The Roles We Play

How you would answer the question ‘tell me a bit about yourself?’

I know, it would depend on the context. Job interview? You were the best salesman your team had ever known (your picture still hangs on the wall, as praised as Kim Il-Sung). A date? A tightrope act of humility and prolific self-promotion. Stranger at Subway? You like sandwiches (unless they’re an especially attractive stranger, in which case see above).

It’s an odd game we play. Authenticity is lauded by many as the ultimate virtue. And yet on the level of personality, it’s pure falsity. The word personality even comes from the Greek word persona meaning ‘mask’ or ‘false face’. And that isn’t a surprise. I am not the same person to my mother as I am to my friends; to my colleagues as to a stranger. And I have no desire to be. These are the roles I play, and each one is suited to its particular relationship. They’re not designed. They are composed of the natural balance that emerges when two or more people relate to one another. And these roles shouldn’t be static. Relationships change as we do, both over days and over years.

Yet too often I find myself tied up in a role; that is, a human mind pretending to be human being. My mind likes to identify itself with the roles I play, and sometimes I believe it.

You probably know what I’m talking about. The friend who won’t stop talking about their new relationship who becomes unable to drop their new identity of ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. They continue playing the role and they truly believe that it’s them, which both limits who they are (because we are all more than boyfriends and girlfriends) and makes them dependent on their significant other for their own identity. It also makes them rather dull for others to be around.

Relationships are perhaps the easiest roles to pick on, but look around and you’ll find plenty of people in work who have identified themselves with their jobs— the ambitious types who are in the office all hours of the day and whose minds continue to work long after they’ve left the office. I confess that this is my demon. While ‘in role’, I identify my value strongly with whatever position I’m occupying and thus feel my self image waver in tough times and get ballooned by words of praise from above. I become the proverbial cog in the machine; a cog with ambitions of mechanical glory. I can tell you from experience that this isn’t a particularly joyful way of working.

Now I’m not saying we need to stop playing our roles, far from it. They’re part of what makes living fun and wholesome. Different people and dynamics bring out the different personalities within us. By playing sport I can engage with my competitive side. At the bar I can relax into light and easy conversation or dive into the depths of my soul. On my laptop I can unleash my creativity. In essence, through diversity of experience I nurture the different parts of myself.

What I’m saying is that our roles are only useful so long as we don’t get sucked into them. When we do, they end up controlling the rest of our life. It’s like an actor who, upon leaving the theatre, doesn’t get out of character. Or a general who wakes his children up every day at ‘0600 hours’ to do laps. When we over-identify, our roles spill out of their designated areas into the rest of our lives where, frankly, they don’t belong.

There’s a reason we over-identify with our roles. We humans are addicted to certainty and try to create the impression of it wherever we can. Externally this manifests itself in everything from contracts to our relationship status. Internally it often comes down to the simple but often terrifying question of ‘who am I?’ Rather than let such a question hang there, unanswered, we often cling to whatever we can, and roles provide us with a good handhold, an instant gratification. In my case, ‘I’m a [insert job role]’ became my means of not digging deeper.

Is there a simple cure to this quandary? It would be fantastic if there was wouldn’t it? A simple formula on how to balance our selves. Yet this desire is another manifestation of our need for certainty.

All we can do is return to the the simple but incredibly elusive development of self-awareness, on the one hand, and responsibility on the other.

Awareness enables us to perceive our roles, preventing them from imprisoning us. With your head above the tide, you can see each wave for what it is.

And responsibility is the powerful realisation that you choose how you act. No-one makes you act one way or another. To say they do is to give away your power to change your behaviour; in other words, to deny you have the power to change your life.

My invitation is for anyone who feels called to take some focused time to think about those relationships they feel powerless in. What role are you taking in these relationships and do you truly believe this role to be you? Are you blaming the other person for putting you in this role; have you relinquished responsibility over your behaviour? These questions are tough and can bring to the surface some uncomfortable realisations, but this is often what growth looks like.

With an eye looking inwards, it is possible to stop being our roles and start playing them.