Life Advice: Check Your Role

Don’t insist on a role that’s not available.

Posted Aug 28, 2018

Much unpleasantness stems from hoping, wishing, or insisting that you are in a role you would prefer rather than the one you’re in. Home for the holidays, you may prefer to be the adult while only the child is available to play. You may be stuck in the friend zone with a crush, or at work you may prefer to play the wise old hand when only the role of irrelevant dinosaur is offered. Practical options typically include playing whatever role is available (although this can feel like a defeat), tweaking the role to suit you better (although this can feel like a compromise), changing the situation to include a better role for you (although this can feel like an ordeal), or avoiding the situation (which can feel like a loss or constitute a cost). “The wisdom to know the difference” helps, but there are always downsides to accepting only the roles available and other disadvantages associated with trying to change things. What you don’t want to do is to carry on, unaware that you are attempting a role that is from a different play from the one everyone else is putting on.

One way to think about what it means to have a personality disorder is that it’s an insistence on playing a particular role—diva, alpha male, robot, as examples—even when it’s not available. Instead of constantly frustrating himself, the very sociable employee who wants colleagues to act like a family can recognize that he doesn’t work in a place that supports his preferred role, because it’s not small enough, and adapt accordingly. He can then try to create that role for himself in certain groups at work or with certain people, or he can send greeting cards for events without trying to include the whole workforce, or he can think about finding work at a smaller shop. The critical thinker can also devise similar options for herself without bucking the system, by writing a blog, say, to contain her critiques.

One thing I’ve learned to do only recently is to check the role I’m in during arguments. Perhaps ironically, this is the core of my approach to psychotherapy, to constantly check whether my way of behaving like a therapist is accepted by the patient as such, and to comment on those moments when we seem to have different expectations. But it took a long time for me to realize that it’s unproductive and no fun to talk about serious subjects with people outside of therapy who aren’t really interested in exchanging ideas. Nowadays, I’m much more likely to say, “I don’t get the sense that you are trying to come to a meeting of minds with me, so I’m not that interested in participating.” In classrooms, I think professors are there specifically to challenge students’ thinking, but I’ve learned that many students think they are there to be praised, so I am less likely to say, “I wonder if there’s a different way to think about that”—which is received as a kind of bullying—and more likely to say, “I’m not sure what you want me to do when you say something that I think could use some coaching.”

Sometimes, my preferred way of playing a role in a situation or relationship fits the expectations of others. These people can be said to like me. Sometimes, my preferred role just irritates people, and these people can be said not to like me particularly or to actively dislike me. I’ve learned to put less energy into those who are put off and to avoid those who hostile. If I didn’t think there were still a lot of wonderful people who like me, I would examine my role preferences to see if they need to change, but that’s because other people are pretty important to me. If other people are not important to you, you probably wind up being disliked but without worrying yourself about it. If other people are extremely important to you, then you probably let go of your preferences and organize yourself around being liked. One of the ironies of social relating is that many people are drawn to those who don’t care whether they are liked, and many people can’t stand those who try too hard.

My most intimate and rewarding relationships are of the sort I associate with my wife, my patients, my children when they were young, and a few close friends. These include occasional metacommunication (talking about what’s going on), when necessary, about our expectations of each other. When one of us does something to violate our expectations, we either revise our definitions of the roles or we conform our behavior to the definitions we have agreed on. One friend said to me recently, “Do I complain too much?” I knew exactly what she meant, which was whether I experience her complaints as a burden. I told her the truth, namely, that her complaints are so reflective and insightful that I enjoy these conversations. Having metacommunication as a backup, even if it is never or rarely used, frees me in relationships, because it makes me feel I can act as I wish and either I can check in with my friend or my friend will let me know how it’s going down.

You ought to be talking pretty regularly with someone you’re dating about how each of you sees the role of romantic partner or spouse. If your lover interrupts you, is it that they define you as subordinate or that they like a lively style of conversation? Are they open to changing their expectations? Are you? Enthusiasm for engaging in this negotiation is probably a better predictor of marital success than is a good fit at the start.

You can’t metacommunicate if you don’t have even the role of human being. When two famous or even momentarily important people are talking and you are in the role of bystander, you can’t clarify what’s going on. You can leave or be an audience member. This is true also when you are literally an audience member. One thing I don’t like about diversity events is that they typically confine white guys to the role of audience member. If I’m not going to participate, I can play the role of audience member by watching a video of Cornell West or Chris Rock or Audre Lord to get my mind blown by the best.