I have been thinking a lot about roles. Not mine, but the question of why some of us become so anxious about the roles we play in life. For starters, let’s assume we can agree that each of us plays multiple roles to co-exist. These can include gender roles; our order in the family; our function at work and even our standing to clients, acquaintances or friends. Unless we live as hermits (which might be a fairly self-contained role but a role nonetheless), roles are as required as oxygen.
So why do we get so worked up about them when they are so natural? I think it’s because unlike inhaling oxygen, which is a physiological habit, we don’t act out the roles so effortlessly. We must be taught to take our places in life, nurtured on the expectations they come with, monitored and assessed on how well we have executed them; and finally rewarded, punished or left alone to get on with them. This process could take many years.
Kids are told they need to let mommy finish talking to auntie Lucy; admonished if they cut in again, and ignored if they continue to disrupt. Fathers have been taught by their own dads and other men (and women) that they are the protectors (and moms are the nurturers), even if both parents bring home the bacon and make dinner.
The process of becoming the roles we are is fairly time-honored. In order to know what we need to do, we need to have been conferred the expectations; shown the proper behavior; and rehearsed through repeated experiences. Skip a step and we don’t do very well in adulthood. One reason, then, why we can get so anxious about playing roles could be that we never learned to play them well, or at all. Internally, we aren’t very clued in.
This hurts externally, too. In response to how others behave, all of us have been raised to praise; put down or play dumb. The last reaction is particularly true when someone who isn’t too clued in on what to do or how to behave confuses us. In turn, we knock them off-kilter by not displaying the helpful social signals. It’s a vicious cycle that breeds anxiety.
So how do we fix this? We could read self-help books and sign up to weekend seminars where we can learn how to become gentler parents; emotionally smarter employees or more engaged citizens. Millions of us already do this. But the solution doesn’t really extract us from a cycle which we weren’t properly plugged into. We will be patching holes and hoping we don’t fall into one again.
Some cognitive behavior therapists believe the best solution is to fix ourselves. They call this self-acceptance. Drop the “should’s,” “must’s” and “have to’s” and deal with just being, warts and all. The process to get here may be different. Some therapists use a challenging approach of drilling into our core beliefs and compelling us to modify them (which might put off Singapore and other Asian clients). Others advocate mindfulness-based therapy that equips us with techniques to embrace the anxiety and press on.
Positive psychologists use a toolkit of forgiveness exercises; expressing gratitude; and strengths discovery to help us. They will get us to see life as a journey of learning or leaving behind the baggage, day by day. I use some of these tools in my life, and a bit of mindfulness exercise.
These approaches try to dilute public approval (more rightly, perceptions of public approval) and strengthen self-awareness. There’s already a lot going on in our heads. These methods teach us to pay attention to some of the signals, if we want to suck the juice out of the present life rather than waste it on worrying. The other signals we can just put to rest.