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Kathy Whelan

Posted on November 06, 2022

I was shocked when I learned of British actor Hugh Bonneville’s new film role. As Downton Abbey’s Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, Bonneville played a generous, fair-minded patriarch who could scarcely be imagined any other way. And yet, in the Netflix thriller I Came By, he is now a serial killer.

Bonneville is hardly the first actor to self-redefine. Anne Hathaway, Tom Hanks and Matthew McConaughey are among many who successfully avoided being branded for life by roles they considered limiting. At the risk of audience disapproval, they branched out.

Actors are not the only ones to feel constrained in this way. We are all typecast, to some extent, by roles we play in various areas of our lives. And often we don’t reconsider these role assignments until they start rubbing us the wrong way like an ill-fitting shoe. Unlike young children who try on different roles during pretend play, we adults tend to behave in keeping with the role we’ve grown accustomed to. Beliefs about who we are become internalized and automatic. Our roles become our identity.

The problem with this role conformity is that it can constrict us and keep us from fully expressing who we are, as that changes over time. This can cause stress and resentment and lead to depression and self-neglect. And yet, even when we realize all this, it’s challenging to behave differently. Like an actor who resists typecasting, we risk audience disapproval if we play against type.

Taking this kind of risk goes against our nature. People-pleasing is in our DNA, rooted in our need, as early humans, to remain part of a tribe for our survival. The behavior can be especially pronounced in children of parents whose affection depends on compliance with their wishes instead of being unconditional. Becoming aware of our people-pleasing tendencies is an important first step toward deciding whether these behaviors are serving us well or not.

What roles do you play? In the family, are you the successful one, the black sheep, the one who has everything, the one who has nothing? At work, are you the reliable one, the one who helps others, or the slacker? Socially, are you the giver, the taker, the listener or something else? Sometimes a role can be rewarding, paying us back in gratitude, connection and affection, forms of reciprocity that make the role worth playing. If not, though, it may be time for a change.

A client once shared with me that her large extended family saw her as “the person with no needs.” This role was wearing on her, and she wanted to shed it. Another client experienced stress from communicating with others less than truthfully in order to please them. Beginning with her least challenging relationships and working up to harder ones, she began communicating more authentically. When she did, she felt relief. “It feels good to walk in the light,” she said.

I hadn’t realized just how critical our identities could be to our health until I read Cured by Dr. Jeffrey Rediger. His study of people who managed to heal themselves from supposedly incurable diseases revealed a “powerful link between our very identities and our immune systems.” He found that “understanding oneself in an entirely new light seemed to make all the other changes – from diet, to stress [mitigation], to love and connection – possible.”

This connection between identity change and healing is the theme of Anita Moorjani’s biographical book, Dying to Be Me. Anita fought cancer for years before a near-death experience caused her to realize her own worth, which led to a remarkable recovery.

What all this means is that understanding the roles we play is an important part of self-care for health. In re-examining our role-playing behaviors, we need to avoid shame and regret; what doesn’t work now has worked sometime in the past or we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s tempting to want to change others, but instead we need to work on what we can control: ourselves.

Undoing habitual behaviors is challenging, so it’s best to take one small step at a time. Fear can be expected when leaving our comfort zone, and others may not approve. Starting with easier changes and working up to more difficult ones will help build confidence. It can be hard work, but by shedding outdated roles and bringing our identity into line with who we are today, we, like versatile actors, will feel freer, experience growth, and enjoy all kinds of new opportunities.

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