Articles and exercises

Playing the role on life’s stage

 

In the current social, political, and environmental climate we are faced with an ever-increasing need to cope with change. The ways in which we react to change have a major effect on our health and well-being. To make or become different is a skill we all need to perfect as we rush through life taking on one role after another.

The psychologist Jacob Moreno suggests that man is a role player that every individual is characterised by a certain range of roles which dominate his behaviour, and that every culture is characterised by a certain set of roles which it imposes with varying degrees of success upon its membership.  

As we move through the day we replace or exchange each role, the father, the manager, the lover, the mother, the sister, the nurse, the gardener, the repairer, the listener and so forth. As the pace of living has speeded up with faster communications and time saving technology we find there are increasing demands on us to be continually adjusting to the next situation or the next relationship in order to react appropriately.

Moreno’s theory was based on the multi-role personality. In order to maintain mental health he suggests that we have to develop the flexibility to move within a large repertoire of roles. Within each role we are required to have the appropriate actions for the situation at that specific time. Our personalities function at their most effective when they are embracing and integrating their particular selection of roles.

People leave or enter our social sphere all the time; new friends, births, deaths and marriages will all take place within the family. We decide to leave our personal zone of relationships and develop new ones because we take up employment in a different part of the country or we migrate to another part of the world. cultural developments also have an effect on our role requirements One may, for instance, aspire to a new role through changing employment or be surprised by a new role in a relative. All these changes can be perceived as threats.

Throughout our lives our status quo is threatened by economic, psychological, and social Influences and in order to act in an appropriate way to these changes we must be able to react from the appropriate role. This requires creativity (ie we have to create a new role for ourselves) and spontaneity (acting in the moment)

Moreno believed that every person has the capacity to be creative and spontaneous, the innate skill to act in an appropriate way at any time, creating something new. That we have the ability to create new paradigms, transform old patterns, and modify behaviour. Intra-psychic change leads to interpersonal change and healthy relationships.

“Social life has the tendency to attach a definite role to a specific person, so that this role becomes the prevailing one into which the individual is folded.... Everybody is expected to live up to his official role in life-a teacher is to act as a teacher, a pupil as a pupil, and so forth. But the individual craves to embody far more than those he is allowed to act out in life. It is from the active pressure, which these multiple units exert upon the manifest offi­cial role, that a feeling of anxiety is produced”. (Blatner & Blatner, 1997, 19)

What happens when we act or react from an inappropriate role? Let me give you an example. Peter is in his early forties and has been married twice and divorced and is now in a long term relationship, however all is not well. His relationship is not meeting his needs. He often feels lonely and rejected, yet his wife says she loves him. When they try talk about their issues it often makes it worse and they do not appear to be able to communicate. It is as though they are on the same stage, in the same play, but reading different scripts. Does this sound familiar?

It wasn’t until Peter was faced with losing his third wife to be that he finally saw the light. He had a pattern; he was locked into a particular role that was destroying his relationships with women. He was in his child role seeking the mother. There was no way his partners could meet his needs. He was searching for the mother love that he had not experienced as a child. I use the word experienced here as his mother may well have said of course she loved him but his experience is his reality.

This example demonstrates how when we are in the wrong role i.e. son instead of lover/partner, the relationships is bound to fail or at the least be dysfunctional.

If we consider a normal day in the life of a woman in her mid forties, with children and a husband, then we can appreciate the vast variety of roles that she may have to take on in order to lead a stressful life reacting in her relationships in the appropriate manner.

Besides the more obvious roles it is often useful to take time to identify some of our negative or less constructive roles, e.g. the avoider, the deaf listener.  If we have awareness of the variety of our role repertoire we are then in a position to choose to act more appropriately.