Moreno defined roles as “the actual and tangible forms which the self takes. We thus define the role as the functioning form the individual assumes in the specific moment he reacts to a specific situation in which other persons or objects are involved.  The symbolic representation of this functioning form, perceived by the individual and others, is called the role.  The form is created by past experiences and the cultural patterns of the society in which the individual lives, and may be satisfied by the specific type of his productivity.  Every role is a fusion of private and collective elements.  Every role has two sides, a private and a collective side.  (The Essential Moreno pg. 62) 

While roles are often seen in a negative light - “you’re always playing roles with me”- in psychodrama, we view these as a natural part of our interactions with others.  Roles, as Moreno describes them, are a description of any constellation of behaviors which are currently being enacted.  Since communications and relationships are a here-and-now event, we will look at roles as being who we are in the given moment.  Roles change; and we change as well, responding and acting differently with various persons and situations. 

In creating new roles, we stress that roles exist only within the context of relationships. To take and sustain a role, there must be a complimentary or reciprocal role.  This reciprocity can exist in another person, in the group, or as an internalized role in our imagination or conscience.  Simply put, there can be no wife/husband without a spouse, no victim without a perpetrator and no teacher without a student.  Each of these behaviors makes role demands of the other person.  When one person responds reciprocally to the role demands of the others person, the dynamics are maintained and over time, the roles are strengthened. 

Roles are specific. While basic role theory can be seen in Eric Berne’s work in Transactional Analysis, our understanding will be severely restricted if we limit the roles to Parent/Adult/Child.  A fuller picture will be made when the role is defined through both an adjective and a noun.  The noun: Student, Patient, Mother, Trainer, gives us information as to the person in the interaction and describes collective aspects of the role.  The adjectives: Angry, Distant, Cheerful, Loving, define the behavioral  and private aspects of the role noun.  For example, as a group we might not have consensus on the visualization of an encounter between Mother and Child.  If we specify  adjectives to clarify the encounter as one between an Exhausted Mother and a Hyperactive Child, our images of the role relationship would be clearer and more consistent.

As we develop roles, we can have a high or low degree of role perception and different levels of role enactment.  Role perception is cognitive and anticipates forthcoming responses.  Role enactment is a skill of performance.  (Essential Moreno pg. 63) 

“Role Repertoire is a term used to denote the group of developed roles we use and have used in our lives. They are the roles that are currently available to us…” (SOCIODRAMA: Who’s in Your Shoes?,  Sternberg & Garcia  pg. 50)   Within our repertoire, we have the Somatic roles: these are the physical ones such as eater, sleeper, dancer.  These are the first roles we develop.  The Social roles are those that develop out of our interactions with others, work roles, social roles, such as therapist, clerk, etc.  The Psychodramatic roles are the roles we develop in fantasy and in our imagination.  These can include idealized husband/wife, characters from stories and dream roles.  Often children play out psychodramatic roles as a warm up to social roles later in life.  Playing house as a child can help develop the roles needed for a later adult relationship. 

Role diagrams are one way to map out the roles that we consciously recognize and are accessible to us. The self emerges from the roles- this is to say, the more roles we develop and are capable of using the more choices we have for our interactions with others.  We become increasingly three-dimensional.  In contrast, when an individual relies too heavily on only a few roles, we experience him or her as being flat, hollow, or not fully alive. Role diagrams are a way to inventory the roles we have and to assess where we might need to further develop or expand our role repertoire.

 Roles can be rudimentary or underdeveloped, within normal development or overused and overdeveloped. One of the clinical uses of role theory is to assess our roles or the roles of a client, and determine which roles need further development or where there is a need for role relief.

 As a person grows, there is often a desire to ‘drop’ an old role. In point of fact, this is nearly impossible to do.  We might reduce the importance of a particular role, or decrease the frequency with which we enact certain behaviors.  But roles, once learned, are rarely forgotten.  A parallel can be seen in the alcoholic who is ‘in recovery’ but not cured.  We can stop using a problematic role, but never quite extinguish it.  In terms of relapse prevention and role theory, this suggests that we want to identity and manage activating events or individuals who can trigger past, dysfunctional roles.  From a role theory perspective, our support groups are there to help reciprocate our positive, recovery roles.  We can invest energy in developing new roles that are more productive and thereby expand our options and choices for interacting.  This allows us to minimize our use of self-sabotaging roles.

 To create roles, it is important to understand the concept of role taking, playing, and creating. These are the developmental stages through which we can expand our repertoire of roles. 

  • Role taking, which is very familiar in psychodrama, is when we enact a role, which we know through our observation of others. These tend to be taken out of a structured framework, with little spontaneity added. 
  • Role Playing is the second stage, in which we start to identify and interact within these roles. We bring our own spontaneity and creativity into the role, and give it further dimension.  The role begins to be internalized.  
  • Role Creating is one of the tasks of growth. It is at this point that we develop the role within, and make it specific and unique to us.  In role creating, we are accessing considerably more spontaneity. 

As we formulate these new roles, they may in turn become the model for another person’s role taking.

Within our role repertoire, we will often develop relationships in which the reciprocal roles are very satisfying. We can also encounter situations where we have role conflict, either because we are in a role that we neither like nor find satisfying, or because of social pressures to adhere to a role that is an uncomfortable fit.  We can have conflict in our reciprocal roles with significant people around us.  Identifying the roles that are part of the conflict can be a step in the process of altering roles or relationships to be more positive and fulfilling.  At times, we find ourselves in a state of role confusion. We might not be comfortable with a new or developing role or we might not believe we have an appropriate role within our conscious repertoire.

 At times, a person can become role locked; held in a specific role through the reciprocity of the auxiliaries in their life. 

 Role lock can lead to role fatigue, or a need to seek role relief, in which a person seeks out roles that are significantly different from those that are too demanding or exhausting. Often the seeds of these roles are already available; for the opposite pole to a person’s primary roles is often present, even if underdeveloped or less consciously so.

 In a treatment or training program, you have an exceptional opportunity to try out different roles, to see how they work, and to seek support for reciprocating those new behaviors you want to carry with you after discharge. Role development occurs whenever roles are reciprocates, not only in formal therapy settings.  And having a rich repertoire from which to respond is a fundamental tool of good communication.

 Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP

Oklahoma City, OK


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