“It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.” ~ W. B. Yeats
Roles have been around since man first graced the planet. I’m not talking about outer roles such as butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Rather, I’m speaking about inner roles such as Pleaser, Controller, Stablizer, and Go-To-Person. Also knows as emotional functions, they are ways of being in the world not unique to us. Anyone can be an Accommodator, Cynic, Peacemaker, Good Girl/Boy and Bad Girl/Boy. We have all at one point been these characters, for within us there is a bit of each. But not everyone can or will be a police officer, legal assistant, rock star or teacher. These outer roles take time, certain training, interests, native gifts and talents.
The “dance of (inner) roles” plays itself out in how we perceive, speak, think and act within certain roles and in the context of relationship systems such as lovers, families and teams. Why relationships struggle and dancers stumble is, in part, because we lock into, or identify with, certain roles to the point of becoming rigid in our ways of being and relating. Our capacity to see things from a different lens, or simply try new things, can be diminished by a particular role strictly governing our psyche. The dance of roles then becomes a power struggle with each person stoically or angrily pushing, pulling, defending and attacking identity, stepping on toes, dancing with little to no grace.
The Good Girl closes off to the wild unpredictable Bad Boy moves that perhaps would be good for her to dance, and healthy for the relationship. They are just too Bad for the Good she’s invested in being. A man finds himself always Accommodating the songs his partner wants to play, neglecting his own needs, putting her first, her need to act out the Controller in the DJ booth. The Go-To-Person acts like martyr taking on everyone else’s problems and responsibilities to the point of burnout. The Ladylike mother cannot play along with her child’s messiness for it is a threat to whom she has made herself out to be. Roles, if not careful, can become a default way of operating, a defense strategy, a place to hide out that we too easily get comfortable in.
Like many dancers will tell you, whether they participate in salsa or ecstatic dance, flexibility, presence and openness are essential to their freedom of movement and expression. They move with whatever impulses arise from within, from their partner, and from the pulse of the music itself, because of their suppleness and receptivity. In the same way athletes talk about being in the zone, dancers speak about being danced. This present moment surrender demands being limber in body and mind.
These malleable qualities are difficult to inhabit if roles usurp the psyche of the person. Instead of being danced by one’s mercurial, wild and authentic nature, one is being controlled by a contrived self deeply invested in protecting and upholding its paper-thin identity.
Caretaker meet Poor Me
Take my couselling client Hana and her fiancé Tom, for example. Hana is very good at being a Caretaker. Tom loves to play Poor Me. They are a perfect match, two pieces exquisitely fitted together. It is a relationship with the right specifications for what the roles want and the people need.
Let’s start by going back in time, imagining how their first date might have gone:
Caretaker: Poor Me, I will take care of you, I will be responsible for you. And you will allow me to do this because you love to play Poor Me, and because you will love me enough to let me continue being Caretaker.
Poor Me: I love being taken care of, moping around, going with the flow, not taking responsibility for my life. I will dutifully take advantage of all the things you can do for me, thus letting me continue hiding out in this role.
Caretaker & Poor Me (simultaneously): Let’s spit and shake on it!
This conversation was not conscious, of course. It is called collusion—the unconscious agreement between, or matching of, roles that fit, feed and reinforce one another. I get to keep playing my role if you keep playing your role. I get to keep hiding out, and how I hide helps you hide.
We all have these sorts of agreements, these unconscious dances with others. Controllers boss Peacemakers. Clueless Messes date Organizers. Something in the stars aligns us, bringing us the perfect actors to join us on our particular stage of life, not so we can stay stuck in these roles, but to reveal and transcend them.
Yes there are certain competencies in these roles—Caretaker looks after others well; Poor Me goes with the flow; Controller is reliable; Accommodator is unselfish. And there are ways complimentary roles balance each other—Poor Me helps Caretaker relax a bit, let go, not be too much of a martyr; Caretaker helps Poor Me get stuff done.
That is part of the purpose of these roles and why certain ones mesh. But that’s not the end of the story. The idyllic we complete each other fable invariably crumbles in the face of the hidden and relentless purpose relationship holds.
Wounds to beliefs to roles
“Sometimes you can get so busy trying to be everyone else’s anchor that you don’t even realize that you are drowning.” ~ Anonymous
For a long time Hana has held the following belief: I need to caretake to feel loved. Another way of saying this is: I won’t feel loved if I don’t caretake. In her earlier years something happened that engendered this belief, an incident causing trauma, a wound in her psyche.
Certain beliefs have their genesis in the need for safety, security, worth, respect and love. When those core needs are not met we create a story about what happened, and ourselves in relationship to it. That story forms a worldview from which we perceive others and life. A common example is abused children who believe they are at fault for what happened, that there is something inherently wrong with them, and that the world is unsafe.
For the young Hana, the belief I need to caretake to feel loved was a worldview serving a clear purpose. It made Hana feel safe on some level—by caretaking others the love she craved could be found, she believed, and caretaking would protect her from feeling/being hurt. This compensatory paradigm gave her a sense of control and became a coping strategy. It was the adaptable intelligence of self-preservation coming to the rescue, helping her re-invent herself in the face of adversity, doing what was needed so she could survive.
The challenge is that worldviews are seen from, not through. This has made it hard for Hana to be objective or supple in her ways of coping, perceiving and relating to others. Perspective, her inner story, has created a set reality. It is this idea of reality that has influenced how she has led her life, and within it she has unconsciously hidden her authentic nature.
Worldviews unquestioned eventually form persistent attitudes, which lead to certain behaviors, which over time turn into behavioral patterns. Patterns, both in thought and action, become roles or identities. Without being conscious of the trail backwards from role to wound we are bound to a role, a slave to its wishes and the reality it creates.
Resentment—the signal to change
Once Caretaker secured itself in Hana’s psyche life was more about getting from the outside what she could no longer comfortably resource within. In life and relationships getting trumps giving when roles are firmly in charge. Yet, you cannot take love from someone. Love is not conditional. But believing it is, for Hana, or specifically for her role, created a vicious disempowering cycle of regularly feeling her needs are not met and believing that nothing or no one, including her, is enough.
Tom is the perfect mate to help end this cycle, for he gives what the Caretaker wants, yet provokes the resentment needed so the authentic person behind the role can tire of and release it. He draws her into dance steps she is comfortably accustomed to, making her feel loved and safe by giving her reasons to caretake—loafing and not contributing around the house, struggling with finances, failing to look for a job, etc. This satisfies the Caretaker’s need to be responsible for others. Inevitably, however, like locked-in-roles eventually do, Poor Me lets her—Hana, not the role—down. His act is not enough, for the identified role cannot love the human being Hana is; only the human being can. The role only takes, and that will never satisfy the soulful authenticity of any human being.
Moreover, nothing Caretaker does can truly feed Hana. Fulfillment does not come from a fixed emotional function—from patterns of being responsible for others. It does not come from taking. Love, fulfillment, must be resourced within—from what is given from the heart; in Hana’s case, from being a caregiver. Feeling frustrated, resentful, the deeper, more authentic part of Hana now hungers for more than what Poor Me offers, and how she has been. She tires of caretaking, she tires of the dance, and longs for an expression of her whole Self in her relationship with Tom, and life.
Resentment, also known as role nausea, is the signal for tiring and longing; it is the feeling that accompanies the thought: I can’t be/live this way any more! It is your dear friend notifying you that you no longer wish to play your role. Resentment hung out in too long turns you into a victim. But when consciously attended to with a level of expediency, it turns you into a leader.
In the case of Hana, her resentment led her to begin demanding that Tom “step it up a notch”, take care of himself for once, so she didn’t have to anymore. The truer part within announced her presence fiercely, her desire to no longer carry the burden of the Caretaker, to no longer be driven by guilt, by the need to make other people’s happiness more important than her own. And Tom was the catalyst for this awakening.
This is why in relationships we feel both drawn to and repelled by someone. We love and resent them at the same time. They allow, or unconsciously encourage us to play our role and “get” love in our particular strategic way, but we resent them for the exact same thing. The part of Hana that is sick and tired of Caretaker is drawn to the “go with the flow” nature of Poor Me, but her role resents it simultaneously.
Relationships serve to both amplify and crumble roles, to bring attention to what has always been and what can no longer be. The amplification leads to role nausea, which precipitates the desire to release the role and heal its accompanying wound. Hana and Tom are keys that turn each other inwards—that inspire one another to become self-aware.
Conflict and fear
What makes altering or ending the dance of roles even more difficult is that Hana and Tom, like many, don’t like conflict. Re-writing the agreement, doing what is best for oneself, may hurt someone and cause an uproar.
With enough role nausea, a particular person may break the deeply entrenched deal—the agreement—in a relationship system. In the case of Hana, she took a new turn on the dance floor. Frustrations boiled, honest words were spoken, defenses went up, and a tango strut was shot out instead of the usual salsa Complicato. That’s when Poor Me exclaimed, “What are you doing? Why are you suddenly telling me to stop being Poor Me? Don’t you remember our handshake? I play my part and you play yours. That was our agreement!”
This reaction, combined with the fear of conflict, is partly why we are afraid to be honest, express our needs and make change, despite knowing in our heart of hearts that self-care is on the line. We put the other person and the agreement ahead of our wellbeing.
And so it takes courage to dance a new step and be out of sync with how our partner is used to dancing with us. In truth, we already are out of sync; we aren’t fully dancing together, dancing our whole Selves. Our authentic Selves shine through on occasion, but our roles dominate the dance floor more than we think.
Upon close inspection, we see that much of our dance is an old dance of fear, one danced by our parents, our ancestors, and by countless people going back thousands of years. And we see that fear is separation—from Self and others: a place to hide out in, a reason to distance ourselves.
I won’t feel loved if I don’t caretake is fear forming and reinforcing Caretaker. I’m not good enough is fear forming and reinforcing Poor Me. Both roles are shields hidden behind, keeping each person unseen, unheard, unloved, separate on the dance floor. The dance of roles is the dance of fear, and fear is a very small dance floor.
Compounding the pervasiveness of existing fears is that, over time, as we accustom to our role, new fears emerge wiring it further into place, making it even more difficult to see through worldviews and leave the dance. They include:
- Who am I if I am not this role?
- What if I stopped playing this role? What would happen then?
- Who will take on this role if I vacate it?
- Will they do as good a job as I have?
- They will leave me if I leave this role. They won’t love me anymore!
- I won’t be able to function without it.
- I’ll lose everything.
- I’ll be a nobody.
Limiting beliefs perpetuate more limiting beliefs, and the role gets stronger as a result, fueling further fear, disappointment and conflict when agreements are broken, and causing Hana to caretake not only Tom, but the agreement.
You are not your role
One thing I remind my clients and participants in my playshops is that you are not your role. This is hard for people to digest as you may imagine, especially considering that this is how they have identified themselves for, perhaps, 50+ years. Who am I if not…?
Roles are emotional functions. Functions are not who we are; we are something much more vast and mysterious than that, something we cannot possibly comprehend, let alone cling to. As stated, the act of clinging to a role is fear (this is different than a healthy attachment to a role—see below), and as children remind us, we are more fearless than we know. Like the flexible, present, open dancer, you are meant to move through the many parts of who you are with the fluidity and range of a child, crying one moment, laughing another, showing deep compassion in yet another moment. Children are considered fearless teachers because of how unbridled they are in their self-expression, by how large a dance floor they freely move across.
Consider roles like hats. There you sit at your board meeting and everyone is taking off their hats, tossing them into the center of the large oval table, and picking up a new one, trying it on, wondering, speaking, listening from this new lens. And then when ready they put it back down again, offering the opportunity for someone else to play that part, dance that step. Roles are swapped, not owned, empowering the individuals, and inspiring the relationship system to house intricate interdependent organisms like that of a healthy ecosystem.
Knowing someone else will take your role from you makes it is easier to release it. As mentioned earlier, one of our fears is that no one will take responsibility for a role we vacate. Go-to-Person, who always gets stuff done, may struggle to comfortably take on the role of Nurturer or Director if no one is willing to deal with the constant barrage inquiries and put out fires. And she may not be able to fully commit to Nurturer or Director with any effectiveness and joy if she always has one foot in Go-to-Person.
Part of the purpose of relationship systems is to help each member remain open and flexible as individuals and leaders by ensuring no one person carries the weight of responsibility for a particular role. It’s like job rotation—hats are rotated so the various emotional functions in a system better serve the larger purpose of the group, as well as the wellbeing of the individuals. Of course, if someone loves to play a particular role they can keep it for as long as they wish. This would be a healthy and conscious attachment.
What helps to understand roles further is that there is a difference between a role and an aspect. An aspect is a part of who you are, but not who you are in whole. You have an aspect called accommodating, caring, pushy, organized, messy, imaginative, stable, confrontive. You have all the many faces of personality in you. It is when you latch onto one of them and turn it into “who you are” that you form a role. Aspects go from verbs to nouns, from accommodating to Accommodator. Fluidity turns into rigidity. That’s when we identify with and take responsibility for a role. The combination of identification, personal responsibility and fear keeps us trapped in its function.
Understanding this distinction between aspects and roles, as well as the wisdom of rotation, helps us take on a role without becoming it. We know it’s temporary, and not who we are. It may be an emotional function needed at a particular time, until it’s not. This is freedom—being free to choose who we want to be—to dance between the multiplicity of aspects and roles. It is the ability to live not separate from any one part of us, to live as a whole being. Only then can we dance the whole and conscious dance of roles in relationships.
Making space for You
I was deeply hurt as a child. My mother dropped me off at the neighbors when I was three years old, grabbed a bottle of pills, headed to the beach and attempted to commit suicide. Fortunately she was found and resuscitated. But the damage was done—I was abandoned, motherless for two months while she was in a psychiatric unit.
Because of the trauma incurred, I believed I was not good enough. I identified with this belief and sought to do something about it. So as I got older, I became arrogant and controlling, trying to prove myself desperately, and took on the compensatory identity or role of Bully.
I’ve spent the last twenty years healing these rough edges of my psyche, resolving old wounds, and disarming the associated roles. Healing has made space for flexibility and openness, for new aspects to show themselves such as trust and compassion. As you can imagine it was hard for me to trust if my primary caregiver left me. It was hard to be compassionate if I was so deeply angry.
When our precious life force is taken by a certain role there is a great deal less available to flow into our inherently wide range of aspects. We are contracted (contract—agreement) into a particular focus or attitude rather than expansive in our energy and worldview. As life force is withdrawn from a role (I no longer need to be a Bully) a tremendous amount of trapped energy is reclaimed that can now flow into trust and compassion.
Imagine how much energy it takes to resist who we authentically are. It is akin to holding a beach ball under water, deep in the shadows, when our true Self naturally wants to rise into the light of day. It is this resistance that causes a great amount of disease—dis-ease with one’s essential nature.
This movement from dark to light, this inner alchemy from lead-fear to gold-love is scary, for it can feel like you are losing control; you are withdrawing from who you have always known yourself to be toward what can feel like a great unknown. It is why we so fiercely protect our roles and stubbornly seek to find love through them. Yet it is in that empty space where you no longer exist that the real You is found. Here possibilities abound, including the freedom to choose, to be, deliberately, consciously. As Margaret Drabble wrote, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”
Who is choosing?
At the end of the last session I asked Hana to take away an inquiry—a question I wanted her to sit with over the two weeks between sessions: Who is choosing—Caretaker or Self-love? I asked her to be vigilantly aware of where her thoughts, words and actions were coming from; to continuously inquire every day and in every circumstance, especially with Tom, what the underlying intention is—fear or love?
This is about being aware of who is in relationship with Tom, who she is choosing to be. This is about taking the risk to be authentic and no longer hiding behind her role. It is about personal integrity—from the Latin, integre, or integration, meaning nothing left out. And it’s about being able to give more love to Tom, and herself; for so long as Caretaker chooses, love looses, and fear remains at the helm.
Highly invested in living in fear, unconditional love is not what their roles want. Caretaker and Poor Me fear love, because if Hana and Tom truly gave and received love without fear-based conditions it would be the end of the agreement and the dissolution of the roles. Remember, the agreement and roles were premised on fear and “conditions of love”.
Roles fear love, but deep inside, they, the soulful people Hana and Tom are, long for unconditional love. It was the need for love, or the lack of it, that created the hollow roles in the first place. Yet, for Hana and Tom to experience love, they must no longer grant power to their roles. The shields must come down. The roles need to die to who Hana and Tom authentically are. Fear must dissolve into love.
This is our greatest fear, the fear behind our fears—the loss of the self we’ve known ourselves to be. We die before we die so we can truly live and love. As an old teacher of mine Laura Whitworth would say, “It’s a good day to die.” It’s a good day to live!
It’s not an easy dance this path of relationship. It is a vulnerable vehicle for unearthing our wounds, a powerful mirror reflecting our deepest darkest beliefs and patterns, a scorching crucible for burning away who we think we are. Relationships can summon everything we don’t like about ourselves.
It is why so many relationships end up in physical and/or emotional divorce, and why so many teams are dysfunctional. From the demands of home life, to hectic linear agendas at schools, to the apartheid of personal from professional at work, to the banal shallowness of TV, news reports and glamour magazines, our societies are not designed to foster the levels of awareness, honesty, integrity and love needed to thrive in our various systems. They are designed to keep us neck up, distracted, seduced, moving from one thing to next, away from the feeling, wounded body. And yet it is courageous consciousness that is needed to love others, and ourselves, and create healthier and more engaged relationship systems. The glaring and pervasive allurement of our modern world and roles would say otherwise, but it is love without conditions we long for.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart