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Thursday, February 10, 2011

T3 - The Lies Our Characters Live By

Since I got positive feedback for last week's T3 (Thursday Therapeutic Thought), I'm continuing with more Transactional Analysis (TA) goodies for you today.

When we're growing up, we receive messages from our parents that establish the "dos" and "don'ts" by which we learn to live. Your character grew up receiving both, and they have a profound impact on how your character goes about his adult life today, whether he realizes it or not.

First, when a child behaves in a way that the parent perceives is unacceptable or is somehow threatening to them (which is more about the parent than the child), they issue what TA therapists call injunctions. These are messages of disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and anger that might come from the parents' own pain and are given at the psychological level between the ages of 0-7.

As a result, the child will make a decision based on the injunctions (messages) they receive. We never sit by passively, so a child will decide whether to accept or reject the parental messages, thereby assuming some of the responsibility for forming their internal mantra or indoctrination. These mantras are often LIES.

10 common examples of this phenomenon are below, and they should ALL look familiar to you writers (adapted from Gerald Corey's WebTutor/Transactional Analysis):

1. “Don’t make mistakes.” Children who hear and accept this message often fear taking risks that may make them look stupid. They tend to equate making mistakes with being a failure.

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’m scared of making the wrong decision, so I simply won’t decide.” “Because I made a dumb choice, I won’t decide on anything important again!” “I’d better be perfect if I hope to be accepted.”

2. “Don’t be.” This lethal message is often given nonverbally by the way parents hold (or don’t hold) the child. The basic message is “I wish you hadn’t been born.”

• Possible mantra/lie: “I’ll keep trying until I get you to love me.”

3. “Don’t be close.” Related to this injunction are the messages “Don’t trust” and “Don’t love.”

• Possible mantras/lies: “I let myself love once, and it backfired. Never again!” “Because it’s scary to get close, I’ll keep myself distant.”

4. “Don’t be important.” If you are constantly discounted when you speak, you are likely to believe that you are unimportant.

• Possible mantra/lie: “If, by chance, I ever do become important, I’ll play down my accomplishments.”

5. “Don’t be a child.” This message says: “Always act adult!” “Don’t be childish.” “Keep control of yourself.”

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’ll take care of others and won’t ask for much myself.” “I won’t let myself have fun.”

6. “Don’t grow.” This message is given by the frightened parent who discourages the child from growing up in many ways.

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’ll stay a child, and that way I’ll get my parents to approve of me.” “I won’t be sexual, and that way my father won’t push me away.”

7. “Don’t succeed.” If children are positively reinforced for failing, they may accept the message not to seek success.

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’ll never do anything perfect enough, so why try?” “I’ll succeed, no matter what it takes.” “If I don’t succeed, then I’ll not have to live up to high expectations others have of me.”

8. “Don’t be you.” This involves suggesting to children that they are the wrong sex, shape, size, color, or have ideas or feelings that are unacceptable to parental figures.

• Possible mantras/lies: “They’d love me only if I were a boy (girl), so it’s impossible to get their love.” “I’ll pretend I’m a boy (girl).”

9. “Don’t be sane” and “Don’t be well.” Some children get attention only when they are physically sick or acting crazy.

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’ll get sick, and then I’ll be included.” “I am crazy.”

10. “Don’t belong.” This injunction may indicate that the family feels that the child does not belong anywhere.

• Possible mantras/lies: “I’ll be a loner forever.” “I’ll never belong anywhere.”

There are many more injunctions, as well as countless mantras a character could develop. Interestingly enough, parents also give messages called counterinjunctions, or messages that tell a child what they should be doing, the "oughts" and "dos" of parental expectations. Examples are “Be perfect.” “Try hard.” “Hurry up.” “Be strong.” “Please me.” No matter how hard a child tries to please their parents by meeting these expectations, they will still feel that they are not doing enough, because the injunction messages are stronger.

Next week we'll look at how you as an author can take a transactional analysis technique and help your character work through the internal lie they believe to determine a healthier truth about themselves. Stay tuned!

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Michelle said...

This definitely gives me something to think about with my character. I do think her family is more positive, and were more focused on counterinjunctions, such as "Be perfect," "Try harder," etc.

Thank you!

Kara said...

Very interestin and helpful, thank you!

Mary Aalgaard said...

This is fascinating. I'm already thinking about my characters and the lies they believe about themselves.

Tessa Emily Hall said...

Your blog is really interesting. I think it's a great idea for writers to learn and understand psychology to help develop their character's behaviors, as well come up with new story ideas.

Thank you for sharing these!

Shannon said...

That's really cool. It's sad that the lethal injunction "Don't Be" is the one my protagonist grew up with. I'm sure that won't cause problems further down the line at all.

I have to echo Tessa ... thank you for sharing these!

Angela C. said...

Great post! Lots of good information and I see many of my clients telling themselves these lies! (And myself form time to time). :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.