There’s a great subtlety in our existence. We are not robots, fulfilling direct instructions. We are human beings, with all our faults, glitches and complications, trying to make sense of a mass of contradictory requests, with only one body, but multiple roles to fulfil.
THE ROLES WE ADOPT
We seem to acquire our roles, not through a single channel, but through a number of different channels. These include:
Inherited roles – where we take on roles from biological or cultural history (e.g. being a parent, following a family tradition)
Adopted roles – where we acquire, during life, new roles that present themselves to us almost whole (e.g. a job, a social identity as part of a new group)
Adapted roles – where we make our own adjustments to the above two role types, in order to suit circumstances (e.g. asking for job flexibility, or being your own kind of parent)
Created roles – where we try to forge something new, a role that is just for us, in a fresh fusion of self and environment
When you take on a role, you are trying to train your individual self into an expected pattern. This creates, necessarily, a dissonance, a kind of disagreement, between your natural behaviour and what you are expected to do.
You will notice this, especially, at the times when your individual self complains at you. This often manifests in bodily discomfort. Anxiety and depression are common responses. With anxiety, your body is telling you that you are being asked to do more than you can cope with. With depression, your body is telling you that your authentic, natural self is being ignored.
However, on the positive side, roles provide a structure in life. We know what to expect. In official roles, you are often given a contract, a job description, defined hours of work, a uniform, and a timetable. In less defined roles, you can often still develop an expectation, a routine, a style, and a diary that give life shape. This is extremely settling to an anxious person, where uncertainty can be a fearsome thing. Anything that provides certainty can provide comfort.
All the above creates a kind of triangle of factors: structure, capacity, and authenticity. If you have structure, if you can work within your capacity, and if you feel your work is authentic, then you have the best of all worlds. If, however, the roles you play have conflicting structures, are beyond your capacity, and feel inauthentic, then you have the worst of all worlds.
I’d like to introduce you to David, Anna and Flo.
David has one job, one role – he is a policeman. He knows where he is supposed to be at all times. He is a constable, and finds the work within his capacity. He has strong personal reasons to be in the police force, and it feels consistent with his values. David is likely to feel psychologically healthy, free of anxiety and depression.
Anna has three roles. She sees herself as a teacher, a parent, and a good samaritan. She is often confused as to where she is supposed to be, especially when the roles clash. She has a needy neighbour who needs constant support, as do her children. Her teaching work needs constant preparation, and her students need her to be healthy and energetic, and to have mind space for them. She finds herself constantly driven outside her capacity to cope. Even so, she believes strongly in the authenticity of all of her roles, and her heart assents to all of them.
Anna is likely to feel psychologically unhealthy. She is likely to suffer from anxiety due to exceeding her capacity to cope; however, she may be protected from depresssion, as she believes in the values of her chosen roles. The structure of her life, when it works, will counteract the inherent anxiety of exceeding her capacity. But the underlying excess of expectation is always there, and so she is highly vulnerable to anxiety, expecially when roles clash.
Flo has one job – she performs work capability assessments. She knows where she is supposed to be at all times. She finds the work within her capacity. But she took on the role at a time when she needed a job. She knew she didn’t believe in it. She hates the way the benefits system, in her view, imposes unfair pressures on the ill.
Flo is likely to feel psychologically unhealthy. In particular, she is likely to suffer from depression, due to her felt inauthenticity in the role. Every day she has to force herself to be someone she is not, and it is slowly killing her. She longs for a more authentic life, but feels trapped in a need to earn money.
FLEXING YOUR ROLES
The above are only sketches, but they seek to illustrate how role incongruence, especially as regards capacity and authenticity, can ruin our lives.
Taking on multiple roles, where load exceeds capacity, can lead to anxiety.
Taking on ill-suited roles, which feel inauthentic and uninspiring, can lead to depression.
Flo, in the example above, may be very reluctant to leave her role, because it feeds her money and resources, and it is her only structure. But unless she finds a more authentic way of living, her sense of meaning will slowly falter, and she may slump into an intractable depression.
ROLE ADAPTATION AND CREATION
Remember, though, that you have the right to adapt your roles, and even to create brand new ones that suit you better.
If you feel like an Anna or a Flo, then I am not going to tell you what to do. But, if you feel psychological distress, my aim is to give you a handle on what you might look at in terms of change.
If you are constantly anxious, perhaps look at ways of flexing your roles to place them more within your capacity.
If you are constantly depressed, perhaps look at ways of choosing your roles to bring you a sense of authenticity.
We all adopt roles in life. Some are inherited, some adopted, some adapted, and some freshly created. Whilst roles do provide structure in life, we have to be careful that they are (a) within our capacity, and (b) feel authentic.
Working too far beyond your capacity can make you anxious, and your task may be to flex your roles until they work better for you.
Working too far outside your own value system can make you depressed, and your task may be to reselect your roles until you feel you are living more authentically.
Whatever the case, I wish you more happiness, and the strength to makes changes where it helps.