Some people love acting on stage or in films. They loan their body and imagination to a fictional character and make us believe in its existence. We are moved to tears or break into heartfelt laughter at their performance and experience their adventures vicariously for a while. I have not done much of this kind of acting, apart from being a ghost in a school play, but I admire actors and their skills. Before I became a therapist I was a professional fiction writer and have created characters on page, which requires imagining the feelings of somebody not yourself and bringing their thoughts and actions to life in a believable way. So when I learned about role theory during my clinical social work training, I was naturally drawn to this way of describing how we interact in society.
Let’s think about the many roles we take on every day. Some of mine would include: spouse, friend, sister, employee, therapist, social worker, customer, bus rider, neighbor, and many more. You may share some of these and perhaps you can add some like: parent, child, care giver, manager, car driver, pet owner, social activist, politician, etc. There are infinite roles all of us play in our daily lives. Some may feel more comfortable, others we would like to strip ourselves from, some are unavoidable, others we are working toward, some we are more conscious of, others are more of a natural unconscious identity-skin we wear in the world.
We fill our roles with who we are at the core. They can become a perfectly blended expression of our selves. One of my oldest friends wanted to have many children ever since I met her when we were both twenty. She now has four kids and would have liked to have more. When the youngest one will have grown up in ten years, she will have spent 30 years raising children. She loves being a mother and very naturally embodies this role, but it is also far from the only role she fills and desires to fill. She is also trained as a teacher and will begin teaching again this spring. She is the daughter of an elderly widowed mom, a wife, a friend, a translator… These are roles my friend takes on mostly with content and yet I know from many conversations that she is also often doubtful whether she fills them “right,” whether she is a “good mom,” a “good daughter,” a “good teacher,” you name it.
This points to an element of our roles that we may want to be conscious of. We may fill our roles with all that we are, but they are not who we are. Roles are created by the society we live in and they are constructs that societal discourse is trying to define and prescribe. That may sound really complicated but it is actually quite obvious. Were we born into a society of sheep herding nomads, the roles we could fill would be very different from those offered to us in San Francisco. In our sheep herding society the gender roles and consequent tasks might be more rigidly defined and if we were to break out of the role we would face different obstacles. Let’s say in this society men are traditionally the sheep herders and women have the task to spin the wool, this would not mean that one gender can naturally perform either task better than the other. It just means that this society has traditional rules about who does what and a discourse on how it should be done. That does not sound too different from our own experiences with societal roles and discourses. As long as a role fits who we feel we are and would like to be, we usually do not question having to take it on, such as my friend. We may then still not feel that we take it on in the “right” way, which means we have heard and continue to hear that a certain role comes with a specific way to do things or to think about things. And often the messages about roles are contradictory in themselves. “Parents should vaccinate their children,” “parents should not vaccinate their children,” “a man should provide for his family,” “a woman should be independent,” “a woman should let the man provide for the family,” “if you are born with a body considered female you should feel like a woman even if you don’t.”
The myriad of messages like these that are at the heart of our socialization into the human contexts we live in play into the conversations we have with ourselves and others. It may feel that we are shaped by them, that they are inescapable and that we have to perpetuate them in order to fit into society and be accepted. However, if we allow ourselves to take a step back and investigate the relationship between the messages, the roles we are in and how we truly feel about both, we can find ways to create more realistic and fulfilling roles and role expectations for ourselves. Let’s look at the role of a parent of a child who is transgender. The parent may see her role to raise a child to be very conforming with a conservative religious ideal and consequently be devastated. They may feel that either they or the child have committed a sin and if the child transitions they will be condemned. Or, for a less religious parent, it may seem that their societal context, neighbors, family members, coworkers, will judge them negatively and they will feel that somehow they failed as a parent. Both of these reactions will be in response to a societal discourse which rigidly equates biological sex with the social construction of gender and defines the role of parent as somebody who has to affirm this discourse by making sure their children subscribe to it as well. Parents who can evaluate this discourse and create an alternative one for their own role, may be able to empathize truly with their child and support them in living a fulfilled life. They will then also be able to model and share the way they understand and fill the parental role with the people around them, potentially contributing to a new discourse about the role.
This means that while we fill our roles with who we are, the roles do not have to define how we feel about ourselves and how we play them. While it can feel like a tough struggle to change a role, give one up or take on a new one, it is liberating to be aware that it is possible. And while it may take many people to fundamentally redefine societal discourses, part of our personal freedom is that we can change the way we fill many of our own roles and we can become conscious of oppressive discourses connected with them.
While role theory can help us question roles, it can also help us appreciate that while roles can feel restrictive they can also be supportive or protective. When I myself entered therapy for the first time in my thirties to get support during a life crisis, I quickly felt that my therapist (I will here call her “Sue”) could also be a great friend. I knew that it was part of Sue’s job description that we could not be social outside of therapy and I regretted that. In the course of my therapy I then began to really treasure this specific relationship where our roles were defined in a certain way. Yes, if we had met in different roles we may have become friends, but my therapy was such a great and invaluable experience due to Sue being a wonderful person but also an excellent and compatible therapist, that I became grateful we had not met as friends which would have precluded her from becoming my therapist. I since had therapy clients express to me that they wished we could be friends, and my honest response is often that I feel the same way and that the relationship we have contains many elements of friendship. However, the relationship between the roles of therapist and therapy client is defined and regulated in a certain way in our society. This professional definition has a specific background and has been found to be useful and protective of the client and the therapeutic experience. I read an article about this subject where the concept of therapeutic “boundaries,” which sounds rather rigid, has been replaced with that of “safe connections.” I really like this term and feel that it is impactful not only for developing the roles in a psychotherapy relationship but for many of the ways we interact with each other. Instead of focusing on what separates us from each other it could be enlightening to find out what connects us while defining and filling our own roles so that they feel safe for ourselves and others.