Wife: "You have to forgive my husband for what he said last night. He wasn't himself."
Bogart: " Oh...really? ..Who was he?"
Indeed. Who are we when we throw our verbal spoons onto the floor? Are they really accidents?
Are we, in the midst of an evening ending in argument, the same person we were at the beginning of the evening when we were looking forward to a romantic dinner?
Of course we are. But at the beginning of the evening we were conscious and attentive….in the midst of a disagreement we slip into reactivity. And, if we perceive that we were hasty, or wrong, or just want to make up, we say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t being myself.”
While it’s a stretch to say I’ve described three different people, it’s on target to say I’ve described three different situations and within those situations, three different roles: romantic lover, angry antagonist, and humble apologist.
The funny truth is, as the old saying goes: there is more to us than meets the eye. More than meets the eye of our loved ones or colleagues, and certainly much more than meets our own eye when we and the bathroom mirror face off each morning.
I often end my e-mail messages with this phrase: we are verbs, dressed as nouns.
What is that supposed to mean?
We are always in process…we are always changing to meet the next moment. In the language of Psychodrama: we are always in role, and our roles are always changing. The continual question in each moment is what “kind” of role will I slide into in the face of something new and unexpected: will it be aggressive,defensive, fearful, or open to the experience?
Our roles have to change to meet each situation as it evolves. If the person sitting next to me on the metro suddenly slumps into a stupor I will have to leave my role as a leisurely observer of the people around me and move rapidly into something else.
Fortunately, most of our encounters are not as dramatically demanding. Ordinarily we have some time to become aware, and thoughtful about presenting ourselves, but most of the time we are on automatic pilot. In Skinner’s terms, stimulus and response; in the language I will use today, in scripted response.
But this is not pretense. I am not talking about deliberate deception; in fact I am not talking about deception at all. We are who we are, and become who we will become via learning new roles.
Understanding our behavior through the language of roles gives us a way to manage our behavior because it allows us to begin to re-write the script that too often dominates us.
How does it happen that our script dominates us? It seems that what we learn earliest is what we turn to under stress. A behavioral experiment I read of a long time ago has stayed with me for obvious reasons. It speaks to learning new things and turning away from them.
In the experiment a number of, as I remember it, college age students were taught a complex way to tie a certain kind of knot.
When they had mastered the techniques they could tie the knot in about two minutes. Later on they were taught another, much simpler way to tie the same knot, a way that when mastered, would take them about thirty seconds to tie.
You know what came next. One by one the students were invited into a room and told to tie the knot as quickly as they could. And, one by one, the overwhelming majority tied the knot the way they had learned first.