“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”

-William Shakespeare

There are masks and there are masks. We put on masks to slow the process of disease transmission— us to them, them to us. And, we put on an identity mask everyday.

In an earlier essay— Negotiating Relationships During Shelter in Place—I  explored the tension between a compliant response to the health care mandates, and the ‘lone wolf’ individualistic/rebellious response.  In the blog on children, the stress and strategies of the protective parent/guardian was explored.  Let’s take a deeper look at these masks, these roles.

As we grow up, for a lot of reasons, we assume certain roles.  Much of adolescence is devoted to trying out new ones, discarding one and trying on another, until it seems to fit.  Then we glide along in that role through adulthood.  Misfortune can hit (divorce, illness, trauma, midlife crisis, etc.)  which then can make us question— is this role Really right for me? Does it really fit?

Beginning in the 1970’s there was a lot of work in the family therapy field on how family roles play out in various contexts:  the alcoholic family (Rescuer, Persecutor, Victim), the dysfunctional family (Blamer, Distractor, Enabler, Computer), culture and ethnicity variables (Mexican, African-American, etc), gender (male/female, fluid), birth order (oldest sib vs youngest), adult children of alcoholics (The Responsible One, The Adjuster, The Placater,  The Acting Out).

I got a National Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) grant in graduate school.  We explored the roles around addictions.  I was struck with the flexibility of roles  The ‘rescuer’ can switch to ‘persecutor’ and back again.  The ‘victim’ can switch to ‘persecutor’.  It seemed to me then, and now, that there is a certain hope in that.  We are not absolutely stuck in a position.   Since then there has been an explosion in biomedical research.  We have powerful genetic and neurological pulls for certain behavior.  Got that, but still, there is an aspect of role theory that gives us great potential for change, for shifting roles.  For example, though the eternal struggle between Nature and Nurture is a delightful battle ground for social scientists, the research usually comes down to percentages:  there is a possibility/probability  given your genetic background, you will be a leader; and there is also the possibility/probability given your birth order, you will become a leader.  Kind of a crap shoot, I’d say.  One’s role is possible, perhaps probable, but not mandated. There is freedom in role choice.  Therein lies hope.  But that choice comes down to awareness of one’s role and whether we want to stay there.

Context:  after the Industrial Revolution, new roles developed.  Some were now paid, others not.  That added to the power issues between men and women: wage earner and housewife.  Throw in race.  Throw in class.  Throw in immigration status.  Throw in unemployment and the lack or benefit of ‘access.’  Some aspects of role are socially bound.  And this, of course, goes to what can we change, what we cannot, and what we have to fight for.  And against.

Some of the roles that seem to have surfaced in this pandemic and time of social crisis:

  1. The Guardian:  This is the one who is constantly checking the ‘north forty‘ to see if everything is safe.  Has the perimeter been breached?  In a covey of quail, there is one who sits on a fence post looking out for trouble, the vigilant one, the protector.  The strengths of this role include leadership, care for others, responsibility,  protectiveness. The weakness here can include a loss of empathy for other’s feelings, fear mongering, loss of self protection, and excessively controlling behavior. 
  2. The Opponent:  Here is the contrarian.  If you tell me what to do, even if it is in my interest, I’ll fight it.  Instead of- I think therefore I am, the rule is – I rebel therefore we are (thank you, Camus).  Here we may have the counter-dependent, and at worst, the oppositional personality.  If there is going to be a fight between the different people in the family, roommate, work group, it will be between The Guardian and The Opponent- ‘That’s not safe’ versus ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’  Not fun.  The strengths of this role include a critical thinking about the situation, a push toward returning to normalcy.  The weaknesses lie in knee jerk reactions, an undermining of the direction of the whole group, and inattention to potential dangers.
  3. The Isolate:  When there are so many dangerous winds blowing, some will simply retreat.  Back in the 50’s, school children were told if the school gets hit with an atom bomb, the best thing to do is to ‘duck and cover.’  Hide under your desk, or crouch down directly below the classroom window (the blast will blow the glass over you… yeah, right…). Here retreat is the solution.  Decrease in contact with friends and family as well as community connections.  The idea behind this is that one is safer out of contact with the ongoing pandemic threat and the societal crisis.  The strengths of this role include a certain self sufficiency, an effort to access one’s own resources.  The dangers are loss of support, loss of long term resilience, and depression.

There seems to be ancillary roles also:  The Placater (working to avoid conflict, people pleasing, ignoring one’s own needs); The Egoist (it’s all about me, what can I get out of this; the Chaos Creator (can’t stand calmness, stirs up anything that can be stirred up).  

The key issue here is that roles are not absolute.  They can change.  We are not stuck;  there is the opportunity for growth.  For example, families and groups (roommates, work partners)  are not static.  The group can form over years (family) or can be created spontaneously (police squad or a demonstrators’ cohort).  The point here is that as the group develops, various roles come and go as well as leadership styles. More on group development next….

If you can, stop for a bit.  Do an inventory:

  1. Does this role fit?  Is there something uncomfortable about what I’m doing…is there anxiety, guilt, shame?  A touch too much pride?
  2. Does this match up with what my dreams were when I was younger? What’s the difference?
  3. Am I drinking too much, other addictive behaviors, numbing something important?
  4. Are the conflicts I’m getting into seem ridiculous after I settle down?  (I’ve been there, done that!)

Go easy, folks.

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