I will begin this text with questions I do not expect you to answer because they are meant to be an incentive for contemplation, not an invitation to a written dialogue. Do you think about the various roles you once experienced and the ones you now hold? For example, the role of a child, a sibling, a student, an adult, a spouse, an employee, a parent, a retiree. Have you easily jumped into some roles as in a well-tailored suit, and in others you fidget because you are itching all over? Do you experience yourself as a multiple personality because you change your voice, body posture, life energy, emotional state depending on the role you have stepped into? There are roles we are born with or are biologically determined (gender, age, health) while others are imposed by family or society. We chose some roles because they fit our personality characteristics or talent, while others are the result of peer pressure, or satisfy our needs and drives. In some roles we stay for a short time, and in others we settle for a “long haul” or become a life member. Do you consider some roles to be the primary, most important determinants of your life path, with which you have identified to such an extent that you cannot distinguish who you are if you are not of a certain gender, a child from this or that family, a member of a chosen profession, spouse, or parent? The questions are asked, the paragraph is read, and as far as the answers, if you wish, look within yourself. I will continue with the writing.
If I immerse myself in the “remembrance of things past” and force my mind to separate itself from the present and the day illuminated by the sun in the leisurely hours of an early afternoon, I “return” to another time. For a moment, I revive the past that resides in the virtual space and grab the first image observed by the peripheral vision of the inner eye. I try to discern the impression of a child running carelessly through fields, forests, jumping over ditches, going down a hill towards a river, running home at mother’s call, washing hands, sitting at a table where a delicious meal awaits him, feeling fulfilled and happy. Is it I, an eight-year-old, in the blissful state of a beloved child? So it seems, the role I was born in and still carry living my life with all the changes during the sixty years from the memory that resides in the timeless existential space of the “feeling felt” experience.
I grew up in a family where father worked outside of home, and mother was a homemaker in charge of the housework and family. She was always there and available, with a warm meal on the table, clean clothes, a caring presence, ready to offer help if needed. It was probably not easy for her to oversee the welfare and upbringing of two restless boys ready for various mischief, in the wilderness of the Bosnian hills and mountains, and playing the dangerous games of growing up. The father was a military man, often absent, and when present, caught between the patriarchal tradition, he grew up in and the modernism enacted by the ideology of communism, which affected his roles of husband and father, respectively. Work and family were his priorities, and for me he modeled the head of the family in charge of economic prosperity by respecting the rules of society. He embodied the principles of proper living guided by universal moral code. Overall, the clearly defined roles of mother and father brought security and predictability, unwritten rules that were known and respected.
I made important life decisions with confidence driven more by an inner need for perfection that meets my own criteria and less by external praise and expectations. I chose my future profession early on, who I would have fun with, whether I would be a believer or an atheist, a member of the Party, and so on. The problems did not discourage me but encouraged me to find ways to solve them. I was not a rebel, activist, spokesman, but I held opinions based on the desire to seek truth and looking at the situations as objectively as I could. I strived to behave in accordance with the moral compass I acquired by observing my father in the family circumstances as well as in a wider social context.
The previous three paragraphs describe a consideration of three important life roles, using examples from the life of a child and an adult, as well as a brief overview of my parents in their mother and father roles. It is intended as an introduction to the whole school of psychotherapy, which is based on the analysis of these roles using the concepts of ego-states. The transactional analysis was born in the head of Eric Bern, a psychiatrist with a desire to explain human behavior and relationships with others. This theory and practice claim that each of us has a personality structure (Self) consisting of three ego-states that are interconnected and make us feel, think, and behave in a certain way. It can be said that we wear three masks and use them depending on the situation and the person we are communicating with. They are the product of childhood experiences, temperament, and other factors.
In the ego state of the Parent we imitate our parents or parent figures. When activated, we act in a role of a parent towards own or other people’s children, students, patients, employees, using an introjected model from the past. When we behave the way we behaved in childhood, we are in the ego state of the Child. The ego state of the Adult functions according the principle of here and now and is reality based. In this state we react to a situation or stimulus using the capacity of an adult to solve problems, in an honest, direct, and open way. The Adult does not rely on the past that lives in the ego-states of the Parent and the Child, but on the resources and skills appropriate to the present moment. If we use all three ego-states in an adaptive way and without “contamination” we are able to fulfill important life roles without major problems. But if the Parent or the Child dominates, it leads to a disturbed personality structure and the individual remains in an underdeveloped state with unrealized potentials.
A similar concept, which preceded Bern’s theory, was incorporated into Karl Jung’s theory of personality. It is the notion of Persona, the social mask we put on to adapt and conform. Some of us are adjusted so much that the mask sticks to the face and we never take it off. When I think of my father, this is somewhat true of him, but he still did not transfer military rules from the barracks to the house. Jung says: “Persona is a system of adapting an individual to the world, or the way he deals with the world. For example, each profession has its own distinctive mask. It is easy to study these things nowadays when photographs of public figures appear so often in the press. The world imposes a certain type of behavior on them, and professional people try to fulfill those expectations. The danger is that they become identical with their masks – a professor with his textbook, a tenor with a voice. Then the damage is done; they now live solely on the background of their own biography.”
I was in a danger of identifying with the Persona of my profession. I remember that in many social situations people asked what I did for living and when they heard that I was a psychiatrist they often reacted with surprise and a change of attitude, sometimes with the words “You have probably already analyzed all of us”, or, “Now I have to be careful what I say”. For my wife, Persona is somewhat determined by the profession of her father who was a pastor because she had to re-shape her personality according to the expectations of the environment. There is even a description of a personality syndrome known as PK (Preacher’s kid) with two stereotypes: one is a perfect angelic child, and the other is a rebel without a cause. My wife is certainly closer to a second type, which had complicated her growing up years. In any case, the existence of Persona can lead to a split in the private and public personality with the risk of the impaired mental health we often observe in celebrities.
One role that I had no choice about is the male gender. Apparently, because of the genital characteristics evident at birth, but even more so due to cultural reasons. Most world cultures divide people into two sexes, male and female, with all the attendant consequences in terms of social status, expectations, socialization, occupation, economic position, life experiences, and this list can go on and on. I was born in a country where tradition gives males greater rights even though by law both sexes were equal. As I was growing up, I was unaware of these ingrained prejudices and privileges, as well as conventional roles. My family experience is an example of almost total segregation of gender roles. This was less evident in the peer group. At school, we were all the same. Our teachers were equally represented by gender, as were the administrators. It is true that I noticed some occupations were predominantly “male” or “female”, but I considered this to be “natural”. I did not detect that my classmates were discouraged by professors from choosing the studies of medicine, law, economics, which in other countries were destined for males. I adopted a modernist worldview where human rights were guaranteed for both sexes equally. This clashed with tradition, which was evident among the older generation and less educated. In my relationships with friends, women, romantic partners, I was guided not by what I experienced within my own family, but by the ideals of the egalitarianism.
The situation was different in America. I was surprised to hear and observe gender discrimination that has led to abuse and unequal treatment of women in many segments of society where tradition and religion dominated, regardless of the constitution, sexual revolution and feminism. America is still a country ruled by males. Fortunately, the situation is gradually and rapidly changing with the adoption of a postmodernist worldview in which even the role of gender is called into question so that the “third sex” and non-declaration of gender is legally accepted in some states and increasingly present in everyday interactions. Let me return to male and female gender. My wife, born in America, sensitized me to the transgenerational burden of the female gender that strongly influenced her life choices and imposed the identity role she has struggled with. Her mother has advocated for women’s equality in the workplace for years as a member of the American Association of University Women. Women still get only 83 cents for every dollar paid to a man, and men continue to dominate in leading roles and the highest paid professions. The progress has been made but the battle continues, and my mother-in-law is still a peaceful warrior even at the age of 93.
Our identity, personality, and life roles are an amalgam of biology, sociology, and psychology in a dynamic and ever-changing relationship, an open system where new information and energy flow affect the process. Throughout our lives, we wear various masks that fit us nicely or are uncomfortable, change quickly or are firmly embedded in our real face so that we cannot figure out what is what. These masks are an inevitable part of the communal life and are necessary adaptations for the complexities of modern society. We are social beings, and it is impossible to imagine us as hermits in a cave or an island in the middle of the ocean. Even Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, in order to survive, projects the need for contact and communication on a volleyball and calls it Wilson. When, after a few years spent on the island, he loses it, he falls into a mental state of grief for the loss until he is finally rescued. Roles are necessary but if we are not aware of them and don’t make a distinction between them and our authentic Self that exists in all of us, sometimes hidden in a corner and sometimes occupying an entire room in the metaphorical house of our personality, we risk our health and the health of others around us. I will end this writing with a mantra often heard by the members of the spiritual group I am affiliated with, AHO (which stands for authentic, honest, and open) as a guidance for a genuine life.