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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Recognising the Cultural Scripts that Shape Us

The toxic stories that affect us subliminally - and what we can do about them.

Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

Originally published on 2 May 2023 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement

Most of us are consciously aware of our personal values and world views. Those of us with a deeper interest in psychology and personal development will also have a good sense of the people, events, and experiences that have shaped who we are today. We will have a sense of our pain points and traumas.

When we seek coaching or therapy to start designing more fulfilling and purpose-oriented lives, the focus is usually on how our upbringing and our deeper beliefs about ourselves continue to impact us. Many coaches start by illuminating our personal values and preferences to transform unhelpful self-stories and behaviours into more generative ones. And that is, of course, important work!

Unconscious Cultural Scripts

However, I am always struck by another factor that can be a major contributor to our sufferings, and that we tend massively to underestimate in coaching and therapy: the deeper cultural scripts that shape us unconsciously. Some cultural stories, beliefs, values, and assumptions can have a profoundly toxic impact on us. They are often major factors in burnout and exhaustion, in particular, and can be key components in midlife languishing. But what exactly are these cultural scripts?

I’d like to start with a story. You may have heard it already. It is by the American writer David Foster Wallace and it goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

Foster Wallace illustrates what widely accepted ideas, assumptions, and beliefs may feel like. They appear to us so normal and natural that we don’t even realise they are there. Like the air we breathe or the water in which we swim, we never even notice, let alone question, them. Cultural scripts are like the water in which we all swim. They are deeply embedded ideas and assumptions that we don’t even register anymore. They are part of our collective cultural fabric of unspoken values.

Beliefs About Time and Productivity

Consider, for example, the topic of time. Most of us think of time as something precious and limited, a resource that we must use wisely. We all feel that we should not waste or squander, that bad timekeeping is a major problem, and that we should always be using our time productively. We may feel bad if we take time out or time to rest, or kill time on social media. We may even cease to have any breaks at all and fall into the habit of working almost nonstop. We may feel ill at ease about taking time to see friends and family, or doing nothing much at all, or taking holidays. We may castigate ourselves harshly for being time-wasters, procrastinators, for taking too long to complete our tasks and for not being efficient enough at work.

We may think that this imperative to be productive at all times is a recent development, a consequence of neo-liberal competitive capitalism, further exacerbated by tech that means we are always on and reachable. But, in fact, our attitudes to time and our existential anxieties about wasting it go back much further. They can be traced to Puritan beliefs about productivity. Calvinists believed that success in our worldly lives was a sign of being amongst the select. In most Protestant sects, success, achievement, and endless industriousness were cast as outer markers of being chosen for salvation. Business, thus, became a way of ensuring our own status of grace. And, going back even further, sloth was, of course, one of the Seven Deadly Sins—a sign of lukewarm faith, of lack of commitment to God’s creation, of weakness, and of having a bad mentality.

These old beliefs still shape us. Even today, we may feel guilt and shamew hen we rest or do something just for the joy of it. My burnt-out clients have often internalised truly toxic attitudes to work, time, and rest. They consider achievement and success as markers of their self-worth—a secular version of grace. It takes time and patience to disentangle these older cultural assumptions, to look at them more clear-headedly, and to make more conscious decisions about the scripts we want to follow.

Other Examples of Cultural Scripts

Other examples of cultural scripts that may shape us subliminally include the idea of long-term monogamous relationships as the gold standard to which we should all aspire. Many of us feel like a failure when we cannot live up to this model. Add to it the expectation of having children and owning a home, and you have another standard script that many of us feel we should follow.

Then there are the dominant narratives we tell ourselves about our careers: Most of us don’t even question the notion that we should work toward promotion; strive for higher salaries, job titles, and more responsibility; and slowly rise through the ranks in our professional careers. But, again, we should be very wary of following this particular script on autopilot. There may be good reasons for not going for a promotion (increased stress levels, less time with family, a longer commute, a portfolio of new tasks that we may detest and that would suck all the joy out of our lives). There may be alternative careers out there in which we would earn less and have less status, but be 100% more joyful and fulfilled human beings

Rather than following existing cultural scripts unconsciously and uncritically, then, what we should aim for is self-authorship—becoming discerning writers of our own unique life stories. We may not have to reinvent everything from scratch—some pre-existing scenes and plot lines may in fact suit us very well. The aim is to become aware of the prefabricated parts of the playbook that don’t serve us and that we may be able to replace them with better, more imaginative stories.

Image: Jakob Owens @ Unsplash

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