In response to peer pressure and the expectations of others, we often convert into actors in our own lives. How to tell the difference between acting and being our authentic selves.
“All the world’s a stage,William Shakespeare
And all the men and women merely players.”
If all the world’s a stage, in the play titled “Your Life“, the question is – are you a director or merely an actor following a script written by others?
Who Are You?
Starting in our childhood and developed throughout our lives, we create a sense of identity based on the belief of “Who I am”. This belief is based on our innate traits (personality and talents) as well as our personal experiences and influences from friends, family, peers and broader society.
For example, a person may believe themselves “intelligent” based on their genes (IQ), personal experiences (high marks in exams) and influences from others (their parents telling them how smart they are).
Having a sense of “Who I am” gives us more security in negotiating the world and interacting with others. We can tell a joke secure in the belief that we are “funny” or take charge at a meeting believing ourselves to be “capable.”
Our identities are made up of different aspects and we may choose an aspect to showcase depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Perhaps you are the chatty, extroverted friend when in a social situation, the assertive, confident lawyer when in the office, the pleasing, soothing daughter when with your parents, but the stressed, shouting parent when you’re alone with the kids.
However, we often go beyond simply showcasing different aspects of our identities to acting out false roles and hiding the undesirable parts of us. In many ways, we are merely actors in our own lives.
Actors In Our Own Lives
Here are three main ways we become actors in our own lives.
1) Playing Roles
When we play a role, we take a personality characteristic and expand it into a dominant part of our identity. We generally do this in order to (i) “win” approval, recognition or love; or (ii) avoid rejection.
For example, someone may be naturally helpful. Then, after receiving positive feedback for helping others, they expand helpfulness into the role of a rescuer – someone who is constantly helping others and rescuing them from their problems.
The problem with restricting ourselves to rigid roles is that we cease to be our authentic selves and instead become locked into fixed and unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
For example, a rescuer constantly helps others and ends up neglecting their own needs. By “helping” without limits, although they feel good about themselves, they are actually enabling others to continue bad habits. In resolving other people’s problems for them, they do not allow people to be responsible for their own problems and experience the natural consequences of their own behavior.
Examples of other common roles:
- Perfectionist: we do everything perfectly, trying to win approval from others and cover up how flawed we feel inside
- Critic: we constantly criticize others, in order to feel superior to them
- People pleaser: we do everything that others ask, in order to win their approval
- Victim: we deny our own capabilities and responsibility for ourselves, meaning we can blame others when things go wrong
- Tough Guy / Girl: we believe we don’t need anything or anyone, making us feel less vulnerable
We often play out these roles by seeking others that are playing complementary roles. For example, a victim seeks out (consciously or unconsciously) a rescuer. The victim, who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their problems, then has a rescuer to solve these problems for them. The victim gets to keep feeling helpless and the rescuer gets to feel helpful (and superior).
The reality is that we have multifaceted identities and cannot define ourselves by rigid roles. Further, in order to truly connect with others we need to feel seen and accepted for who we really are. There cannot be authentic connection when we are not being our authentic selves.
2) Our Shadow Selves
“Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.”C.G. Jung
In seeking to define ourselves through the concept of “Who Am I”, we also form a concept of “Who I am not” or “Who I do not wish (to appear) to be”.
When we define ourselves narrowly, we end up rejecting the parts of us that do not fit in our definition. We then attempt to conceal these rejected parts, relegating them to the “shadows” where they lurk in the darkness, occasionally breaking cover to embarrass or frighten us at inopportune moments.* Like the day that your normally calm workmate suddenly loses their temper for no reason and reveals the rage they’ve been denying.
It requires a lot of energy to constantly repress and hide parts of us. Further, we often end up projecting our rejected aspects onto others. That is, often the things that you like or dislike the most about other people reflect parts of yourself that you don’t want to recognize. Like how your friend who is always “selfless” has an inexplicable anger towards “selfish” people, because she does not allow herself to recognize her own (selfish) needs.
In order to be our integrated, authentic selves, we need to accept all parts of us, both the good and the bad.
* The “shadow” is a term coined by Carl Jung to describe the aspects of the personality that we reject and repress.
3) Masks We Wear
“You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.”Alan Moore
As well as disowning parts of ourselves and playing roles, we also conceal our true thoughts and feelings. At times this is a necessary part of politeness in order to not embarrass others by revealing what we really think of those new pants or dance moves. At other times it is a question of maintaining our right to privacy of our thoughts and feelings.
However, there is a difference between being polite or private and being inauthentic. When we constantly hide our true opinions and feelings in order to “fit in” with our peers or society, we are not being authentic.
Being authentic means being able to express our real thoughts or feelings without needing the approval of others. It also means being able to accept the thoughts and feelings of others, even if we don’t agree with them.
Being Our Authentic Selves
The curtains are coming down on the play of “Your Life“. You step forward to receive the applause of the audience. Taking a bow, you think to yourself “I nailed that role!” You should be happy, but for some reason you don’t feel that way. You have an empty feeling inside and even as you step forward to receive flowers and hear the pop of a bottle of champagne being opened you still don’t feel joy. Instead you find yourself wondering “But when do I get a chance to be me?”. You’re still in this thought as the lights start to fade upon the now empty seats in the audience and the play comes to an end.
You only get one opportunity to interpret the play of “Your Life“. It’s your choice how to do it. It can be a lot easier and safer to play a role that gives you approval from others. That may right for you. But it’s worth considering that you could discover the freedom of removing the mask and being yourself without playing a role. Unique, imperfect and whole.
Your audience may be smaller and you may miss out on the NY Times reviews. But it will be an audience that has come to see you for you. And they will be there despite missed lines, costume malfunctions, technical difficulties and you falling flat on your face more than once. To laugh, cry, and applaud along with you. For you.
If you do decide to direct your play in your own way, you don’t need a script to follow. You just need to learn to listen to and trust in your heart.
It’s never too late to start being yourself.
“The authentic self is soul made visible.”Sarah Ban Breathnach
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