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21.12. Our roles

It is challenging to discover your own roles. Even I, who have complex PTSD that makes me observe myself rather continuously from a «meta-position», have not understood until recently that to have this perspective is not very common.

I thought everyone had it that way.

Dissociation means withdrawing from the established reality and looking at it from a distance. We think deviating thoughts and have emotions other than those we show on the outside.

We do two things at once, have two positions, two opinions, two perceptions, two behaviours – one that we present to others and one that we keep to ourselves.

You can call it our inner and outer selves. Of course, most people are like that, but they probably see it only as aspects of their single, integrated personality.

For me, it's a type of dissociation. I am two personas simultaneously; an assumed «outer» role and an inner, more authentic primary role, an underlying experience of myself that I don't show to everyone.

Most of us, I reckon, are always in our outer roles. We go entirely into it. We imagine that we think and feel the way our role is expected to do.

Then we can sometimes get a glimpse of distance to ourselves.

Am I really feeling well now?

Why do I feel sad when I experience something that should be fun?

Why do I think I do not believe this?

Why does everyone say this was successful when everyone must understand it went awry?

We all have such brief glimpses of dissociation, but we quickly readjust. We allow our authentic emotions and thoughts to shine through for a short instance but immediately try to incorporate these into our primary role. Also, we often try to get everyone around us to confirm this expansion of understanding. We intensely integrate everything new and frightening into our self-image.

In short, we do what we can not to doubt our roles – the definition of ourselves. If we start doubting our role, that would be scary. We hold on to it with both hands.

The fairy tale «The Emperor's New Clothes» by H. C. Andersen is about this.

You may have thought it was a story about children's brutal honesty and adults' pretentious oblique security. Pride stands for fall. The mighty are no different from the rest. Power makes blind. Something like that?

In my eyes, it's mostly about roles.

The emperor stands there naked and believes that he is something. The child, on the other hand, has not yet developed any role but is authentically himself.

We are all kings; therefore, this adventure hits all people at all times, even those of us who are neither kings nor children anymore.

Let me bring up another example from world literature.

«Don Quixote» by Miguel Cervantes was published as early as 1605. The book is described as the first novel in history, i.e. a story that broke free from the fixed and relatively formal structure common in literature in those days. It is a parody of the stylised knight poetry of the time, which was often full of heroes, kings and shy maidens and where the form was central.

Wikipedia describes the action as follows:
He begins the story as Alonso Quijano, a landowner from a place in La Mancha, who has read too many of the knightly novels of the time. He decides to embark on an adventure as a knight.

With meticulous accuracy, he follows the golden rules of chivalry. The story is driven forward by the contrast between ideal and reality: his armour is rusty, his horse, Rocinante, is a tired old crock, his beautiful maiden, Dulcinea from Toboso, is an ordinary peasant girl and his proud armour bearer is his friend and neighbour, the farmer Sancho Panza.

A well-known example from the first part of the work is how Don Quixote confuses windmills with evil giants.
Like the naked emperor of H. C. Andersen, Don Quixote thinks he is someone important, while the reader knows better. We see the delusion that develops, and we laugh, at him, but really at ourselves.

It's interesting how Cervantes includes all aspects of life.

Don Quixote is alternately in love, terrified, excited, sceptical, etc. Everything is false notions; it's all just a role he eagerly believes in, of a knight.

We read with a fearful shudder, but gradually, we become thoughtful because we are all like that.

These two world-famous stories are about seeing oneself from the outside, seeing the Ego, and thus understanding that we are all something more, something behind the facade.

During my ten years of growing up in the Arctic, among Sami shamans and strict Laestadians, a graphic print was hanging out in the windbreak in our municipal home. It was where you tried to wriggle out of the multiple layers of protecting clothes and put your back to the door to prevent the snowstorm from occupying the living room.

The lithograph was a reproduction of Picasso's portrayal of Don Quixote, namely this:

Suddenly one day, I understood the meaning. Truth be told, I felt a shiver down my spine. Are all such incidents coincidences?

I will answer the question, in the last chapter1.

To cope with the world's complexity, we create many roles, often dozens.

We put on the costume and demeanour of a project manager at work, one who loves to cycle long distances, the grandson of a hundred-year-old grandmother, the mother of two girls, the fearless goalkeeper on the handball team, the one who dangles after his wife when she shops, the one who has the wildest ideas, the one who always stands up for others, etc.

You play loads of roles if you think about it. Many of them are pretty contradictory. The fearless goalkeeper and mom with a fear of heights can be difficult to integrate into the same person. It requires an explanation, an extra round of rationale.

Our roles can become too divergent. Things can happen to us or around us that make it impossible to integrate these thoughts and emotions that our roles have with «who we are», or – in reality – who we are trying to believe we are, the main character.

Sometimes it just does not work, and then we experience conflict and stress, usually without a clue to the cause.

You may be the toughest amateur goalkeeper in town, but if a bus collides and there are dead people on the road, you are no longer so tough.

You have no role that fits. You become paralysed. You experience the situation as unreal. You feel that you are no longer yourself.

That is all dissociation.

Roles are more than external characters. They are aspects of our psychology, parts of ourselves.

Part of you is trying to stay safe by blending in. Another try to become popular by being outgoing. A third attempt to show how smart you are. How empathetic. Tough. Funny. Curious. Clever.

Everything you want to be and everything you do not want to be.

You create roles – strategies – to achieve what you want. Often you are not aware of it. Usually, it happens without you reflecting on it, i.e. unconsciously.

That is how we do it.

We are all intensely occupied with these adaptations. It is demanding, so while we are in the process of adjusting, we're unable to have any external perspective on ourselves. Instead, we try to integrate the new into the old.

I call it normalcy, a fear-based ranking and definition of ourselves relative to our surroundings. Much of our lives are about roles and maintaining normalcy.

We learn the roles through play. We go to the theatre, opera and cinema to experience how other people struggle and adjust. We learn from media, sports, fashion, friends and social gatherings. We create roles in the workplace, school and everywhere else in society. We see ourselves as churchgoers, outdoor people, singers, dog owners, good or bad speakers, men who test the feminine in themselves and vice versa.

But we do not see ourselves.

Some of the roles are visible on the outside but far from all. When it comes to the «inner roles», we usually have no idea what we are doing; it happens unconsciously.

These roles were often created by strong, sometimes traumatic events and experiences. You learned that you have to lie low when your father is angry. You learned that you have to be outgoing to get your needed attention.

Some needs are essential, and everyone has them. But we have all also experienced individual events that have forced us to develop distinctive, unique strategies – roles that may be similar to other's but at the same time highly personal.

My, and now I'm talking about myself personally – my internal observer, the controller inside me who is always in intense activity to keep me safe – is the main character, my authentic self who is always awake and conscious because I experienced being insecure as a child.

Like everyone else, I create supporting roles to cope with all kinds of challenges, but I do not disappear into them as others do automatically and without reflection.

That said, most people are entirely or primarily occupied by their role and forget everything else, at least for the moment. They want it that way. To lose control of their role is «dangerous».

Instead of looking at our roles from our authentic selves, we try to integrate them into an overall understanding of who we are.

We struggle, bully, send controlling glances at others, ponder and adjust. The others do the same. We sharpen each other and grind ourselves down to a minimum common denominator, a consensus on what is acceptable, within the norm, in line with normality.

Don't you believe me?

I claim that you are not aware of this.

Sometimes, especially if your current role appears too bizarre, you are aware of it, but usually not.

Let me illustrate how this goes in practice.

As I mentioned, I ride on my bike almost daily for a couple of hours. I struggle my way around Oslo, uphill and downhill, on a toothpaste green bike with a buck handlebar.

I am clearly visible when I come rushing with my hundred kilos, in a yellow cycling jacket, in rain and snow with five layers of clothing, flashing lights, spiked tires and electric heating elements in the shoes.

People see me, of course, and I often stand out because I probably appear to be a reasonably experienced, almost professional type compared to most riders. So what happens?

People see me, but it's not me they see. They see a role.

They think that there comes someone who «masters cycling». So, they look, not at me, but my shoes!

For a long time, I did not understand why my worn shoes were so interesting, but then I finally realised that it was not the shoes they were looking at but the factory logo of the bike that is placed just above the pedals.

People want to know which brand a guy like me uses. They want to know what it takes to be like me and gain my «status». What can they buy to compete with others and promote themselves as cyclists?

That is how I believe they are thinking.

It doesn't strike them that the make of the bike is relatively insignificant for my «impressive» appearance. They do not know that there is a lifetime of experience behind my skills, that the parts on the bike must be replaced continuously, that the clothing is carefully adjusted to the conditions and that I have memorised just about every traffic light I pass.

They are looking for a shortcut to status; they want to buy their way to the top.

They want to know how they can get into my role as a cyclist with the least possible effort.

Cool cars, clothes, makeup, expensive food, tough dogs, beautiful wives, well-heeled lovers, fashionable destinations, tickets to the most attractive events, the latest and greatest mobile, powerful friends.

It's a role circus.

We all, to a greater or lesser degree, keep doing this, some more than others.

If you are not materialistic, you can still adorn yourself with other things, other friends, other activities, other expressions to show that you are attractive – such as being polite, kind, funny, engaging, submissive, concerned with the soul etc.

This is not something we can stop since we are constantly in countless relationships with our surroundings and must adjust our position and self-image continuously.

But we do not see ourselves.

The roles overshadow our true identity.

In my quiet mind, I thank all the extreme «originals», all those who fail to «behave», all those who are so «gone» that they do not realise how gone they are, all who have given up fighting for status, who have resigned and instead feed the birds in the park and talk to the kids and are fine.


Honour be to those at the bottom, the least, the last.

To me, these are the first.

My dream, my one, big dream in this life – is to be with people who understand this thing about roles and authenticity, who experience it.

I want to spend time and give my love and creativity to people who know their authentic selves and understand when they are in a role or combination of roles.

My dream is to be with others who have it like me, who are aware of their own awareness.

That was the thing with Alma.
It has often been my dream
To live with one who wasn't there.
Neil Young: Will to loveWhen you in your life have finally understood your roles and discovered the authentic self behind them, it is time for exercises and trials.

Exercises for those who want to develop as part of a group – which can be a slow affair, for social groups are the hotbed of roles.

Then it is those of us who must or will remove ourselves from social life entirely.

We can't find our soul kins, or we experience that all social activity involves creating roles. We can no longer play roles. Then isolation is the answer, not as something principled or desired, but as a practical, necessary solution.