However awkward it may sound, I used the word “inhabit” because the usual formulation “the roles that we play” for many people denotes a lack of authenticity. Personally, the word “play” doesn’t bother me. I like to believe that there is an element of play in everything we do. Play invokes a feeling of flexibility, a buffer against over-identification with any one role. Having said that, I value authenticity very highly and therefore would like to avoid the impression that the following discussion refers to any role that is not grounded in a sincere wish to fulfill it according to the truth of our being.
When I speak of role I’m referring to being a parent, coach, driver, friend, tennis player etc. Each of these roles comes with its own set of rules and expectations that may differ depending on the cultural environment that we find ourselves in.
The issue that I’m interested in exploring today is about the boundaries between roles and the interplay with what we consider our true-self. Let me clarify. We can be at any time in the role of friend or employer. In both cases it is the same person in differing roles. In most cultures you will give a different response to an employee who is upset compared to the response to a friend who is upset. Why is this? Maybe your natural tendency is to put your arm around the persons shoulder and offer some verbal consolation. In North America, if you are a male employer consoling a female in this way you will likely think twice about the various legal and social implications of this inherently human gesture.
I imagine that across the globe equal numbers of people might feel that in such a case the consolation is appropriate, or not. Much of what determines that judgment is the social consensus around the behavioral expectations that we have regarding a specific role. Often those expectations are legally sanctioned, more often just part of the cultural mores and make-up of a society or particular sub-group.
So, how then do we manage those expectations across the many roles and sub-cultures that we encounter every day? In other words how do we stay true to ourselves while adhering sufficiently to the rules and expectations that govern a particular role within a particular context without becoming just the expression of that role? We all know the caricature of the CEO, who at the Christmas party surprises the attendees by showing a side of him or her that startles everybody in realizing that he/she is human after all. What is it that compels anybody to inhabit a role so rigidly that our true way of being doesn’t bleed through?
On the other hand we also know of those who inappropriately share intimate details of their lives in professional or formal settings. Who hasn’t had the experience of listening to somebody with curled toes, embarrassed for the other, but with the distinct feeling that somehow your boundaries are being crossed just by having to witness what to you feels as an inappropriate display of something or other?
It seems that most of us are quite expert at balancing the social requirements and expectations of our roles with the need to express who we are. Or are we? How much freedom of expression do you require in your roles to feel alive and true to yourself, and to what extent dare you act out that need? How is it received when you do it? Does it help or hurt your social functioning and standing?
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!