Life 101: Playing roles in life

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,

– From As You Like It by Shakespeare

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.


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 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.


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.

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Always coming back to here

I have noticed a slight disappointment recently. I have done and experienced a great deal, but always return here – to what’s here. It’s as if it all didn’t happen.

As Adyashanti points out, there may be a reason it’s like this. There may be a few different reasons, depending on how we see it.

What’s here, this, is the one constant. What any experience happens within and as – aka consciousness, awakeness, presence etc. – is the one constant. It’s what’s here independent of any particular experience or state. It’s what we are and everything is. It’s also what has the potential to create identification as as something within it’s content, for instance this human self.

Any past experiences or accomplishments are gone. They are here only as a memory. An image or thought, sometimes connected with a sensation. They are truly gone.

Any identity, anything we see ourselves as, similarly only exists as a mental image or thought sometimes connected with a sensation. We may have built up identities and roles through past experiences, but they don’t exist as anything more solid or substantial than a mental image or words associated with certain sensations.

If we take “here” as a more neutral state, as it has shown up for me in the moments mentioned above, then this more neutral state has gifts. It allows me to notice that just about any state is already here. It’s here as a potential, and also – often – as a trace. Also, a more neutral state makes it easier for me to notice what’s here in terms of what “I” already am – what these experiences and states happen within and as. There may be a reason why, for most of us, this more neutral state is the “default” state and what life tends to return us to. It gives us an opportunity to notice what’s here – in terms of traces and what we are – without the distractions of stronger experiences.

So there are many reasons why I return to “here”. It’s all there is. It’s what’s left and here when I notice the past as an image, and identities and roles as images. If it’s a more neutral state, it’s what allows me to notice what’s already here.

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Reflections on personality

The NEO PI test shows roughly where we are on the Big Five personality traits.

It is easy to think that being low on neuroticism and high on the other four is always and inherently good. After all, that is what our culture tells us. But it is fortunately not quite true.

It depends on our role. For instance, as an army officer, it may be good to be low on some of the facets of agreeableness (able to make tough decisions that harms certain individuals), and perhaps higher on some of the facets of neuroticism (more alert). A philosopher, psychologist, or artist may benefit from being higher on neuroticism as it allows more inner processing and insight. A nuclear plant operator, or anyone in a role where innovation is of little or no advantage, or where it may even be harmful, may benefit from being low on openness to experience.

It depends on how it is expressed and how we relate to it. Whether we are high or low on any factor or facet, we can find ways to use it in a constructive way, and find genuine appreciation for its benefits.

And as a society, we need all types. There are many roles that needs to be filled in a society, so it is good people come with different tendencies and orientations.

Michael Jackson


Some people and situations are especially good projection objects. They express qualities we are not in touch with in ourselves, characteristics outside of our conscious identity. So when we see it in others, it fascinates us. We may even be caught up in blind attractions and aversions to just those qualities, expressed in these people and situations.

Michael Jackson is a good example. His genius for music, dance, image and marketing gave him attention, and in itself made him a good project. Add eccentricity and scandals that never were resolved, and you have an irresistible and explosive mix.

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All the world’s a stage


All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
– Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (2/7)

This is true in the way Shakespeare points out. As a human being, we all play different roles throughout the day and throughout our lives.

And as usual, to the extent we identify with these roles, we get into struggle when life shifts the roles around. Some roles go, other roles come, and some needs to be played another way. (And we don’t always get a say.)

But we play more basic roles as well.

We have the roles of a human being, but there is also the basic role as a human itself. Two legs. A head. An animal with bodily needs and instincts. A cultured being living within a world of interpretations.

Then there is the role of a doer in its many flavors of a doer in the world, a decider, an observer.

And the even more basic role of an I with an Other. A separate I with a center and periphery, and an inside and outside.

All of these are roles, and as what we are – that which all form and experience happens within and as – we play these roles. Or we could say that the roles play themselves, whether there is a sense of a separate I there or not.

To the extent we identify with roles, there is drama. (Which is entertaining, although not always so comfortable.)

And to the extent they are recognized as roles – as temporary roles playing themselves out, with their own location in time and space, their own perspectives and views – it is all recognized as a play.

Even in the midst of whatever is happening, there is an enjoyment of the play. There is a recognition of an enjoyment that seems to always be there, inherent in experience itself.

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Not a teacher?

If our personality is so inclined, it is easy to not want to be in a teacher role. I know that one well for myself.

Yet, it is also good to acknowledge that we all go in and out of teacher roles in many different ways.

For instance, if someone writes spiritual books and holds retreats, that person obviously goes into a teacher role, whether they want to or not. Others will place them in a teacher role. Nothing wrong with that, just good to notice and acknowledge…

Even for me, when I write on this blog, I go into a teacher role – in the minds of some – whether I want to or not.

If someone approaches me for “consulting”, as happened recently, I say that I am not a teacher (not trained in any tradition, only scratch the surface of all of this in even a conventional sense, and there is not a stable Ground awakening here), and I am not a therapist (not trained), but I am happy to have a conversation as a fellow-traveler to fellow-traveler.

Still, I am mindful of going into a teacher role – in the minds of some – when I write this stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that, just good to notice and acknowledge.

Trigger: Bernadette Roberts resisting being seen as a teacher, even if she goes into a teacher role by writing books and holding retreats. She has turned out to be a great teacher for me, as reflected in some of the recent posts here.