Think back to the last time you met someone new to you. Maybe the scenario was a networking or a work-related meeting. Maybe you were at a social event or mixer. How did the conversation start? Often after we find out a person’s name, our next question is, “What do you do?” Finding out people’s occupations helps us categorize them–even if we are only categorizing people in our subconscious minds.
As human beings, it is easy for us to identify with the roles we play: father, partner, therapist, patient, coach, student, daughter, sister, neighbor, employee, employer, working mother, friend. As Frank Ostaseski writes in The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Fully Living, “Roles are neither good or bad. They are primarily functional and provide some needed predictability in our lives, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships.” The roles we play change throughout our lives, and it is when they change that we sometimes develop identity crises, feel stressed, or get depressed.
The amount the role changes affect us is determined by a number of factors, including how tied we were to the role, how much of it we felt was part of our core being and our emotions relating to the role relationship. For example, when the last of my grandmothers was dying, she reprimanded me because my husband at the time and I were separated. I already was grieving over my choice to relinquish my role of “wife” even though I knew the relationship had turned damaging. The vocalization of her viewpoint that separation and divorce were morally and spiritually wrong–though not my viewpoint–added to my anguish.
Ostaseski writes, “When we over-identify with a role, it defines us, confines us and reduces our capacity for conscious choice. It sets up an expectation about how life is supposed to proceed. That means more fragmentation, more fixed positions and entrenched beliefs, and less access to our innate wisdom.” I had stayed in the marriage, disregarding my innate wisdom, until my body started reacting with tightness in my chest and lungs every time I walked into the house and a rash that would appear within minutes every time I put on my wedding ring and wouldn’t clear up until I spent days being ring-free.
The role I was stepping out of and the role I was stepping into were challenges for my grandmother to accept, and this isn’t uncommon when we reset roles. If we leave or are laid off from a job, we are can be rocked to our core. If I am no longer a software engineer at X company, who am I? And if we change careers, sometimes we feel compelled to say, “I’m this but I used to be that.” I spent twelve academic years as a professor and administrator, and I have not been in those roles for the past five years. But some of my former students still call me “professor” and some of the people in my social circle seem to understand “former professor” or “writer” as my roles than they do “entrepreneur” or “consultant” since those are fuzzier terms as what that means one does on a day-to-day basis.
But the reality is all of our roles are not really our identities. We are not what we do, what we think, what we feel, what our mental health labels are, what we say or what we have. When we tie ourselves to all of these things and claim them as our identities, we project a story onto ourselves that may or may not be true or accurate. We are beyond the sum of our parts and personalities. We are complex and can wonderfully embrace a range of dichotomies within ourselves: fragility and resilience, the feeling of being surrounded by chaos but possessing inner peace, deeply loving someone or ourselves while not liking a particular behavior or attribute.
As we begin this month of festivities and family interactions, I encourage you to reflect with me on the roles that we play. Which roles do we tie to our identities and which do we acknowledge and accept as temporary? If we regard the role differently–such as recognizing the role is a choice–will our behavior in that role change? Will we feel freer and more our authentic selves?