Adam Blatner, M.D.

(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 forms.

Mature Approaches

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.

Self-expression and Catharsis: 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.


Idealization 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.

Devaluation 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.

Regression 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 inner equilibrium.

Identification: 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!

Dis-identification: 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.

Incorporation: 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.

Internalization: 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 me."


Suppression: 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." 

Repression: 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."

Denial: 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."

Dissociation: 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 of stress:

De-realization: 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!"

De-personalization: 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.

Reaction-formation. 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."

Counter-phobic: 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'??"

Undoing: If 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.

Compensation. 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 I am?"

Identification 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

Displacement 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?

Projection: It's not me who's feeling these feelings, it's you!  Putting your own disowned feelings onto others, generally mixed with rationalization.

Turning Against the Self. 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.")

Conversion: 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.

Neurasthenia: 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."

Hypochondriasis. (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!"

Acting-Out: 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

Rationalization 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."

Fantasy, Daydreaming, 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."

Confabulation: 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.