When the Slave Is Master
- More principles of role psychology
- Role Suggestions and Auto-Suggestions
- Roles and illness
- Role inertia
- Role conflicts
- Talents awaiting a role
- Roles and health
An unemployed actor ‘in between’ jobs is in as unenviable a position as anyone else out of work. However, like all of us, actors are constantly offered an array of differing roles, unfortunately for the one in this scenario, none of them on a professional basis. Indeed, we do not even have to step out of our own front door to have the opportunity of being a Council Tax Payer, Neighbour, Radio Listener, T.V. Viewer, Telephone Subscriber or Correspondent, not to mention the range of amusing roles our families might care to think up for us. Adverts tempt us to become Mass Consumers, election campaigns persuade us to be Voters, while Insurance Companies explain the benefits of assuming the role of the Life Assured. Every day we play a plethora of roles, many of them taken for granted or, quite deservedly never given a second thought.
If you think about it, we are rarely openly invited to take on roles; the approach is far less respectful. Indeed, most of the roles we have are ‘suggested’ to us, that is to say, they are instilled in us in ways that make refusal impossible: our acceptance is assumed. Sometimes, this is achieved very subtly by hints, veiled provocation and patient expectation. At other times quite the reverse is true and it is as if we are led smartly out at gunpoint to play the role of Submissive Lamb.
I am in no way suggesting that the whole world is exclusively concerned in trying to manipulate us. There is no personal vendetta here and if any manipulation goes on it is usually reciprocal. For example, as soon as we start speaking to the person standing next to us we are inevitably offering them the role of Listener. If we address someone with anger in our voice we assume the Role of Accuser and suggest in them that of the Accused. None of this is conscious, of course, but our subconscious mind understands the essence of the exchange in this way and acts accordingly. Flirting is another example in which we, often totally unconsciously, suggest to another person that they take on a particular role as Man or Woman.
The director of a firm ensconced behind his desk in his own office is a completely different person from the same director quaking in the dentist’s chair.
Role suggestions are extremely powerful and are most difficult when we are young since then we are naturally more susceptible to suggestions and, therefore, to socialising and educational influences. The first roles instilled in us are those of Baby, a Son or Daughter, a Child Who Ought To Obey Grown Ups, a Child Who Should Always Be Good, a Child Who Ought To Love His Parents, a Child Who Should Study Well, a Child Who Ought To Be Grown Up. A succession of small and large acts of coercion of one kind or another. At some point we begin to have doubts and to resist, sometimes unsuccessfully, and sometimes with a little too much success. But however long we live few of us probably ever manage to escape entirely from that role of a Child Who Ought To…
After watching a hypnotist at work with a hypnotised subject, Tolstoy noted in his diary that a child’s normal state is similar to that of an adult under hypnosis. This perceptive remark can perhaps only be extended by the thought that many of us as adults remain in a permanent state of hypnosis. For an adult this is, of course, far more complex and varied than it is for a child. Thanks to the reciprocity and variety of suggestions, we do not usually recognise the suggestions that affect us for what they are, nor where they come from. For anyone who remains outside the sphere of mass suggestion affecting people around them (for example, an impassionate spectator at a football match, a stranger among a group of close friends) this somnambulism is obvious enough and sometimes even ominously so, as in cases of mass political psychoses. Hypnosis of this kind limits our roles.
If we recall what was said concerning the link between suggestion and Auto-Suggestion it is clear that when role suggestions become Auto-Suggestions they become an integral part of our personality, although they by no means define us entirely. We shall subsequently discuss how this works.
True and False Interpretations,
Deviations and Refusals
It is unlikely that we really identify with all the roles we are forced to play in life. I am not concerned here with the traditional ones necessary to maintain social stability but those of a more individual nature. I would simply like to emphasise that role relationships are common to us all and that even when we are at our most natural and sincere we cannot avoid fulfilling certain roles. Any behaviour in front of someone else (even if we only imagine someone’s presence either consciously or subconsciously) means we are inevitably accepting our role and suggesting a role to them. Any gesture addressed to someone else is also a role signal (“I’m assuming such-and-such a role, you take the corresponding one”). All this is conveyed by our intonation, by the volume and tone of our voice (a strong, commanding tone, for example, takes the senior role and offers that of junior to the listener) by the way we dress, our stance and our expression, that is, by all our non-verbal communication. There are always expectations on both sides. Usually two people assume their respective roles in approximately the following way. “A” behaves in a certain way, that is, accepts a certain role depending on his or her conscious or unconscious interpretation of “B”’s expectations, thereby demonstrating to “B” what is expected of him or her. “B” interprets this suggested role rightly or wrongly and either accepts or rejects it. This exchange is frequently complicated by the fact that we are often not fully aware of everything when we assume a role and are doing so partly in the dark.
This acceptance of respective roles is not guaranteed to run smoothly. For example, one nineteenth-century Russian explorer writes in his notes how, out of sheer ignorance, he once offered his hand to an Indian from the caste of the untouchables. The poor man was totally bewildered by this, first taking the gesture as abusive and then as some kind of divine favour. Thus for “A” and “B” to take their roles with a minimum of misunderstanding their expectations should be more or less coordinated to start with and they should interpret role signals in a similar way. If this is not the case it leads to the difficulties in communication which may occur between representatives of different cultures or, potentially, between any two strangers.
However, even if “A” and “B” share common expectations and understanding it does not necessarily follow that the exchange will be problem free since even if “B” correctly understands the suggested role, he or she can always reject it simply out of preference for another. However, when we do reject a particular role and assume another, this may not always be noticed by other people, it may be ignored or simply misinterpreted. Suppose, for example, a child semi-consciously protesting against the boring role of a Child Who Ought To endeavours to assume that of an Adult Who Can Do What They Like or, maybe, that of a Baby Who is Allowed Everything. The Adults Who Must Educate may misinterpret this new role as that of a Malicious Troublemaker and actively suggest this to the child. Thanks to their persistent efforts, the child may well end up assuming this suggested role.
If my memory serves me right, then my old school friend, Igor, usually took the role of Unwilling and Lazy Student. However, since he was basically very able, he left with fairly good results. He continued in his old role for some time at university before suddenly changing to that of Conscientious Student, a role in which he remained for years, making good use of it to forge himself a successful career. It is easy to see how by hard work and efficiency, without asking unnecessary questions but nonetheless frequently seeking advice, he could at the same time inspire confidence in himself whilst offering his superiors the flattering role of Wise Mentor. He could not fail to please Those Responsible for Promotion. This went on until Igor gained a professorship and a university chair and suddenly found himself acting as Mentor, a role he undertook with such enthusiasm that at our traditional reunions he even tried to make us, his old school friends, join his colleagues and family in the role of Conscientious Students. It became increasingly difficult to have any contact with him whatsoever. Instead of the old toasts, he began giving half-hour lectures on the significance of the energy crisis in international affairs (energy was his special field). Similarly, if we ever happened to be having a quiet drink with him in private he would pontificate on how we should deal with anything or anyone from our boss, via our spouses to UFO’s. One evening we conspired to get him really drunk, hoping that he would drop his role for once: but nothing of the sort. On the contrary, he was even slightly more eloquent than usual, categorically demeaning... demanding that we all listen to the lecture he had recently written on the moon’s effluence... influence on the sinternational inuation and sexual potency (apparently he had been carrying out pioneering work in this sphere for some years). There was nothing for it but to give Igor the floor and sit it out. However, he began to digress more and more wildly, touching on the evils of animal rights activists, the mediocrity of modern poetry and the deterioration in the quality of vodka. The evening ended with his being escorted home.
This was an example of role inertia in full swing. We have probably all come across people who seem very inflexible and stuck in certain roles. Maybe they always throw their weight about or constantly have a cause to defend, they may always be ready with a sarcastic comment or are significantly silent the whole time, or pointedly serious, or in exhaustingly high spirits...
We meet Optimists, Pessimists, Moralists, Cynics, Critics, Apologists, Eccentrics, Great Talents and hundreds of other people wedded to various standpoints. It is very rare for any of us to hand in our notice from positions we have won and, in fact, most of us hold on to them for all we are worth. We rarely recognise the inertia of our own roles. Even if we do start to find them a burden we do not usually know what to do about it.
Anyone completely free of role inertia, in other words, anyone who can be totally different with different people and with the same people in various circumstances is a Virtuoso at Living. But such people are rare and perhaps this is all to the good since they can sometimes cause considerable disruption like Shakespeare’s Iago, for example. This however, is a question of morals rather than of psychological skills.
Like any technique, this one can be used for both good and bad. Most of us are somewhere midway between being inert prisoners of our roles and virtuosos of life, that is, we are more or less different with different people and more or less the same with the same people. There is no way of predicting how we are going to behave when we meet a Mr. X or a Ms Y we have never set eyes on before and this will depend partly on them, but our behaviour with our husband or wife, our mother, boss, employee, children or friends can usually be predicted with fair accuracy.
The respective roles in these cases have already been established and the ensuing inertia can be both beneficial and harmful.
It is natural for us to try to hold onto a role to which we are accustomed. Similarly, we try to expand those roles that have proved convenient or advantageous and to adopt them wherever possible. It is not simply a question of a mask hiding us from the outside world: a role is also a defense against ourselves. It provides us with a comfortable inner niche in which we can install a part of ourselves so that we know what to expect from ourselves, thereby diminishing any anxiety-provoking instability. After all we probably all want to live up to our self-expectations. In effect, we hypnotise ourselves and here, perhaps more than anywhere, it is true to say that “the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t”. When it comes down to it, however, this is often far from the case. Of course, inertia can be very beneficial in some roles, for example, those of a Friend, Altruist, Enthusiastic Humanist, etc., as long as we clearly understand the actual state of affairs around us and the infinitely changing nature of reality. However, many of the roles we play in our everyday lives threaten to limit our inner life simply out of inertia since they become a self-imposed prison. Not being aware of role inertia in our relationships with others can at time have amusing, but also tragic consequences. This is especially so if coupled with a narrow interpretation of our own role in the first place and an inadequate understanding of our partner’s expectations. This causes many parents heartache in bringing up their children and many couples to lose the fight for love and fidelity. Many arguments, conflicts and lawsuits are kept alive by role inertia that results in people remaining ossified in their positions, both sides of the dispute deprived of all sense of reality.
Role inertia can also lead us into a jungle of lies as, for example, when a married couple or two lovers cease to feel anything for each other, although they maintain the empty form of their once significant relationship for a long time. Both parties bear the heavy burden of insincerity until one or both decide to make a clean break. This process usually lingers at the stage of indirect role protest (hints, provocating behaviour and angry scenes over trivialities) for an indefinite period.
The main difficulty, of course, is that we are either totally unaware or else are only vaguely aware, inaccurately and in retrospect of this role inertia and, indeed, of the essence of our roles themselves. The outward signs of role problems vary considerably. I know a fair number of alcoholics who drink primarily because of role inertia and its consequential role protest. They feel the world is holding them in the role of a Child Who Ought To instead of giving them that of an Adult Who Can. They drink in an attempt to show themselves and the world that they are nevertheless playing the latter role although, unfortunately, they achieve quite the opposite effect.
If we always knew exactly what role we were in at any given moment this book would probably be quite redundant. If we recall the nature of our bio-pendulums (see chapter 3) it is easy to understand that, essentially, we are constantly experiencing some degree of role inertia. This is manifested at a psychological level by our mood which usually lasts beyond the situation that triggered it. Muscular and respiratory tensions and spasms of the blood-vessels and internal organs, all the unnecessary tensions we discussed earlier are simply the remains of former roles, evidently not our happiest ones, which still exist in our subconscious and influence our bodies. This is also caused by subconscious anticipation of future roles which we expect to be difficult. Conversely, our good moods can last long after the reason for them has disappeared and arise well before there are any concrete grounds for them to do so. Thus it is not a question of whether we are experiencing role inertia or not but of which role inertia it is best to retain and which we should guard against.
Role inertia is one of the major cause of shyness and lack of self-confidence. From an early age we find ourselves in testing situations and since we are Anxious To Produce A Good Impression we naturally are not always successful. For an impressionable child just one failure out of ten may be sufficient to fix the subconscious in the unfortunate role of Someone Unable to Cope in this Role. From then on it is a vicious circle that can only be broken by accepting a different role and using its inertia to help rather than hinder ourselves.
My colleagues were sometimes surprised at why I rarely wore a white coat when interviewing patients, as the general rule is in our hospitals. The white coat is believed to inspire respect, emphasising that the patient is not with just anybody but with a qualified doctor. I explained that this was exactly what I was trying to avoid since I myself have only to see someone in a white coat to start feeling I have something wrong with me. In other words, the white coat is a role sign with power of suggestion.
Why should I, by my role as Doctor, suggest in someone else the role of Patient when this is exactly what I am trying to rid them of in the first place? Any respect won through this is of little value and a doctor’s worth is soon apparent in other ways. Of course, just by coming to me my patients have already accepted the Role of Patient, this being suggested by the way they feel at the time and often by the behaviour of others too. My task it is to help them feel well and to return them to the role of a Healthy Person.
The way we feel is very closely linked to our role: the former can sometimes provoke us into accepting the latter, although the reverse is more often true, our role suggesting to us how we should feel. In neuroses and psychosomatic disorders, for example, a deterioration in our state is usually caused by an unhelpful role. The unwillingness of many of us to visit the doctor arises from an intuitive understanding of the effect of the suggested role of Patient which could, by inertia, possibly intensify our ailments. This is worth considering since there is only a short distance on the continuum between the two extreme roles of living as a Patient and dying as a Healthy Person, it being possible to live as the latter, even if it is by inertia.
Role Training can help us overcome the inertia of negative roles, as well as creating or extending that of positive ones. To do this, however, it is first necessary to understand which role we are in at any moment.
If it had not been for the neighbour suddenly wanting something out of the garage it is quite likely that I would never have become acquainted with K. For when K, a foreman in the local car works, went into his garage that Sunday evening he did not have the intention of driving out a few minutes later in his car but of staying there for good, leaving his problems outside. True, he did not bolt the door so as to save the police the trouble of breaking in and also, perhaps, to avoid being alone for too long (he had always been fond of company). His neighbour found him in the nick of time, hanging by his tie from the ceiling. The ambulance came in minutes and K responded to treatment. A few days later, K and I met in our respective roles of Patient and Psychotherapist. He appeared to be quite balanced and psychologically sound. He did not drink excessively and I could not discover any particular problems either at work or at home. The quarrel with his wife which had taken place shortly before his attempted suicide had not been particularly serious. He laconically explained that he had made the attempt because, “Things had got on top of him”.
When I enquired which things in particular he replied that it was, “Everything, absolutely everything!”
We had several talks, discovered a common interest in mechanics and took a liking to each other. I visited him at home, in the guise of Fellow Car Enthusiast rather than Psychotherapist in order to avoid embarrassment, and met his family. K’s wife, A, who had a responsible position in a bank, gave us an excellent lunch and was amiable enough, occasionally addressing K with ‘tender’ little remarks such as, “Bring another plate, could you”, “Oh, and put the kettle on while you’re there”, or, after apologising that the knives which were adequately sharp were blunt, “You said you’d do them a month ago”. K’s fifteen-year-old son looked down on us with condescension (he is a good six inches taller than his father), and his thirteen-year-old daughter showed very little interest in our presence. After a few ill-fated attempts to get a conversation going we lapsed into silence in front of the TV. This visit was enough for me to understand fairly well the ‘absolutely everything’ that had got on top of K although it took a quiet drink together one evening to make everything perfectly clear. K then told me that, as foreman, he had quite a lot of people under him and considerable responsibility. All those under him seemed to respect him and the bosses usually took notice of what he had to say. He went on to explain that his mother lived nearby and often visited him. He was naturally very fond of her but, unfortunately, she and his wife (whom, of course, he was also fond of) were constantly arguing. He admitted to having a mistress, D, whom he loved as well, but in a totally different way. His wife did not suspect a thing.
Thus thinking about K’s roles it became clear:
- in his relationship with his wife, K found himself in the role of a Child Who Ought To Be Grown Up;
- his mother and wife were rivals for control over him and he does not know how to reconcile the role of Loving Son with that of Loving Husband;
- coming home from work he finds it difficult to change from the role of a Foreman With Considerable Responsibility into that of a Junior Who Ought To Act More Responsibly;
- he finds it virtually impossible to be simultaneously a Junior as regards his mother and wife and a Senior with his children who see the position he is in and refuse to acknowledge his shaky authority;
- with his mistress, who is considerably younger than he is, he can play the role of Experienced Senior and Protector, but this only makes it all the more difficult for him to return to his wife and the role of Junior Who Ought to Fulfill his Conjugal Duties.
These were the main elements in that “absolutely everything” that had got too much for K. They formed a knot of tormenting role conflicts that he was not strong enough to undo and that he had been prevented from severing.
“I know I’m in no position to give advice of any kind, but have you ever considered doing something to change your life-style. Something decisive – only not in garage!”
“Where then, in the Registry Office? Divorce A and marry D? I’ve thought about that but it wouldn’t work. She’s very young and lazy. She very self-centred and is really only interested in having a good time. She can’t cook and won’t try. As long as we’re not married she looks up to me and enjoys the prestige of being a mistress. But if we were married she’d soon get bored and would start cheating on me in no time. And there’s the kids too, of course. I couldn’t do it”.
A few weeks later K. informed me that he had sold his car and signed up to work for at least three years as a manual worker on a remote construction project in Siberia. His family and mistress were remaining in Moscow. We parted with mutual regret.
Role conflict occurs when:
• It is difficult to choose between various new life roles;
• It is difficult or impossible to reconcile existing roles;
• Either real or imaginary roles are incompatible with one another.
It is easy to understand that there are as many different conflicts of this nature as there are situations in life and Hamlet is a classic example of someone with several role conflicts at once. The difference between many of us and Hamlet is that awareness of our conflicts remains on a subconscious level; we merely experience unaccountable states of anxiety. Sometimes we are conscious of the conflicts but simply repress the knowledge because we cannot find a solution (see chapter 3, whose life would you save in a fire?). There are, of course, some pragmatic advantages to this approach since it helps create the illusion that life is simple which in turn makes it possible to act. However, this simplistic view is eroded the more our moral sense and intellect develop. Although analysis reveals conflicts it does nothing to solve them. Having an overall purpose in life that links us to something greater than ourselves and helps create an Integrated Role is one way of reconciling and prioritising potentially conflicting roles.
What Psychotherapists and Clowns
Have in Common
(The range of roles; their attraction and combining power)
A policeman sometimes has to play the role of a Soldier, sometimes that of Nurse. A mother can take on a host of roles, including that of Nanny, Actress, Teacher, Friend, Judge and, perhaps most of all, Psychotherapist. A psychotherapist may be called upon to play the role of Friend, Nanny, Parent, Teacher, Priest, Scholar, Comic, etc., depending on their patient’s expectations and the way he or she perceives the job. The role of spouse may include that of Friend, Lover, Sibling, Confidante, Parent, Playmate, Companion, Colleague, and so on. Wives, husbands, partners, friends all involve diverse roles in relation to one another.
All roles contain an element of other roles, or sub-roles, or have the potential to transform into other related roles. Even apparently narrow and clearly defined professional roles like those of Shop Assistant, Waiter or Judge, for example, can be supplemented with elements of vastly different roles. Thus an effective Shop Assistant can fulfill the role of Advertising Agent which requires the ability to become a benevolent Adviser; a good Waiter can be a Dietary Expert and an Interesting Conversationalist; a Judge can take the role of Pedagogue or maybe Lawyer.
Each role, therefore, is subject to the gravitational pull of other roles and possesses a combining power that is potentially positive or negative. A police officer, for example, may take on the role of executioner, or a psychotherapist that of police officer. Thus the art of living demands the skill of being able to fit ourselves imaginatively into the potential of any role circumstances force upon us, thereby controlling instead of being controlled by it.
The anecdote of how Diogenes was sold into slavery is a good illustration of this. When the philosopher was taken to the slave market and asked what he could do he answered that he could order other people around. “Come on, hurry up! Sell me to someone who wants a good master”. A man called Kseniad bought him immediately, amazed at this show of insolence. Diogenes immediately responded, “Now you just be sensible and do whatever I tell you to from now on”. Kseniad was greatly amused. However, he soon entrusted Diogenes with his children’s education, made him head of the household and bowed down to his authority in everything.
Could You Be a Diogenes?
I believe you could, although whether he could manage in your role is a different matter. Who knows, if they were living today, Cromwell might be a gangster or a professional boxer, and Disraeli a small time businessman or mediocre actor. As I mentioned earlier, the spectrum of our potential roles is an unknown aspect of our personality only ever partly revealed during our lives. We may or may not be accurate in assessing our adequacy at dealing with the roles of, say,
Husband or Wife;
Father or Mother; etc., etc.
We often assume that time will throw some light on where our abilities lie, but this is frequently not so. Success is, of course, easy enough to identify: I managed something, therefore I am capable. With failure, however, the question remains whether we are really incapable of fulfilling this role in general, or whether our failure was simply due to the fact that we did not fully understand or, indeed, totally misunderstood what was required, or to some internal or external circumstance (conflict or misunderstanding with other people or a temporary illness) which prevented us from showing ourselves at our best.
Sometimes it will be quite obvious whether we are suitable for a particular role or not since it demands particular talents, while others have specific contra-indications which immediately exclude some of us. However, many roles are in no way specialised and simply require practice. Most of us are potentially able to play most roles and whether we are actually capable of dealing with them in practice usually depends on nothing more than the sum of our positive or negative skills and positive or negative Auto-Suggestions.
A Role as a Cure
I shall anticipate slightly and describe an amazing case of a self-cure of stuttering which I will never forget since it not only changed all my previous ideas concerning the nature of this problem but also made me reassess my attitudes towards relationships in general.
I had just qualified as a Psychotherapist at the time and none of my efforts helped Alexander R who was so ashamed of his speech that he avoided any contact whatsoever with women and, even when talking to me, he hunched up, kept his gaze firmly on the floor and blushed deeply. His stammer was indeed marked, having started when he received an electric shock from an iron as a child. In a state of deep hypnosis he could speak without any difficulty, but my reassuring suggestions ceased having an effect as soon as he had to mix with people in an everyday situation. Autogenous relaxation did not have any effect either. We parted with mutual regret feeling that the solution was basically close at hand but that we still lacked something.
Alexander turned up unexpectedly eight months later clutching a celebratory bottle of cognac. His speech was perfectly normal, he looked me straight in the eye and his hunch had gone completely.
"I'm getting married in three weeks, Doctor, and I'd like to thank you."
“I’m sorry, Alex, but I..."
"Sasha, not Alex," - he interrupted.
"Oh, yes... Sasha. I'm sorry, but I don't quite understand — I mean, I didn’t actually help you",
“Ah, but you did by showing me that I COULD talk normally, even if only under hypnosis. And from then on I was able to do the rest myself."
"What did you do?"
"I practiced Auto-Training and changed my life-style."
“How? Did you get married?"
"Oh no, that's just the result of it all. After we'd parted company I left home, rented a room on my own, got a new job and started evening classes in English. I stopped meeting all my old friends and made new ones."'
"But where did you get the courage to do all that and start everything from scratch?”
"I decided I had nothing to lose, since things couldn’t get any worse than they were. I thought I might as well have a go. The main thing was to forget the former me. And that meant I had to be in a totally environment with people who DID NOT KNOW THAT I HAD A STAMMER. Using Auto-Training I kept suggesting that I’m SASHA not Alex. In fact, I’d wanted to be called Sasha for years”.
I gradually began to understand. Some people prefer to shorten the name Alexander to Alex and others to Sasha. My patient had been called Alex before and I’d remembered his name correctly when I opened the door, although I thought
I'd been mistaken when he corrected me. So now he had stopped being ALEX WITH A STAMMER and had become SASHA WITH NORMAL SPEECH
"Could you immediately stop stuttering with strangers?"
"No, it was not that easy at first. I still stammered at times, sometimes badly. But then I'd just say to myself that this is the OLD ME showing up again, although I'd soon get rid of him for good. As far as the new people I was meeting were concerned I convinced myself that it was basically all the same to them whether I stammered or not because they had nothing to do with me anyway. Then it was pretty much all the same to me whether I stammered or not, although, of course, you always feel better if you can speak well. In a word, all my negative emotions have remained with the OLD ME and now only positive ones are left.
"So you don’t see any of your family or old friends any more?”
“No, there was no need for that. Six months without them was enough. Now I can live at home and meet everyone again ONLY AS SASHA. They all accept this now. Only I probably won't go back to my old job again".
This is an excellent example of how a positive attitude and an intuitive and imaginative use of role psychology can overcome what had appeared to be an incurable problem. This example illustrates once again that the roles of Someone Ill or Someone Healthy are created by the interaction of suggestion and autosuggestion, but that the potential for change lies exclusively in the realms of Auto-Suggestion.