Who do you think you are? - leading a happier more stress-free life can result from rethinking the roles you play.
by Dianne Bown-Wilson
At this time of life we tend to think we should know who we are. Heavens above, we’ve had long enough to find out, haven’t we? But for many of us, later life can be a time when we start to question whether we are still the person we thought we were, what we have achieved, and where we should direct our energy and focus in the future.
For some this return to ‘teenage angst’ is caused by a major life-changing event such as divorce, bereavement, redundancy or illness. However, for the majority, the reason why we start to ‘soul-search’ at this age is due to a combination of the ‘rainbow of roles’ we play and the changes that are now happening – both to us as individuals and to the context in which we operate.
The US acting theorist Robert Cohen summed up the significance of roles quite succinctly when he said, "We talk and act a bit differently in bed than at work, or at a bar, or at a cocktail party, or at a PTA meeting. The idea of 'just being yourself' is a total abstraction, for we are many selves and we wear many masks."
The idea of roles and masks may make you feel uncomfortable, as though it means you are being dishonest or pretending to be something you are not. But if you doubt the truth of the notion, just take a few moments to think about all the roles you might play throughout the course of a week: Are you a parent? A partner? A sibling? A neighbour? An employee? A boss? A friend? A sportsperson? A club member or volunteer…?
The list is virtually endless and different for all, but one thing is constant: through circumstance or choice every one of us is called upon to wear many, many different masks in the course of our day to day lives.
Roles and responsibilities
Each role we adopt requires us to do things in a slightly different way depending on the nature of the relationship involved and the environment in which it operates .Carole, 57, a hospital nurse with over 30 years experience sums up her own ‘role rainbow’:
“At work, I’m the life and soul of the party, I think it’s really important to cheer up the patients and also to keep up morale amongst my colleagues. It can be a very stressful job but I never let it show. So, although at work I play the role of a very cheerful, strong leader, at home I’m very different. I’m always quite quiet and thoughtful and definitely play second fiddle to my husband who is a total extravert. My children say I’m a worrier; even though they’re grown up now I find it difficult to let go and it’s still really important to me to continue to be there for them as a Mum. So I know I do far more for them than I should. My best friend says they walk all over me. But it’s fine by me, though I’d never dream of letting that happen at work.”
From this, it’s easy to see how our behaviour is shaped and various aspects of our personality come to the fore by the roles we need to adopt in different situations. Obviously this applies throughout the course of our life, but as we grow older the idea of our identity as a ‘rainbow of roles’ starts to assume a new importance because subtly, without our noticing, many of the roles which we have long taken for granted, start to shift in nature and significance.
All of our most important roles involve responsibilities of some sort and these may now be starting to change. For example, as children grow up our immediate responsibility for their well-being lessens and for many women in particular, as for Carole, this causes problems in terms of letting go of old behaviours and attitudes and adopting a new role of ‘Mum’.
Likewise, the many people who are fortunate still to have their own parents alive may now have to assume a more parental role themselves, taking control and providing care. In terms of our roles as partners or friends, we may find that although what we or others want or need has changed over the years it’s easier to continue to cling to old attitudes and behaviours that are no longer appropriate rather than face facts.
Looking in the mirror
One of the most difficult adjustments to make at this age can be the one we have to make every time we look in the mirror. Who is that who we see looking back? What happened to the person who used to be there?
Loss of looks and associated fitness and physical ability can be difficult to deal with particularly if you once relied heavily on these to define yourself. Of course it is possible – and desirable – to fight back and do all you can to keep fit and remain well-presented. But even if you resort to plastic surgery, it will only be a temporary measure, nothing will return us to the young and powerful people we once were.
Dealing with who were are now, deciding what that looks and feels like can be a difficult challenge to take on board but is well-worth the effort in terms of future happiness and serenity. As with all else at this time of life it comes from looking forward, not back, and concentrating on what’s important and good now rather than hankering after what has gone. Taking control of all the elements of who you are today and thinking though how they fit together can provide you with a great platform for a strong and confident new you for the rest of your life.
Understanding your ‘rainbow of roles’
Taking time to understand the roles you play and whether they are still appropriate to your life now can help reduce stress and conflict. These tips may help start the process:
Set aside an hour to sit in a quiet spot armed with a pen and paper.
Write a list of all the roles you play, using this article as a prompt.
Revisit your list – you’re sure to have left some off!
Grade each role (mark out of 10) in order of its importance to you now. Take into account emotional importance and practical importance. (e.g. being a parent to grown-up children may be very important emotionally, but practically requires little from you on a day-to-day basis).
Starting with your most important roles, note how these have changed over the years. If there have been no changes, is it time to make some?
Now mark (out of ten) how happy you are with each role. Again if you are marking low, you may need to think about making some changes.
Finally what roles would you like to assume, or drop, in future – how can you make this happen?