This is the third in a series of five posts on the journey of unlearning roles and life-scripts that interfere with effective leadership and personal fulfillment. If you like, you can hear me read this post.
In the two previous posts (“The Journey of Unlearning” and “Leading is Not Acting: What Roles Do You Play?“) I focused on the value of outgrowing certain implicit roles and “life scripts” that, overplayed, can block our capacities for good decisions, wise action, and personal fulfillment. In “The Journey of Unlearning” I outlined four fundamental steps:
1> Name the role
2> Assess the impacts
3> Realize how much is untrue
4> Live into Being
In this post, I explore the second step: assessing the impacts of maintaining a particular role, be it “wise authority” or “martyred savior” or “Superwoman,” or anything else. This step is vital, for even when we know what role we are playing, it is not necessarily easy to transcend it. Understanding the impacts of the role on self and others can help that process along. And transcend is the right word. It comes from Old French and Latin meaning across (trans-) and climb (-scandere). In this case, we climb out of a concept, an old self, a set of fictions about ourselves we felt were more or less absolute.
I remember a conversation with a talented social services manager for a family counseling organization. She was well known for her ability to intervene in even the most difficult disputes, such as those involving domestic violence. She was the one to whom others in her agency routinely referred the toughest calls, such as those involving a family in the middle of a major crisis. The manager knew how to take charge, calm people down, separate the players and get each person the help he or she needed. In a conversation with me and one of her colleagues she described how she had acquired this heroic role. She had done so, she believed, as the product of her upbringing. “My parents told me I could do anything,” she said. “They always affirmed me. They taught me there were no limits.” Her colleague and I were impressed, but then the colleague asked the manager a telling question: “So your parents said there were no limits for you. Did that also mean you had to do something spectacular with your life?”
At that point, the manager paused thoughtfully. “What you say is true,” she continued, “my parents did say something like that between the lines. Because I could be anything I should achieve something great. Achieve for them, for my family; be better than others. I was the one who had to succeed. I really couldn’t say to them, or anyone, ‘Well, I don’t feel so perfect today; I just want to be me. Somebody else can be responsible today.’ That stuff was considered totally unacceptable. I was never allowed to complain or slack off.”
As we talked it became clear that her gifts and skills with families were remarkable. But there was also a sense that inside her was another person not permitted full expression, a person who in part rejected the role of “the responsible one” that she seemingly couldn’t escape. In our conversation the manager began to get a sense of how pre-ordained her role was by parental expectations, and how powerful that script had been in her life. Clearly, the script had brought her many rewards, but there had been a cost.
As indeed there is a cost to any script because it is a reduction of a whole person. In this case, it’s pretty easy to see that cost. If the manager is the only one who deals with the tough stuff, others may not come up to their level of responsibility. And, even more to the point, the manager never gets a chance to access other sides of herself, to create a better balance in her life, to find out what might be in those “complaints” that she has lost. She’s caught in her gifts and the role of “responsible rescuer” that she’s learned to play.
There are behaviors — in the diagram above, the “spokes” — and there is the role these behaviors “feed” — the label at the center. In this case, the costs and benefits of playing the role might look like this:
The most basic cost is the reduction of freedom. If this is a role I have a hard time choosing not to play, then I become fused to it.
When a person is fused, he or she will have many reasons why the role can’t be changed, such as “There’s no one else who can do the job I do” or “Even if I try to do things differently, events always conspire — Hey, last night I wanted to go home on time but at the last minute a client called and…etc., etc., etc.” It doesn’t matter what these reasons are because they are usually hooked up in the role itself. In the example of the social services manager, not having others around who can do it better (meaning “rescue”) constantly presents the opportunity for an easy slide into playing out the script one more time.
These reasons should not be regarded as excuses, per se, because they are experienced by the person through an inner sense of “who I am” or what gives my life meaning or what constitutes an important opportunity. In a fused state, roles have deeper, less conscious components. We believe in them, think they are reality. They feel like destiny, like “my thread,” an implicit or intuitive self-definition. In this there may also be an underlying sense that choice plays a less important role than necessity and meaningfulness. But, there is also a liability here for our personal growth and liberation. As one of my graduate school teachers used to say to his classes: “Anytime a person tells you they have to do something, that’s usually close to the heart of the problem.”
If I begin to see what the costs actually are, that there is a powerful loss involved in the role along with its blessings, I may begin a process of dis-identification. I stop being quite so attached to my script. But this does not necessarily happen in a straight-forward, “logical” way. Instead, the role gradually “loosens” as a matter of felt experience, like a snake skin, or a shell that is too small to be one’s home anymore. The intellect may be very good at defining the behaviors, naming roles, and illuminating the costs, but it is the heart, at last, that must be convinced to let go, to give up the sacred quality of the role. And the heart is not convinced by reason, but by experience. The heart must always see for itself, must grow for itself, and then experience how the skin or the shell no longer fit. Ironically, the only way for the heart to “unlearn” an old script is to fully engage and explore it, making it as explicit and conscious and thoroughly present as possible. In this way, the heart experiences total identification with the role for the last time. Like a flower, the role must fully open and be known completely before its petals are allowed to drop away. The reason this process is so likely is that our roles have been useful tools for us in our lives, they had benefits, and we therefore became attached to them. They are like partners from which we have grown apart. If I am the “responsible rescuer,” for example, I must say goodbye to the taken-for-granted meaning of that heroic role along with finally being released from its restrictions and costs. In growing out of a role, of course, we don’t actually lose the full meaning, nor any of the skills; but we feel the loss of an older identity and may ask ourselves, “Well, if I’m not that role, who then am I?”
The process of “loosening” a role is one of self-perception through non-dualistic means. Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist teacher explains:
“If a grain of salt would like to measure the degree of saltiness of the ocean, it drops itself into the ocean and becomes one with it, and the perception is perfect.”
“Nowadays, nuclear physicists have begun to feel the same way. When they get deeply into the world of subatomic particles, they see their mind in it. An electron is first of all your concept of the electron. The object of your study is no longer separated from your mind. Your mind is very much in it. Modern physicists think that the word observer is no longer valid, because an observer is distinct from the object observed. They have discovered that if you retain that kind of distinction, you cannot go very far in subatomic nuclear science. So they have proposed the word participant. You are not an observer, you are a participant. That is the way I always feel when I give a lecture. I don’t want the audience to be outside, to observe, to listen only. I want them to be one with me, to practice, to breathe. The speaker and the people who listen must become one in order for the right perception to take place. Non-duality means “not two,” but “not two” also means “not one.” That is why we say “non-dual” instead of “one.” Because if there is one, there are two. If you want to avoid two, you have to avoid one also.”
To gain release from the role, we become the grains of salt dropping into the ocean; we study ourselves as participants, not just observers; as both “lecturer” and “audience,” as not two and not one. Release comes through fully experiencing the role in its creative depths, letting it light up our self-definitions like a headlamp used to explore a cave. At some point, we see that no matter how wonderful the light is, how much power and purpose it gives us, it really isn’t enough. The lamp and the cave we are exploring both turn out to be fictions. This is what it’s like to discover the essential untruth of a life-script. Through creative reflection, we begin to see the role for what it is, an important, if temporary story we have told ourselves on the path to genuine wholeness.
I will write more extensively on this process of creative reflection in my next post…