According to the Theory of Relativity, the speed of a moving object is relative to one’s reference point, evidence of which we see in every-day events. A 747, for one example, is clearly moving at immense velocity to anyone watching from the ground, while people inside the plane read and eat and sleep in an air-controlled space which to them does not appear to be moving at all. You might say that a person’s point of view with regard to that aircraft is based on their role in relationship to it. To an air-traffic controller it is a moving blip on a screen, but a deadly serious blip that represents lives depending upon his focus and judgement. To a pilot it is a responsibility that is real and immediate, while to the passengers it is a means to get from here to there – first-class of course being the most self-esteem-enhancing relationship with the flying machine and its amazing crew, economy-class making one’s flight experience feel more and more like taking the crosstown bus during rush hour. At 37,000 feet.

According to Role Theory, our experience of events is like our perception of the 747 - relative to where we stand in relationship to them. The roles we choose or are assigned by life are expressions of where we are in our story, the external bridges between undeveloped potential and opportunity in the outer world. They are also expressions of our status within systems. The owner of an apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan enjoys greater status than the cleaning staff, whether that high end real estate was acquired through years of hard work and savings or in a fantastic settlement after an unfortunate accident with a dangerously overheated fruit pie from Burger King. The way things work in the culture, institutions established before we come onto the scene and people empowered by them decide what roles are available to whom, and what hoops the average person has to jump through to move up and gain the more choice ones. But the social environment does not have the final word. The cleaning person in that fancy apartment building need not be defined by the job, especially if it is a means to more substantial ends. The as-yet-unpublished novelist or dedicated painter may scrub floors or drive a schoolbus to sustain a dream, not to abandon it. The key is to be more identified by our authentic self - with our passions and purpose - than we are by external roles.

Roles are expressions of our desires, choices, and identity, ways to assess levels of consciousness, or states of awareness. Anxious patient. Supportive friend. Harried commuter. Proud parent. Lexus-owner. O'Reilly Factor fan. Mortgage-holder. Home Depot fanatic. Empty-nester Gone Wild. In the machinery of our lives and the functioning of society, roles endow status. Just as with actors in a play or film, roles only make sense in the context of the story. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump would not work at all for his character in You’ve Got Mail., and when he shows up on Letterman we want to see Tom Hanks as Tom Hanks. The story shapes the actor's role, and the actor's energy gives it life just as many of our roles are shaped by the story society is telling. Some fit our inner life, others not so much. Success, as well as happiness, in life depends upon the goodness of fit between our talents, strengths, sensitivities and beliefs and the roles we take within the systems that organize our lives.

It is important to understand the power of roles because we are always dealing with this social reality, and knowledge is everything here. When we recognize the role we play in a situation we have choices as to how to move through it. Everyone who has ever loved an active addict and learned the achingly tough art of psychological detachment from the addict’s downward spiral knows how dramatically that shift in one person changes the dynamics of a mutually-destructive relationship. Any rescuer who changes their role to self-responsible creator of their own life poses a challenge to their dependents to do the same, although it can be a rough go at the start. The stay-at-home mother who goes back to school, the supervisor who finally stops enabling the entitled slackers in their department, the friend who at long last says “no” to unreciprocated calls for help, change their world by changing their roles. It is the greatest creative process we can undertake, to align the roles we take with our authentic inner self.

This life is our movie, and we are responsible for the story we tell. That is not to say that everyone has equal access to high status roles, or that fairness, merit, or worth has much to do with who does. There are so many social forces that pressure us to perform, present and perfect ourselves according to standards we may not even agree with and may not feel we have much power to change. Still, we can refuse to be divided against ourselves, and that is a way to contribute to the change we wish to see. We can create. We can participate in making our story something we feel passionately about. We can take a good, hard look at what controls us. Because the struggle for fulfillment never ends if we are trying to make the story come out right while acting in someone else’s movie.

Author's Bio: 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a writer, performer, trainer and creative arts psychotherapist who designs and facilitates professional and personal development workshops through her company – Lifestage, Inc – and in association with national Employee Assistance Programs. Her book Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed of Life and blog Lives In Progress explores the ways technology is changing 21st century relationships and how to develop the Emotional Intelligence and creative mind set for success in the networked world. Her storytelling-style show Crazytown: my first psychopath was selected for the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the 2012 Chicago and San Francisco Fringe Festival and recently had 2 successful runs at Actors Theatre Workshop in New York. A popular speaker and presenter, she gives a monthly talk on dimensions of Emotional Intelligence at Brookhaven National Labs, has been invited to present on the topic at The Examined Life Conference for physicians and health care professionals, the annual conferences of the Association For Medical Education & Research in Substance Abuse, Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, and the American Creativity Association. She works with staff at the New York Public Library on a range of topics, and partners with arts organizations to create arts-based community events. She has been interviewed for articles that appeared in national and local media, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Woman's Day, and The Three Village Times.