(Posted April 11, 2005--Re-Posted October 1, 2009) (This is also a supplement to the series on Psychological Literacy and Self-Awareness
Role dynamics is modified
mixture of the applied role theory of social role theory and the
applied role theory of Dr. J. L. Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama.
The idea is simple: Think and talk about situations as if they were
scenes in a play, the different parts being played by actors. This can
even help people understand the workings of the mind, if you imagine
the different parts or roles played to have certain words, phrases,
expressing desires, warnings, or various types of self-talk.
Freud described the ways the "ego" used "defense mechanisms" to
maintain a kind of emotional stability. Others talk of "adjustive
techniques." Eric Berne and his followers in Transactional Analysis
talked about "games people play," and these include both interpersonal
games and intra-psychic maneuvers--the way one talks oneself into some
symbolic compromise and out of a state of mild anxiety. Most of these
defense mechanisms are learned and maintained unconsciously. However,
by learning what they are and how they work, their exercise can be made
more conscious, and in light of present awareness, modified accordingly
so that they don't interfere with an optimal development in the service
of responsibility, compassion, and wisdom.
It should be noted that some of these maneuvers are relatively mature
and conscious, and it is good to learn to use a these more consciously,
while noticing and resisting the temptation to use the more primitive
Humor: The world is full of paradoxes, inconsistencies, and the like.
One of the more common of these is the fact that you can be competent,
noble, and mature in many ways, while occasionally lapsing into the
opposite qualities. The childish and natural tendency is to
overgeneralize and so it feels quite odd that one should claim to
deserve dignity and respect while not infrequently being so foolish.
Self-deprecating humor can break the tension, and it's somewhat
realistic. In role dynamics, this would be the role of the joker,
comedian, humorist, enjoying the full range of satire, farce, dry
humor, puns, and so forth.
Of course, anything, even somewhat good on the whole, can also be done
foolishly, semi-consciously, indiscriminately, overdone, and so forth.
But in general, humor is relatively more mature than some of the ones
further on in this paper.
Sublimation is another healthy coping response, especially if it's done
with a modicum of consciousness. This is taking the anger you feel
about the world falling apart and focusing it on some worthy social or
political cause; taking the grief about the death of someone close and
using it to inspire poetry, music, or supporting a medical research
project; or in some other way using the deep feelings in life to be
channeled into something more sublime rather than more foolish.
In terms of role dynamics, the idea here is to recognize that life
consists of developing a broader array of healthy outlets, genuine
interests, helpful or artistic modes of expression, interesting roles
that channel the feelings that may not otherwise be able to be resolved
at the level of merely thinking rationally or talking it out.
: On the other hand, there are other situations in
which the role of the speaker or writer is most adaptive. Just talking
about a situation, expressing the feelings openly, seeing a drama or
hearing a story where these themes are addressed, crying or griping
together–these also help to cope.
These mature approaches require a measure of role creativity and are
too broad to be described as a single voice or dynamic. The following
maneuvers, though, may be imagined as a character in a play.
happens when you see certain virtues in a person and based on that,
over-generalizing, assuming and attributing to that person additional
virtues not actually demonstrated. The baseball hero who is used in an
advertisement to sell cars, as if his skill on the diamond had anything
to do with his discrimination in knowing which car is better. The play
character might be a child-like fool saying, "Oh, you're so
wonderful! Anything you say must be right!" The attraction here
is that it's easy, simple, either-or. The actuality, that one must
continue to exercise discrimination even with one's heros and apparent
enemies, requires discipline and a degree of effort.
is its opposite. A person is shown to have a fault, and it therefore
follows that anything that person has done or advocated is
correspondingly sullied. How can a politician who has a mistress ever
advocate a policy that is intelligent? The role is some contemptuous
person, perhaps an eleven year old whose temporary source of
frustration or challenge is dismissed with some simplistic cliche,
"That sucks." There is no sense of obligation to see if there might be
any validity to the other's position. The subliminal stance is that an
easy discounting is an accurate assessment–thus, it is a form of
stupidity, defined as the illusion that what is known is sufficient.
is the tendency of the mind when stressed or frustrated to
shift from more rational, mature modes to more childish modes of
thinking and reacting. In role terms, just imagine that many of the
moves being mentioned in this paper are expressions of an inner child
role, but at that level, oddly convincing, because they maintain the
: Associating an idea, image, thought, belief, emotion,
etc. with the sense of self: I "am" that. Seeing something
admirable or high status, the character in the play points and says,
"I'm like him!" Being a fan of the model, liking him, feeling
liked by him, included in his entourage, these and other forms all
enjoy the benefits of this maneuver. To some degree, identification pervades all of life, and isn't
necessarily immature. It's just helpful to become aware of the many
forms of this maneuver. Identifying with your possessions, for example,
tends to limit your capacity to recognize other dimensions of life,
such as relationships or spirituality. It's also useful to learn the art of dis-identification
. In part, this is what Buddhism is about!
Disowning qualities, imagining that there are none of those elements
within the sphere of the "self." They become, as it were, "not-me."
Carl Jung called this tendency to consider certain qualities
incompatible with oneself, to think oneself incapable of being cruel,
spiteful, or other devalued ideas, the "Shadow" archetype. The
character in the play says firmly and repeatedly, "Isn't that terrible.
I'm not like that!" then shakes his head dramatically. The point is to
learn how to choose when and about what to identify or dis-identify.
Taking in some quality or group of attitudes and/or behaviors
completely, and making it part of oneself. The character in the play
struts like a king, and feels royal. This maneuver is a little more
generalized than the next, and operates on a level that's a bit more
primitive. The character on the stage, mourning the loss of a friend
who died of a brain tumor, develops headaches.
Taking in selected more useful or positive parts, not the whole. It's
even more effective when it can be done with some conscious awareness
and discrimination. The character says in a psychodramatic encounter
with the relative who has died, "You have reminded me to appreciate
nature (or some other quality) and when I'm in nature, you will be with
Putting something out of your mind. It's relatively conscious mature,
and commonly employed. It's actually necessary, because we can't be
thinking actively about all the problems or threats in our life all the
time. So we put things on the back burner, so to speak. "I'm not
going to think about that now."
Excluding a thought or feeling from consciousness, and excluding the
excluding also–so the activity itself is unconscious. This is like
suppression, only it's done more strongly and unconsciously. Because of
this, repression is more immature and problematic, because occasions
arise when we might need to gain access to this information in order to
creatively adapt. "I don't know what you're talking about! I never
thought anything like it."
Excluding a perception or awareness of an external situation from
consciousness. Sort of like repression, but aimed out the objective
reality. "It just didn't happen."
One part of your mind really loses touch with what another role, part
of yourself, is feeling, thinking, doing. These different parts operate
seemingly autonomously, without any integrating awareness or
coordination. Imagine two different players with almost opposing
characteristics coming onto the stage of the mind, pushing the other
offstage. "I'm sexy. Play with me." And later, "I'm demure,
chaste and modest. Let's not get personal."
More Subtle Compartmentalizations
While repression, denial and dissociation are frequently imagined as
rather extreme avoidances of reality, in fact they often operate in a
more subtle, low-grade, and pervasive fashion. It's interesting that
people can function pretty normally while entertaining a fair component
of all these activities going on unconsciously.
There are also mental maneuvers through which equilibrium is achieved
by disconnecting the sense of reality from an experience: Commonly
experienced in dreams, the mind can also use these "buffers" in times
Making the event part of a sense of dream-like-ness, somehow, this
episode isn't really real. The role announces, often perhaps just
in the form of a voice offstage: Don't listen, it's not happening." I'm
reminded of the episode in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy catches a
glimpse of the Wizard manning the controls, he notices her noticing,
and speaks into the speaker-amplifier, "Pay no attention to that man
behind the curtain!"
A variation; the event is experienced as bit more real, but still
it doesn't have a full impact. The voice whispers, "It isn't you it's
happening to. You're not really here."
Isolation of affect
Something happens that would ordinarily evoke feelings of fear, anger,
disgust, sadness, etc., but somehow, these feelings are disconnected. A
kind of abstract awareness that some event has transpired can exist but
the person is curiously numb. Common in the aftermath of news of a
sudden death, for example. The role says, perhaps, "I'm just
dealing with the facts," asserting a business-like identity, ignoring
the fact that the subject matter may involve horrific emotional
implications. Soldiers and astronauts cultivate this role.
Another way this role operates quite pervasively at the subconscious
level is the whispered mantra, "I don't care." Indeed, a certain amount
of weaving of this maneuver into life is probably optimally adaptive,
especially if it's done in a mild and balanced fashion, and
consciously. It's the habit of employing it unconsciously and
pervasively that can become a problem.
Saying something forcefully to yourself, or imagining a preferred
reality, often is used to counter feelings of vulnerability and other
disturbing types of awareness. Here the inner voice repeats more loudly
in the mind.
Simply affirming the exact opposite, and acting as if the opposite were
true. Fearing becoming weak, one postures and behaves as if one were
powerful. Fearing being dirty, one becomes a cleanliness freak. Fearing
being out of control, one becomes a control freak. And so forth.
There's a children's song that goes, "I'm not small, I'm so small, I
can carry the world on my back."
These maneuvers are symbolic expressions of courage to deny one's fear,
"proving," as it were, that one isn't a "scaredy-cat." Jumping off the
barn on a dare is an example. Another classical example of this
maneuver was the character of Marty McFly of the Back to the Future
movie series, who always compounded his problems by jumping in to a
confrontation or a test of foolhardy courage when provoked with a
"What's the matter? Are you ‘chicken'??"
something bad happens, doing something to symbolically "prove" that it
hasn't happened, or "un-do" what has happened. If you've hurt someone,
doing something good may seem to make up for it. This is a bit more
unconscious and primitive than really trying to make amends, seeing
what can be done to repair a mistake. Sometimes it is applied in
combination with denial (as noted above.) A common maneuver, this
drives many repetition compulsions, as if to say, "There must be some
way of getting it right," even if the event is in the past. Prodding
oneself with obsessive guilt–"If only I had pressed the doctor to see
him a day earlier"-- also serves this symbolic value: Although it seems
like self-torture, the pay-off is a secret fantasy that it wouldn't
have turned out badly, and in the mind, the past can be present, so it
isn't turning out badly, and it won't turn out badly.
If weak at one thing, trying to be strong in another way. Again, if
done consciously, this can be a very life-affirming and adaptive
approach. But some folks do it crudely and subconsciously, and it can
miss the point. The character says, "Well, I may be incompetent in my
job, but, hey, aren't I cute? Aren't you impressed by how well-dressed
with the Aggressor
. To avoid feelings of weakness
associated with having been bullied or abused, the humiliation is
repressed and the person engages in behaviors that offer a masking
illusion of power, such as by bullying other people. I'm reminded of a
darkly amusing poster in the early 1970s that showed a brute of a man
saying, "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
I fear no evil, because (snarl) I'm the meanest son-of-a-b****
here in this valley!"
Shifting the Focus
involves shifting the proper target of some feeling, usually anger,
from what is perceived to be too dangerous for actual expression. Thus,
a fellow may "take out" his anger at his boss by becoming enraged at
his pet dog laying across the entryway when he comes home from work; or
being keyed up with sexual frustration with his wife and afraid to talk
about it with her, he grossly overreacts to some misbehavior of his
kid. Most primitively, it's stubbing your toe on the table and then
knocking the table over. The role here might be a guy who's just
mislaid his keys and looks up and copes with his shame by yelling at
you, "What are you looking at?
It's not me
these feelings, it's you! Putting your own disowned feelings onto
others, generally mixed with rationalization.
. Some folks create an illusion of the self as pitiful
or deserving of guilt. This is a protective device, akin to the idea of
not caring so one won't be disappointed. If one admits (and overdoes
it) about how one is bad, worthless, the lowliest of the low, it's
somehow more protected than the feeling of vulnerability if someone
else were to be harshly critical. The character on the stage
says, "Oh I'm so wretched. You should just hate me!" (I hope
you'll say, "There, there.")
Tensions and conflicts are tied up with bodily feelings of tension. The
feeling of wanting to physically attack but afraid to do so may be
expressed in an unconscious compromise: The arm or hand becomes
paralyzed or numb. The fear of wanting to run away may result in a
psychogenic paralysis of the legs. These various disorders and many
variations are more common than generally realized. This one is
more difficult to imagine as a role, but picture an inner puppeteer
cutting a string here and there to symbolically express a feeling,
like, "I want to kill you but I can't," or "I am crippled, it's not my
fault I didn't jump in front of that guy shooting at my best
friend." This is a not-uncommon dynamic in people coping with the
trauma of wartime experiences, horrible enough so they can't be easily
processed on the conscious level.
The tensions inherent in a conflict are expressed as a deep feeling of
fatigue, tiredness. This was a very common condition about a hundred
and twenty years ago, and still operates today in more subtle
forms. "Oh, I'm just to sleepy to deal with this."
(or "somatization") The deep perception that "something is wrong" can
come out not only as more neurotic symptoms, ranging from
obsessive-compulsive disorder to depression, but also as an awareness
of feelings of dysfunction in various body parts, even if no actual
disease processes can be discerned by a physician. Heartache can be
interpreted as pain, incipient heart attack. Anxiety can similarly be
experienced as a disease of the heart or lungs, a sense of
breathlessness. The character waves at his face as if to say,
"boy, it's hot in here!"
In a very different direction, one unconsciously creates a situation in
which one can symbolically satisfy a certain desire while the person
can claim to be innocent of any hostile or otherwise unworthy
intention. For example, a teenager who expresses her desires for
independence while maintaining an illusion of innocence may set herself
up to get pregnant. The characters on the stage just get mindless,
caught up in the excitement or drama of the moment, without much
reflection: I guess most folks in soap operas and situation comedies
are just subtly acting-out.
Alterations in Thinking
is the laying over of an action done for less worthy motives with a
self-convincing ideology, excuse, explanation that seems
reasonable. It isn't reasoning so much as using specious
reasoning retroactively. "I hit him because he was mean."
, and also preoccupation with beliefs and stories
that are cleverly blended with ordinary awakening. While not fully
delusional in the same way that people with severe mental illness
suffer from, it is amazing how pervasive is the way folks can sustain
belief in all manner of things that have little evidence to support
those beliefs, or even in the face of evidence against those
beliefs. The character says, "Hm? Oh? What? Oh, nothing," and at
another level, "Come into my world where nice things are happening."
Faced with a challenge to explain some situation, people can
instinctively, unconsciously, and with all sincerity, manufacture a
coherent story that seems to account for certain imagined
experiences. The unconscious imagination is quite remarkably
skilled at this and practices all the times in dreams, almost
instantaneously weaving a seemingly coherent and believable situation
out of realistically impossible or inconsistent precursors.
"Sure, I remember you, you were at the get-together the other day."
These and other maneuvers, blending in from other deceptive
interpersonal manipulations and games people play, as Eric Berne called
them, along with cultural forms of popular deception, as expressed in
advertising and political propaganda, all express the mind's natural
capacity to operate on multiple levels simultaneously. People can
maintain a moderate level of coping with reality, associated with the
illusion that they are predominantly if not completely rational beings.
Meanwhile, they can also sustain the operation of scores of subtle
inner dramas, reacting, hoping, anticipating, worrying, bracing
themselves for an attack or disappointment, giving up even before
they've lost, and in other ways playing out a repertoire of little
patterns learned in early life. The goal is to optimize self-esteem or
at least a sense of coherence and control, to avoid the sharp pangs of
shame that too easily are magnified into humiliation, and to satisfy a
host of competing desires. Rarely is self-understanding and more
rational self-management of this circus of the mind one of those
desires, but it is hoped that in the coming years it will become a
fairly basic norm of personal development.
Making psychology more accessible and user friendly, using a language
that is more understandable, offers tools for the amplification of the
function of consciousness and self-reflection in everyday life.
Learning the variety of forms of self-deception is one component of
this form of "psychological literacy," and role dynamics is one set of
such tools that facilitates this learning.