art by Tetsuo Aoki
“Most of us play many roles throughout our lifetimes. We have learned how to shift roles, but we don’t often know how to look behind them. The roles we assume—spouse, parent, boss, nice guy, rebel, etc.—are not necessarily bad and can provide useful models to follow in unfamiliar situations. Our task is to find those parts that work for us, and those that don’t. It is like peeling the layers of an onion, and just like peeling an onion, it’s a task that can bring on a few tears.
It may be painful, for example, to acknowledge the negative in ourselves and find ways to externalize it. We all have a negative side, or potential for negativity: denying it is the most dangerous thing we can do. It’s cause for concern when some people completely deny the potentially dark side of themselves, insisting that they are not capable of strongly negative thoughts or actions. To admit we have the capacity for negativity is essential. After admitting it, we can work on and release it. And as we learn our lessons, we often strip away layers of roles to find things we’re not happy about. It doesn’t mean that who we are, our essence, is bad. It means we had a facade we didn’t recognize. If you discover you’re not a super nice person, it’s time to shed that image and be who you are, because being an extraordinarily nice person every moment of your life is being a phony-baloney. Many times the pendulum has to swing all the way to the other side (you become a grump) before it can come back to the middle point where you discover who you really are—someone who is nice out of compassion rather than someone who is giving to get.
Even more challenging is to let go of defense mechanisms that helped us survive in childhood, because once these tools are no longer needed they can turn against us. A woman learned when she was a child to isolate herself from her alcoholic father: she knew that it was the best to leave the situation and leave the room when it became overwhelming. This was the only tool a six-year-old girl could come up with when her father was drunk and yelling. It helped her survive a difficult childhood, but now that she herself is a mother, such withdrawal is harmful to her children. Tools that no longer work must be released. We must thank them and let them go. An sometimes people have to grieve for that part of them that will never be. This mother had to grieve for the normal childhood she was never granted.
Sometimes we get a lot out of these roles, but we often realize with maturity that they have a cost. At a certain point the cost becomes too much to bear. Many people are well into middle age before realizing that they have been the “forever caretaker and peacemaker” in their family. When they understand this, they’ll say that they certainly are nice, but it got pushed way out of proportion in their family. Without seeing what was happening, they took on the responsibility of making sure their parents and siblings were always happy, they solved all the fights, loaned everyone money, helped them get jobs. At some point, you may realize that the burdensome role is not you so you drop it. You’re still a nice person, but you no longer feel obligated to make sure everyone else is happy.
The reality of the world is that some relationships don’t work out; there are supposed to be disagreements and disappointments. If you feel responsible for fixing every problem, you will pay a high price because that’s an impossible task.
How will you respond to the new you?
Most of us have not committed criminal acts, but we do have to work through the darker parts of our personalities. Black and white are apparent; it’s those gray parts that we often hide and deny: the “nice” guy, the isolator, the victim, and the martyr. These are the gray parts of our shadow self. We can’t work on the deep negativity if we can’t admit that we have negative sides. If we acknowledge all of our feelings, we can become our whole selves.
You might mourn for the loss of these roles, but you’ll know you’re better off because you’re more genuinely you. Who you are is eternal; it never has and never will change.
Who we are is much more than our circumstances, whether they be great or small, though we tend to define ourselves by our circumstances. If it is a great day—if the weather’s good, the stock market is up, the car is clean and shiny, the kids get good report cards, the dinner-and-show goes well—we feel as if we are great people. If not, we feel as if we’re worthless. We move with the tide of events, some controllable, others not. But who we are is much more unchanging than that. It is not defined by this world or our roles. These are all illusions, myths that do not serve us well. Underneath all our circumstances, all our situations, is a great person. We discover our true identities and greatness by letting go of all the illusions of identity to discover our true selves.
We often look to others to define us. If others are in a bad mood, we are brought down. If others see us as being wrong, we become defensive. But who we are is beyond attack and defense. We are whole, complete, and of worth just as we are, whether we are rich or poor, old or young, receiving an Olympic gold medal, or beginning or ending a relationship. Whether at the beginning or end of life, at the height of fame or in the depths of despair, we are always the people behind our circumstances. You are what you are, not your disease, not what you do. Life is about being, not doing.”