One technique is to recall your favourite childhood story. The characters, their roles, who you identify with. Then consider the beginning, middle and end of that story. Another way is to imagine yourself in old age – when you retire, who you’re with, if you’re happy, etc. Or to imagine your gravestone or eulogy and what it will say. When does the curtain close?
Try writing down a new beginning, middle and end. Re-decide. Experiment with it. Practice it. Perhaps now you might begin to see a small part of your unconscious life script, and rip it up…. And start to listen to your free internal compass, redirect your path and make a new choice.
Finding our path involves learning to transform our life scripts into our own version of a winning script. This does not mean we all must aim to be the traditional version of a capitalist “winner” – a millionaire or CEO. It means finding whatever it is that makes us truly fulfilled and content. So that whatever our goal, we accomplish it happily. If you don’t feel engaged and fulfilled striving for that goal, maybe for you it’s not a winning goal after all.
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