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Do You Feel Trapped By Your Social Roles?

What Jean-Paul Sartre and a fire-walking granny can teach us about life

Stop for a moment and think about the different roles you play in daily life: the dutiful daughter, the perfect mother, the serious lawyer, the life of the party, the loyal friend, the charming host, the tortured artist, the good provider…

You readily switch between roles, depending on whether you are at a work meeting, at a bachelor party or playing with your children. Each role has its own socially recognised personality and expectations, and it comes with specific ways of speaking, acting, body language, clothing and emotional expression.

As the life of the party you’re bubbly and chatty, telling jokes, filling up glasses, and dragging people onto the dance floor. As the dutiful daughter you are the one who regularly visits your elderly mother in the care home (your siblings rarely bother). As the perfect mother you always put your kids before your career and ensure they’re looking immaculate for the visit to your in-laws.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playing roles, but it is important to notice when the roles start to play us. Over time, the different characters we inhabit sometimes seep into our unconscious, shaping the way we talk, think, and act. While researching my new book Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World, I met a management consultant who spent several years working at one of the world’s top firms in his twenties. He told me how his role began to take over his personality:

“I became completely trapped in the narrative of what it meant to be a management consultant. In meetings when we were kickstarting a new project, I said what I was supposed to say about my personal development goals—‘in this project I want to be taking on more responsibility,’ things like that. Things that you didn’t really believe or care about, but it was expected of you. Then like everyone else I started going skiing for my holidays, because that’s what all the other consultants did. It was part of the image, being sporty and a bit macho. At first you know that you’re playing a role but then the narrative becomes part of you and it all starts to become ‘normal.'”

When such patterns of behavior become so ingrained that we don’t even notice them, an interesting question arises: How authentic are we being in the various roles we play? It was a question famously asked by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness, where he describes a café waiter who seems to be acting a role. His movements are exaggerated—he bends forward to his customers just a bit too eagerly—and his voice and facial expression are almost too solicitous. ‘He is playing at being a waiter in a café,’ writes Sartre, ‘there is nothing there to surprise us.’ In other words, he is not really being himself. He is almost a caricature of a waiter. He is not free.

Wikimedia Commons/Archivo del diario Clarin
Jean-Paul Sartre warned against becoming trapped by social roles.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Archivo del diario Clarin

So how do we break out of our deeply internalised roles? And what does this all have to do with seizing the day? Allow Eve Hoare to explain.

When in her seventies, Eve was interviewed for a project I ran in Oxford (England, not Mississippi) about how people change the course of their lives. “The best years have been from the age of sixty to seventy,” she said. Why?

“I really grew, because when I was sixty-two I went on a life assessment course and suddenly realised I didn’t know who I was. I had been the obedient child, worker, wife, teacher, mother. I was always my roles. It was a real shock.”

The training course involved physical challenges as well as offering tools for self-reflection. Participants had to descend several hundred feet down a steep cliff, cross a ravine, jump into the sea from about thirty feet, and do a fire walk across twenty yards of burning coals. Eve, who eventually became an assistant on the course, did the fire walk seven times.

The real learning, though, was recognising that she had been playing roles that, on reflection, did not seem to be fully of her own choosing. From a young age she had been a dutiful caretaker for her unwell mother and gave up a scholarship to study at Edinburgh University in order to look after her when she had a nervous breakdown. Eve became a shorthand typist, then a housewife for ten years, and later worked as an elementary school teacher to support her family.

Following her revelation about roles, Eve’s life began to open up and she started to seize the day with incredible vigour. She went to college and studied literature, took to writing poetry and painting, did volunteer work in Bosnia with children who had been injured in the war, and joined a friendship network to support terminally ill people.

“I came to realise that if you don’t enjoy the way you live, you ought to change it straight away, which is why I retired from teaching… You can just see how some young people get the balance wrong, not realising they should make the most of their precious years. I feel I have a mission to make other people see that they should grab every opportunity there is, that life goes by so quickly.”

She likes to quote Pink Floyd’s song Time: “No one told you when to run / You missed the starting gun.” Eve Hoare took a long time to hear the starting gun, but once she did she sprinted. What broke the silence? Coming to understand how social roles had shaped her life, and limited her choices and personal vision. In the end, she became a role breaker and gave herself a new kind of freedom.

Copyright © 2017 Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric, Ph.D. is the author of Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, and founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum.

Source: TarcherPerigee, used with permission
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