Understanding Roles

One of the topics discussed in Bridges last week was how we take on certain roles in our lives and how this affects us. We all play roles in life as part of our identity development. Teenagers especially may try out different roles over time or in different social settings as they try to balance needs to distinguish themselves as separate  and the desire to belong. We may also be given certain roles or defined in certain ways by our family or our peer group – ‘Paul is the quiet one’. Roles can be part of how we feel a sense of stability and belonging – ‘Mum always makes a cake for our birthday’. Developing our identity is also strongly linked to adopting role models – ‘Shane’s just like Grandpa’. We may struggle to show attributes we haven’t seen in someone else. People often start to adopt the mannerisms and characteristics of others we admire or spend a lot of time with.

Where roles can a problem is when they are limiting in some way, at odds with who we want to be, or have terrible costs we don’t want to pay anymore. We can find that other people’s idea of who we are can be rigid, not accounting for growth and change over time. Paul may long to be a more outgoing kind of guy, Mum may be desperate to swap roles at times, Shane may be rocked when Grandpa behaves badly. Sometimes teenagers identify with rebellious loners and find that the social cost to this kind of identity is depressing them.

Understanding roles can also be very helpful for multiples. There’s often a reason different parts of a system feel and act the way they do. Sometimes systems are very role-bound, Brenda manages work duties, Bren deals with emotions and relationships, Anne holds bad memories, Dilly stops Anne from sharing them. Understanding what role you and your parts play can be very helpful, not only in the outside world, but in relation to each other. Sometimes entrenched hostility, denial, abuse, or acting out can be better understood when you unpick what role the parts are playing and what drives this behaviour. It’s worth noting here that you yourself play a role with regards to your system too. Sometimes multiples, particularly those with a system that has developed as a central person (you), and a group of alters you didn’t used to be aware of, can forget that how you react and relate to the rest of your system is also having an affect. Your lack of awareness may have been the role you played – to suppress and hide the others so you can function day to day.

So, as a singleton or multiple, you’re aware that you’ve somehow become stuck with a role you don’t like. How do you change it? Good question! As usual, there’s more than one way to go about this. I find looking at the way teenagers manage issues around developing identity useful, because it’s not uncommon for them to experiment and try out different roles and approaches to life. They can be quite fluid while they’re finding where they feel most comfortable. It can be a bit trickier as we get older because we get so used to thinking of ourselves in a certain way, and people around us can re-enforce this, making it hard for us to change.

Something to consider is what function the role you’ve been playing has, and if you need to find a new way to perform that function, or if you want to leave it behind completely. Next, what kind of roles are you drawn to? Who do you want to be? Look around for role models, these don’t have to be people in your life, they might even be fictional characters. Look for ways to model what they do. The Magic of Make Believe by Lee Pascoe instructs how pretending to be a person we admire for a short time can help us to step outside our fixed idea of ourself and take on new characteristics. To a certain extent, we are who we think we are. Just because we’re not teens any more doesn’t mean we have to get stuck with roles we chose at 17 for the rest of our lives.

Another way of looking at roles is to borrow from Jungian archetypes. It may be that you don’t want to give up the role you’ve been playing, it’s valuable and useful and fits for some situations. Perhaps a more useful approach would be to expand the number of roles you can play. This idea simply put is that we all contain a whole bunch of different ways of relating to life – broadly speaking, roles. We get stuck when we’ve limited ourselves to only one or two. The idea in this case is to try and connect with some of the archetypes you’ve lost touch with. So for example, a very conservative straight laced person who’s feeling tired and lacking creativity might look for opportunities to play a Trickster role to liven things up. The theory is that all of us have within us the capability for all roles, the kind of flexibility that allows actors to find any character within themselves for a time. It’s a little like the difference between having only three cards to play, and access to a full deck. Being able to access and live out a peaceful, centred role when we’ve been stuck in chaos, or an assertive role when we’ve felt trapped by shyness, or an introspective role when we’ve been exhausted by driven productivity can free us to express many different sides of ourselves and be able to adapt and respond to many different situations in life. 

Some of the books that talk about Dissociative Identity Disorder also explicitly talk about how to change roles. A not uncommon issue is a part within a system who has played the role of abuser to other parts in the system. These can be strong, assertive, independent parts, who may have complex reasons for taking on this role. It may be an attempt to be protective (it will get worse if we tell, I’ll make sure no one does), it may be a form of self loathing and self abuse – in multiples parts may hate themselves, or may express self hatred by hating other members of their system, it may be behaviour that’s been learned and modelled from people in real life – in some cases the only modelling of a strong person who doesn’t get hurt has been an abusive person. More than one reason may be tangled in together, and the initial reason we take on roles can end up being quite different from why we keep hanging onto them. 

Roles are not static things, they are also about relationships. Roles such as parent/child are mutually re-enforcing. Even if you had no intention of playing the role of a parent with someone, if they keep behaving as a child, you may find yourself starting to behave as a parent. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. So roles that are played within systems are also about the relationships between parts. In the example of someone who’s got the role of an abuser, part of helping them put that role down is getting the rest of the system to no longer relate to them as an abuser – with fear and anger. Part of that process is about rebuilding the relationships – helping the abusive part to see the harm they’ve been doing, to develop empathy for the other parts, and to genuinely apologise for the role they’ve been playing. Helping the abused parts to articulate their pain and fear, to learn how that role came into being and why it was played, to start to connect with the strengths and good qualities of that part they haven’t been able to see before, and to let go of the old dynamic of abuser/abused and hook into new roles. 

If you’re struggling to take on new roles, it may help to link a new role to skills and strengths you already possess, instead of totally different ones. Abusive parts are often coached towards being protectors because their strength makes them great at both roles. There’s many different way of framing roles and the ones that feel positive and achievable may well be easier to take on. Good luck!

2 thoughts on “Understanding Roles

  1. Hi Stephen, yes I found ideas about deliberating trying on other's people's characteristics to be really interesting! In a way, it's how apprenticing and mentoring work, through modelling. My experience has been that it doesn't have to be done in public to be useful or effective. 🙂 I agree, different people and environments we are in can create different roles for us or draw different characteristics out of us, sometimes even ones we didn't know we had! I hope you are able to explore this idea and expand on your own roles. 🙂

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  2. That bit about emulating someone else for a short while is interesting. Not sure if I'd be game enough to try that out in public though!

    I could definitely do with expanding my number and variety of roles. As an aside I definitely notice the difference in roles and expectations when eg. going to MIFSA, and doing volunteer work or going to concert band practice (among “normal” people) in the same day.

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