"It's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you know that just ain't so."
-- attributed to Satchel Paige

"At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It's precisely that simple, and it's also that difficult."
-- Warren Bennis: On Becoming A Leader

The Cost of the Script

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.

Responsible Rescuer.jpg

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…


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  • Vincenza wrote:

    Respon­si­ble Res­cuer — ouch. Well, at least it was­n’t the first time I ever had that thought. What a gift it’s been these past few years to look deeply into my own sto­ry. I won­der if there’s a way to inhab­it the role con­scious­ly, so that you reap the ben­e­fits and “man­age” the costs?? If you’re aware of what you’re doing, is it pos­si­ble to min­i­mize the costs?? Or have you moved to some dif­fer­ent plane if you’re con­scious­ly act­ing? Or, if you’re con­scious, are you act­ing or is it authen­tic? Hey, this is fun!

    Thanks, Dan. It’s 20 degrees below zero wind chill where I’m from. Your blog gave me a few min­utes of deep sat­is­fac­tion and warmth. Look­ing for­ward to your next piece on cre­ative reflection.


  • Vin­cen­za

    Yes, as you say, if you are aware, you can min­i­mize the costs. But true aware­ness may come as the prod­uct of deep engage­ment with under­stand­ing the role or script that is being played out, and this can present its chal­lenges. It may be easy enough to “step back” from an intel­lec­tu­al stand­point, but to real­ly wit­ness and to see in a way that the heart, not just the mind sees — well, that can be a much more intense, and intense­ly lib­er­at­ing task. If the “respon­si­ble res­cuer” real­ly knows, real­ly sees, that per­son can make a wise choice about how best to show up in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion. It’s the dif­fer­ence between hav­ing to prac­tice the piano as a child and the sheer love of play­ing as an adult. I do not force myself; I am not com­pelled; I have sim­ply chosen.

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