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Changing the Words of Life: Rewriting Your Negative Scripts

Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.

Are you burdened by negative scripts? Do you say or do the same things over and over again even though you don't achieve the desired outcome? Can your relatives or friends predict your comments even before you finish making them? If your answer to these questions is yes, you're not alone. Most people will, at times, follow the same script even if it has proven ineffective. Let's look at a few examples which may seem very familiar:

Bill Larson, president of a company he started, frequently tells his managers that they should come up with new ideas for projects. When they do, his first response is, "Is that the best you can do?" Mr. Larson feels he is motivating his staff. He is, but not in the way he intends. He is motivating them to leave his company.

Amanda and Joe Norwood have experienced marital problems. Whenever, Amanda says she is unhappy, Joe says, "But there is no reason for you to be. We lead a comfortable life." Amanda keeps offering her comment about being unhappy and Joe responds with his predictable remark about "a comfortable life." The only thing that changes is the increased tension in their marriage.

Whenever anyone disagrees with Joan Walters at work, she says, "You don't understand. You have to pay attention to what I'm saying." If they continue to disagree, she continues to claim they are not paying attention. She told us, "Someday these people will finally start to pay attention."

Cynthia and Walt Blair have been reminding their teenage son and daughter to clean their rooms for the past seven years. Mrs. Blair said, "They just don't listen to us. Their rooms look like pigpens. How did we ever raise such irresponsible children?"

Why is it that well-intentioned, intelligent people engage in counterproductive behaviors month after month, year after year? If only we could remember that we are the authors of our lives. Many of our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving find their roots in our childhood. While in this article we are focusing on negative scripts, we want to emphasize that if our patterns result in satisfaction, if they reinforce healthy interpersonal relationships, and if they permit flexibility and change, they represent the building blocks of positive scripts and should be repeated.

In contrast, negative scripts are self-defeating, ineffective, and counterproductive. When they exist, it is wise to modify or abandon them. Yet frequently, we continue to follow these scripts, sometimes more stubbornly than before. In fact, our current adherence to a negative script appears to be the best predictor of whether we return to it in the future.

We want to believe that we are flexible, thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas and approaches, but often we fail to model these behaviors. Instead, we fall prey to the seductive trap of negative scripts. If you are to develop a stress-hardy, resilient lifestyle, you must recognize that if there are aspects of your life with which you are dissatisfied, if you find yourself continually engaging in thoughts or behaviors that lead to frustration, anger, and unhappiness, then it is your responsibility to take the initiative to rewrite the negative scripts that maintain these problems.

Why Don't People Change?

Being aware of ineffective or self-defeating behaviors does not guarantee you will change these behaviors. Standing in the way of modifying counterproductive behaviors are obstacles or roadblocks. To help you become aware of these obstacles, do the following: On a piece of paper list three things in your life you would like to change. Next to each item, indicate whether you believe that for the change to take place, someone else has to change first. Also, consider what steps you have taken in the past to make these changes. If these attempts were not successful, what was your next response? Why do you think they were unsuccessful? On a separate sheet of paper, list three modifications you've made to a script that have proven successful and why you believe they were effective. This simple exercise will help you begin to identify obstacles as well as effective strategies for change.

As you consider your answers, you may be able to identify one or more of the following four obstacles to rewriting negative scripts. They include:

  1. a lack of awareness about the role negative scripts have played in your life,

  2. insisting that others must change first if you are to change,

  3. rationalizing that the stress and demands of everyday life are so pervasive that you don't have the energy to change, and

  4. simply giving up and deciding the change is an impossible exercise.

Each of these, alone or in combination will prevent you from getting started on a road to stress hardiness, resilient living, and rewriting your negative scripts.

Become the Author of Your Life

Even though the task of altering a script may appear formidable, it is essential to consider the consequences of not making necessary changes. Very rarely do negative scripts disappear on their own. If anything, the longer they operate, the more entrenched, the more problematic, and the less open to modification they become. Assess whether the time and effort required to change these scripts outweighs their continued burden on your life.

While the overall challenge of changing established patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving may seem daunting, the task can be separated into a sequence of smaller, more manageable steps. If you focus on these steps, not only will you have a clearer blueprint of what you must do to change, but you will also have many more opportunities to experience success. As each small step is achieved, you are reinforced for tackling the demands of the next step. Success breeds success. Never underestimate the importance of this kind of ongoing, positive feedback, which is often not apparent if we set our sights only on the larger, final goal.

The sequence for changing negative scripts involves the following steps:

Step 1: Identify negative scripts through the exercise we described and assume responsibility for change.

Step 2: Define short and long-term goals related to the particular issue at hand.

Step 3: Consider possible new scripts or plans of actions that are in accord with your goals.

Step 4: Select from these new scripts the one you believe possesses the greatest probability for success. In this step, you must also consider the criteria you will use to judge success.

Step 5: Anticipate possible obstacles that might interfere with the goal being reached. How will you handle each of these obstacles should they occur?

Step 6: Put the new script into action and assess its effectiveness.

Step 7: Modify your goals, approach, and/or scripts if the selected action proves unsuccessful.


Scripts Are Not Cast in Stone

People possessing a resilient mindset reflect upon what they can do differently when confronted with challenges. They recognize that scripts are not cast in stone but are open to change. Consider the exercises we have recommended in this article as guideposts for making desired modifications in your life. The more you can accept realistic ownership for what transpires in your life, the more empowered and resilient you will become.

Dr. Robert Brooks is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Sam Goldstein is on the faculty of the University of Utah. Their book, The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life, was published by Contemporary Books in 2003. They can be reached at their website

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