If you were a passenger on an aeroplane at risk of going down, which role would you take as the potential disaster unfolds?
I asked this question to one of my clients who was stressed, burnt out and exhausted.
She answered what I had expected;
“I would take the role of chief air hostess, running to all the passengers to check if they had their seatbelts on.”
No surprise there, since she’s unable to delegate at work, and spends her time micromanaging her personal and professional life, yet feels completely burnt out in the process.
Ask yourself the same question if the scenario above were to occur.
Would you be the pilot, the air hostess, cabin crew, the person praying for help or the passenger sitting down on their seat awaiting their fate?
I ask this, because how we do one thing is how we do everything, and getting clarity on the role you automatically take when facing challenging situations makes all the difference.
You see, there’s a belief that if you want to make a change in your life, this can be done by superficially changing some of the external components of it.
So you change jobs, partners, country, living arrangements and a multitude of external factors, but in fact, wherever you go, you carry the same person with you. The same behaviours, habits, routines all played out, albeit in a different environment.
Because who we show up as is often a ‘persona’ we created many years ago.
Let’s cast our minds back to where it all started.
We were born simple, pure, uncomplicated (yes I know it seems absurd to imagine)and as we emerge from the womb, we are unleashed, unedited and relish any mode of exploration.
Then a moment in time is experienced which we interpret as ‘unsafe’ and in order to feel okay, you lock in a particular role, a false persona in order to feel accepted by those around you.
And hey presto, this is how we magically transform from the funny, cheeky, excitable and playful child, into a diluted version of who we used to be. Then we get stuck in this and our families can become unconsciously and innocently complicit in this undertaking.
It seems completely appropriate when you’re a child, as you need to feel a sense of safety from adult forces. But forty years later, acting out a role which has gone well past its sell-by date seems ludicrous.
But most of us are familiar with the different roles since we’ve spent a lifetime perfecting them with military precision.
It could be that of victim, saviour, peacemaker, scapegoat, carer, people pleaser, tough, disruptive, attention-seeking, and a multitude of others.
Unless you’re a hermit or lone wolf living in separation from the rest of world in the outer Hebrides, you will be forced to air out this persona on a daily and even hourly basis with other human beings.
This role rises up with a partner, children, family, friends, but the most interesting way of observing this is when you’re part of a group.
I used to facilitate therapy groups with teams a few years ago and I would notice certain members in the group immediately take on either a parental or a childlike role within this. It was absolutely fascinating to observe a group of accomplished professionals so fixated on protecting their made-up personas.
These roles aren’t negative or bad, except we need to know what they are, as they can get in the way of functioning to our highest state. It masks our true personality, strengths, qualities and potential because we’re too busy playing a role we created many decades ago, often out of fear rather than strength.
We hang onto this for dear life and not dare ask ourselves who we would be without it.
How can you walk away from an acting role you’ve dominated since childhood?
It’s like an actor stepping away from their Oscar-nominated movie where they were the main part. The prospect is terrifying.
It’s no surprise that Kit Harington from Game of Thrones checked himself into rehab when the series reached its conclusion. He had been hit so hard by the end of his career-defining franchise that he turned to rehab. He had even married his co-star in the series.
It’s no different to the way we envision stepping out of the role we’ve adopted for decades.
Just as Kit Harington might not have known who he is without his Game of Thrones character, we don’t either.
Because we don’t know who we are without the persona we constructed.
The role we made up decades ago became the barometer we used to determine who our friends will be, who we marry and what type of work we decide to pursue.
It’s all tied up.
So it’s not just stepping away from this persona, but from all that arose through it. This was then supported by family and friends as they only know how to interact with you whilst you’re playing that role.
What if you were to take just one step out of it?
Could you be more fun, spontaneous, arty, messy, unleashed, relaxed if you were to adopt a more authentic part of you than the one that made you feel safe all those years ago?
When going back to the aeroplane story at the beginning of this article, I asked this client;
“If instead of being the chief air hostess, what if you were the passenger on the airline, what would that be like?”
She drew a huge breath as the concept of her being able to make a choice dawned on her.
“You mean I can be the passenger?” she asked surprised
“You can be whoever you want to be. What would that be like?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’ve ever allowed myself to be a passenger in life, wow it would be so good to take a back step for a change.”
How groundbreaking that we can choose the role we take on, we don’t have a fixed personality, it is malleable to change.
Because a ‘made up’ persona is not ever set in stone.
Three weeks after our conversation, my client decided to cut down her hours at work, redo the shed in her home into a creative arts studio and start nurturing her creative talents.
It had taken her ten years working full time with adults with complex issues, to decide she was done with looking after others, she wanted to work less, enjoy life and nurture her creativity. She was excited and more relaxed than I had ever seen her.
The insight she had in our conversation led her to understand that she was not stuck into a role and could choose another way of being. Experimenting with what this would be like and trying it on for size.
I can resonate with this so strongly, as I grew up in the south of Spain with the concept of being a good girl, behaving like a lady, always being polite, humble, well mannered, structured, not drawing too much attention to myself. This is the role I adopted to perfection.
Holding onto those beliefs and expectations led me to make decisions that only fit in with that mould. Even after my second divorce, I continued to keep trying to do what good girls do. I re-married, tried to be the unassuming, traditional housewife and mother to my kids.
Except that was not me at all.
As I began to explore who I was as a woman, I began to strip away the shackles, the beliefs that were never my own, the roles and responsibilities that I unconsciously took on as a way of gaining approval and validation.
I started to create my own version of motherhood that wasn’t dutiful, responsible and serious, instead, it was full of love, fun, unleashed, expressive and dynamic. My daughters didn’t know what hit them, as they began to see the real me become expressed.
I love it when my daughters utter “Mum, I never imagined that someone like you would be doing this!”
The ‘You’ they refer to was the false persona they saw for the first 20 years of their life, as I desperately tried to fit in with the mould I had constructed in my early years.
And what a gift for them, that I can now model this so they’re free to do the same. I can’t think of a better legacy to leave them.
As we grow out of our child-like states and remove the shackles that hold us back, the roles and responsibilities we adopted can then start to fall away. Not in a manner that feels forced, but in one which feels organic and effortless.
Once we understand that our personalities are not fixed into roles, but malleable and changeable, we can focus on developing the ones which serve us to reach for what we want.
If you liked this article, you can read more chapters like these in my latest book ‘Look Inside: Stop Seeking Start Living’ available now on Amazon.
If you want to connect with me to share insights from this article, send an e-mail to [email protected]