What Roles Do You Play?

by Sarah on October 6, 2013

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,” –Shakespeare

We all play many parts, whether consciously or not, but what would your life be like if you could intentionally choose which roles you play each day?

While everyone has the opportunity to experiment with this concept, this week I have been delighting in just how much I am able to play with how I show up in the world and all the opportunities I have for experimenting with it, thanks in part to my single status.

Who Are You? And Is That The Right Question?

I was listening to a great podcast episode from Sex Nerd Sandra the other day about archetypes, and the guest on the show, Chelsea Wakefield, at one point talks about how sometimes we over-associate with our own roles.

I agree with her wholeheartedly.

We all spend a lot of time trying to fit ourselves into boxes. Gender boxes, occupational boxes, hobby boxes, personality test boxes, horoscope boxes, sports team fan boxes, and many, many more. Some of these have drastic and far-reaching effects on our day to day life, and some just determine where we’ll be drinking beer and watching the game on Sunday, but the desire to fit in somewhere is strong in most of us.

For me personally, the idea that we are not our roles would go at the top of the list of things I wish I knew five years ago.

When I quit theatre in 2008, I struggled for a long time with a sort of identity crisis because I was very used to defining myself in terms of my work.

Who was I if I wasn’t a stage manager? I wasn’t sure.

Now, however, I’ve come to a much more fluid concept of identity.

(Kate Bornstein talks a lot about this concept in her works. Her main focus is on gender, but the concepts are broadly applicable. Also, I’ve been devouring her work because it’s amazing. /side note)

Simply put, I am not the same today as I was yesterday. I will not be the same in an hour from now as I am right now.

Yes, there are some labels that will probably always be true. But they are surprisingly few. Fewer that we think.

For example, my Myers-Briggs score, which is supposed to be an assessment of how one makes decisions and sees the world, changes on a fairly regular basis. I used to average ENTJ. Then I was averaging INFP. Last week I was an ENFP. (The “N” being the only constant…)

Theoretically, this isn’t supposed to happen. The people who create these things (and the people who use them to make hiring decisions) want to believe that we are what we are and that they have come up with a method for defining “what we are.” And while it is possible that if we over associate with our roles, our self-image can become more stagnant as a result, I don’t think that stagnation is natural.

As far as I’m concerned, my changing Myers Briggs score is fantastic. There is some core of me-ness that will always be true, but all the rest is like one giant playground of self-expression. I can use my inner cast of characters to show up in the world in different ways, to play with life and the people around me, and to experience the world through a variety of lenses.

Pretty freakin’ cool, right?

So Why Should Singles Care?

One of the problems I often have with the idea of escalator relationships is that they’re based on the idea that one day each of us will find our forever person.

I’m not opposed to the idea of a forever person, in and of itself. I think finding those people who can grow alongside us for extended periods of time is freakin’ fantastic.

But unfortunately, the idea of forever-people is currently rather enmeshed with the idea that the goal of our lives is to get to a place of equilibrium where things aren’t changing too much. I think this is what people mean by “settling down,” a phrase I hope I never use in relation to myself.

There was an article in the Times recently about this phenomenon, which they called the “end of history Illusion.”

The basic gist is that people assume they are not going to change very much in the future even though they admit to having changed a lot in the past. As we begin to reach adulthood, we start to imagine that we’re at the end of our own personal histories, when in fact, it’s just not true.

This end of history” phenomenon is encouraged and perpetuated in many ways by long term partnerships. When we think we’ve found the one person we want to spend our lives with, it’s easy to start thinking of it as our “happily ever after” moment. Weddings are often referred to as the “first day of the rest of your life.” The “end of history” concept is deeply embedded in our language, our stories and our culture.

Furthermore, it’s incredibly easy to fall into patterns with another person, and patterns once established are hard to get out of. It’s easy to fall into a rut of comfort, and once we’re there, breaking interpersonal patterns is challenging. Just like it’s easier to make sweeping changes to one’s life after a divorce or breakup or job loss, it can require a strong catalyst to launch us out of these patterns. For some folks, that catalyst never comes.

As Chelsea Wakefield was saying in the podcast I referenced earlier, we have a tendency to only play out certain roles with our significant others, and many of our other possible archetypes get put aside. The problem, however, is that while may be forgotten for a short term, they are still a part of us – a part which is going unexpressed.

I find, personally, that as a single person, I get to experiment a lot more with taking on different roles. I also find that new people often awaken things in me that I didn’t realize were there. Not having to worry about needing to limit these interactions and new relationships because I’m being held back by another relationship… well, that’s incredibly exciting for someone who is constantly geeking out about self-discovery.

Every time I go on a date, I’m paying attention to see who I am with this new person. I watch for what roles I’m playing, what patterns are showing up, what feelings are triggered, and I always end up with a new layer of understanding about myself.

That being said, it’s possible to maintain this kind of open attitude and be in a relationship, whether mono or poly, it just requires more attention and more motivation.

If we embrace the idea of self-fluidity and learn to question our own internal rules (or what Chelsea Wakefield calls our “gatekeepers,”) then we can lead happier and more fulfilled lives, by being more truthful to ourselves and most fully expressing who we are.

All of who we are.

So, who are you going to be today?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

simone October 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Ahhh this is such a THING!
I do this ALL the time!

Right now, I’m feeling X and I’ve been through Y so in the future, I’ll probably be Z…….. really?? REALLY? How many times have I used that reasoning before? 🙂

I wonder if there’s some kind of psychological benefit to over-associating into our roles, which we totally do. Does it give us a sense of security? Does it help us ground into the present (even though my hunch is that it probably doesn’t?) Is it comforting to think that we know ourselves, because that means that we have some sense of control over what ought to happen or not?

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Sarah October 12, 2013 at 3:01 am

Super-useful questions, Simone!!! I obviously don’t have the answer, but I’m guessing it has to do with wanting to be in control in some way… or needing some kind of foundation for making decisions, especially in a society that is so focused on figuring out the future. Decide on a career path! Buy a house! Plan for retirement! Get married! So many of the things we’re expected to do in our 20s and 30s have long term implications. It’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do many of those things… buy a house somewhere? How do I know that in 5 years I wont’ want to be somewhere else? Short answer, I don’t. I also may be more volatile than many..

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Karen J October 7, 2013 at 9:28 am

Blessings for that SexNerdSandra link, Sarah! I definitely have to listen to more of her shows, and certainly subscribe…
~~~
The whole post will need some more digesting — but I’m liking the direction you’re heading!
Have a great week!

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Sarah October 12, 2013 at 2:59 am

I’m always happy to hear any and all thoughts when you have or want to share them. <3 I'd love to get your 2cents on whether I should merge this back with the main blog and stop trying to do too many things...

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Karen J October 14, 2013 at 7:20 am

If YOU feel like it’s “too many things”, then the answer is most certainly “Yes!”
“Put your own oxygen mask on first…”
And I’m behind you 100% — merging them would give *me* not only less in my In Box, but fewer places to follow-up on… 😉

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Rob October 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm

This is a really excellent and thought-provoking blog post. Thanks!

I’ll admit that as I first started reading it, I was ready to dismiss it. You see, I like to think of myself as intentionally non-conformist. I’m just me – I don’t consciously try to fit into any boxes. But then I read further and you really make excellent points that got me thinking hard. Thanks!

Firstly – I have to keep reminding myself that “single” and “celibate” are not synonymous! You still “date” (in a very loosely defined version of that word). And you don’t hate men 🙂

You got me thinking about how we might define ourselves, if not by using roles dictated by society. Well, I think a great place to start is with our Core Values. But a tonne of stuff has already been said on that subject, so I won’t repeat it.

I love the fact that your MBTI keeps changing. I’d almost go as far as to say that our personality changes depending on who we’re with! It’s a useful reminder that we should keep our self-image fluid, not fixed in stone.

I *love* what you say about the “End of History Illusion”. Several times I’ve found myself wondering, “OK, I’m married now, got a mortgage, got 2 dogs, don’t want kids. What else is there to look forward to in life”

With hindsight, I can see how ridiculously unimaginative and blinkered that world view was. Fortunately, for quite a while now, I’ve just been trying to focus on 1 day at a time, and not worry too much about the future. Actually having severe depression a few months ago really helped that. And mindfulness meditation also focusses the mind on the present moment, rather than the past or the future.

It sounds really fun for you as a “single person that is dating” to experiment with many more roles than an average couple might do. I like the idea of experimenting with different roles with my friends and wife. I’d suggest that experimenting with roles has very little to do with one’s relationship status. And I definitely think you’re right that it just takes a little bit more effort to try to stop ourselves defaulting to comfortable patterns with people we’ve known for a long time.

The question of monogamy vs polyamory has reduced markedly in its significance for me recently. The antidepressant medication I’ve been taking for the last 2.5 months has completely killed my sex drive. So now, my wife is more like a very special best friend than ever. I am lucky enough to have several very close friends that I can be completely honest and open with – they know almost everything about me. I also feel very lucky that my wife is not jealous of these other special friendships, some of which are with women.

I recently watched a great speech by the comedian Tim Minchin. In it, he recommends that we all frequently re-evaluate our opinions, i.e. be intellectually rigorous. Your post has made me realise that our opinion of ourselves (our roles & personality) should also be frequently challenged.

Thanks for an awesome post!

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Sarah October 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

I agree that relationship status doesn’t necessarily affect one’s ability to play with roles. I tend to relate my single-ness fairly directly with my adventuring and need for novelty (although it’s a bit chicken and egg) but I know people who are single and don’t ever play with roles or go outside their routines very much or what have you.

I love the idea of re-evaluating our personality regularly. I also think that accepting that we can’t always “define” ourselves is an important part as well

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