Saturday, March 17, 2012

20112.03.14 Roles to Real

Years ago I worked as a chaplain/counselor in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center where I learned life lessons that allow me to be myself without judgment—well, most days.

I’m writing about this because, well, you keep writing about what matters.

I discovered that in very stressed families people took on roles to cope — and I was a “hero.” I wasn’t a hero for real, but by role. It was a relief to know that, because heroism was exhausting. It kept me striving at top speed, compulsively amassing achievement after achievement, all of them grand and applause worthy, but they never got me what I wanted: serenity and love.

Addictive systems are not about who drinks or drugs and who doesn’t, who sinned and who didn’t, though everyone will seek a culprit just as they did in Eden starting with Eve and ending up with the poor little snake. Lying, hiding and blaming behaviors arise from anxiety and keep everyone feeling just plain bad (guilty, afraid, anxious, angry, sad, and stupid) inside.

Addictive systems(family, community, religious congregation, culture) are ones that feel uncomfortable to everyone and no one knows quite why. It’s no one’s fault. Relationships just don’t work well. Emotional connections are absent or negative. Individuals feel emotionally glued together even when they also feel estranged. Most everyone pretends all is well.The system got dysfunctional over time and by habit.

Healing is possible and it begins with confessing true feelings. Something like HELP! How biblical.

I was at a workshop on family systems once in which the presenter said, “Any critical parent will do.” She meant: will do to make a whole family feel helpless. That sounded like passing the blame to me.

I’d say, any seriously chronic stress will do. Chronic.

That’s where roles come in. People in a misfunctioning system wonder: How can I help this group feel better? What can I do to make everyone truly happy?

So they fall into roles and after a while they forget who they are.

A natural leader, I took up the hero role to please and create proud feelings—attractive alternatives to shame and anger. I wanted my role to rub off so everyone would feel proud, not of me but of themselves.

A friend, by personality and temperament, took up the role of scapegoat. He tried to call attention away from the stress and uncertainty by being loud and boisterous, distracting others away from their bad feelings. It worked until the stress of the role got too much and he turned to destructive behavior—and in time got into trouble with the law.

One of the cutest roles people turn to is the comic. This person has a natural gift of humor and uses it to make others laugh and forget their troubles. In time the comic risks forgetting that there is anything sad or serious at all anymore.

Naturally caring people lie awake nights worrying about how to make things right; caring turns into caretaking for control.

And there’s always someone or ones who gets lost in the role confusion and can’t decide what’s real at all—if anything. They are quiet, obedient, intent on not making trouble, so intent that they get left out. Lonely.

It takes a long time and help from outside to move from role back to real, the way God created us. I needed everything: therapy, twelve step programs, prayer, friends and family, and Jesus. Healing was painful and involved grief. It made more trouble for me before it made less.

A young man I knew years back demeaned himself endlessly for being such a “stupid jerk” as a kid. He’d lost sleep waiting for his mother to fall asleep so he could make sure her cigarette didn’t fall from the ashtray and set the house on fire. Was that stupid or loving?

But just like the biblical folks you don’t heal without a whole helluva of a lot of commotion. It’s a process not a miracle. Hang in. There’s nothing more worthwhile.

Spiritual tips: 1) God loves you whether you’re playing a role or not; and 2) The motivation behind role-playing is spiritual. Look deep. You did it for love.

Simply so.