All the world’s a stage,– From As You Like It by Shakespeare
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
One of the Life 101 topics is playing roles in life and what happens if we identify with these temporary roles.
We all play many roles in life, and different ones at different times and in different situations. The roles may be of a son, daughter, parent, friend, lover, employee, employer, student, teacher, and so on.
These roles are temporary and we go in and out of them depending on the situation, and this is one way we make society work.
MAKING AN IDENTITY OUT OF A ROLE
We can also identify with roles. We can create an identity out of a temporary role.
I not only take on the teacher role in the situation where I actually am in a teacher role. (When I work with students.) I take on the teacher role as an identity. It’s who I am, whether or not I am in that situation. I make my life into the stage where I am a teacher.
When this happens, it comes with several downsides. And it’s often a sign of trying to cover up or fulfilling a personal need. We use the identity to feel better about ourselves and feel safer.
I was recently reminded of this. Someone I have known for many years has recently taken on the role of a spiritual teacher, guide, and therapist. And when she is in situations where that’s expected of her, that’s appropriate.
I also get the impression that she has generalized this to other situations. For instance, when we speak these days, she seems to take on the role of a spiritual teacher and guide and place me in the role of a student. She seems to have taken on these temporary and localized roles as a more general identity.
For me, this feels a bit uncomfortable. We have been friends for a long time. We have had very good conversations as equals and fellow explorers. And now, she seems to create a distance by playing the role of a spiritual teacher, placing me in the role of a student, and offering guidance I didn’t ask for.
I don’t have anything against being in the role of a student. If anything, it’s a role I have created a bit of identity out of. I expect to always be a student and learn more. But in this situation, we meet as friends and fellow humans and I prefer to not have other roles on top of it.
THE UPSIDES & DOWNSIDES OF MAKING A ROLE INTO AN IDENTITY
The upside of making an identity out of a role is that it can make us feel safer. We know who we are. We know what’s expected of us. (At least, we know what we expect from ourselves.) We can feel better about ourselves, at least if the role is one we like. We can use it to cover up a sense of lack.
Doing this is natural and understandable and we all do it to some extent and in some situations and areas of life. They are also band-aids and come with significant downsides.
What are some of these downsides?
It can be disappointing or annoying to others. They expect to meet us as fellow human beings. And instead, they meet someone who is identified with a role and who places them in a matching role. They meet a role instead of a human, and they get placed in a role they don’t necessarily want in that situation.
We get stuck. If we are identified with a role, we lose flexibility. We are unable to drop it when we are outside of the situation where it’s appropriate. And that means we are also less available to take on other roles when they are appropriate.
It can be distressing when life doesn’t match our expectations. We expect to live out the role we are identified with and find ourselves in a situation where that’s not possible or doesn’t work. We don’t know who we are anymore. We cannot live out the familiar role we are so used to and had learned to rely on. This happens, for instance, when someone is identified as the role of a parent and the children leave home or otherwise cannot or won’t play the matching role.
WHAT’S THE REMEDY?
So what’s the remedy?
The first step is to be aware of some of these dynamics.
Any role we take on is temporary and only relevant in a specific situation.
A role is really a verb. We are teaching. We are parenting. We are guiding. Our culture likes to make roles into nouns which encourages identity-making, and we can choose to not follow that. We can choose to say “I am teaching” and not “I am a teacher”. When we talk about roles as verbs, we are more honest and less likely to make them into identities. It becomes more clear that they are roles we take on for a while and in some specific situations, and then leave.
In general, we can intentionally go against the tendency to make the roles into an identity. We can talk about them as verbs and not something more solid. We can intentionally leave them behind when we leave the situation where we played them. We may even experiment with dropping the roles in situations where we are expected to play them, or we can experiment with playing them in a different and more human way. We can bring our humanity to the forefront and make the role more secondary. (The more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more we tend to do just that.)
If we notice an impulse to make a role into an identity, we can explore what’s going on. What do I hope to get out of it? What lack or need am I trying to fulfill? Does it really work? What are the consequences? What are the downsides? What’s more real?
To support all of this, we can make an inventory. Which roles do I play in life? Which roles would I be more likely to make into an identity? (Parent, work, etc.) And then we can pay extra attention to these roles.
If we want, we can also take this a step further. The roles we play are not only the ones of being a child, parent, student, teacher, plumber, and so on. They are also the roles of being the outgoing one, the peacemaker, the happy one, the sad one, the victim, the fixer, or whatever it may be. These are also roles we can, and often do, make identities out of.Read More