The changing roles we play

The changing roles we play

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 6, December 2015/January 2016.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 6, December 2015/January 2016.

by Kim Schneiderman — 

Some authors start out thinking they know where a story is going to go, only to discover that the main character’s natural unfolding takes the plot somewhere else. Suddenly, it is as if the protagonist’s drive and need for expression usurp the author, and the writer cannot help but move in the direction that the protagonist insists on going. The challenge is, of course, being able to let go.

The same is true in real life. Once you have a sense of where your character arc is headed, you might realize that if you continue following the current trajectory, you will not end up where you want to be. When this happens, you need to be willing to let go of the attachment to who you think you are in order to step into the person — or, in this case, the character — you were meant to become.

For example, you may be a marketing professional with an interest in photography. And you may have a sense that your character arc involves developing your creative side by taking a digital photography class.

But you might not expect where this will lead. Perhaps the photography teacher, seeing “real talent,” invites you on a photography expedition to the Galapagos and, on this trip, you meet your soul mate who invites you to live with him in Santa Fe, where you become a wife, stepmother and a freelance photographer who occasionally shows in galleries. Of course, this is not what you ever envisioned; it is actually better.

Letting go of who you are and how you expect your narrative to read is sometimes easier said than done. Once you have built a world around the people, activities, practices and roles that define you, it can be very difficult to disengage when circumstances change, even for the better. But by closely examining the roles you play, you can determine whether they support or undermine your flourishing.

One of the challenges of being human is giving everything we have to the characters we are playing, knowing that eventually we may have to let go of the roles we think define us. In fact, once you create your character sketch, you may notice that your protagonist fits and probably embraces a number of roles, such as spouse, parent, daughter and artist.

Some roles we pursue eagerly because they provide us with a sense of identity, self-esteem and perhaps a venerated status, like doctors or lawyers. We choose these roles consciously and unconsciously, and for both altruistic and self-serving reasons, e.g., to express our unique skills and talents, to improve our financial prospects, to fulfill societal expectations, to win others’ admiration and sometimes to put our values into action.

Hence, roles provide a sense of purpose, love, security, status or a steady paycheck, while suggesting certain competencies and intrinsic values, for example, that research scientists are intelligent and mothers are nurturing.

Over the course of the story, we are constantly adding roles, which themselves evolve. For example, we all begin as children, but we may also become a spouse and a parent. With each addition, the previous roles can shift in nature.

Some roles can feel intrinsic to our identity, and we can have a hard time letting them go or making necessary adjustments when they change. Consider your own story. When has this happened with you? Was it when you realized that you were no longer a child and needed to support yourself financially or was it the moment your youngest child left for college? Such transitions can feel daunting.

Yet when we confuse the essence of who we are with the roles we are playing, we run the risk of getting lost when life circumstances change, as they do all the time. People often seek counseling when the roles they identify with are threatened, changing or taken from them.

Sometimes these transitions are welcome, despite some ambivalence, and people simply require time to become acclimated to their new status, such as becoming parents, becoming empty nesters or when retirement arrives. More difficult to accept are lost roles due to tragedy or other difficulties — divorce, unemployment, the death of a loved one.

When people take charge of their narratives and become the protagonists of their own stories, I encourage them to regard these role transitions as important parts of every narrative — it is what characters in stories do. Our stories are constantly changing, and our roles along with them. The important thing to remember is that we do not cease to exist simply because the roles we thought defined us are no longer relevant.


Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life. She counsels in private practice, teaches as a professor and guest lecturer, writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 6, December 2015/January 2016.

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