Many years ago, I happened to see a stage production by a Japanese theater group, “The Kabuki Players.” As they performed several traditional plays, they engaged in an ancient theatrical device in which a cart containing a row of masks on sticks was rolled onto the stage. By selecting a mask and changing their voice and posture, the two or three performers could play many roles. As I watched this, it occurred to me that most of us play many roles on a daily basis, depending on where we are and who is with us. 

If I meet you and for some reason have a need for you to like me, I will raise my antennae and try to tune in to what I think you like. Then I will put on my mask and perform a role that I think will please you.  If I have been successful by playing the role well, you will reward me by showing or telling me that you like me. I should be pleased, but I’m not. Rather, I feel alone, sad and empty because I know that I am playing a role. All you see is my performance … my mask. I know what’s inside the mask and that that is not what I am showing you.

When you tell me you like me, I am fully aware that it can’t be the real me that you like. You haven’t seen the real me. Who do you really like? The persona I adopted to engage you. Now I really feel alone and, more, I feel contemptuous of you because you were so easily fooled. 

So here we have a modern version of Kabuki Theater in which I am the player and I experience the “Dilemma of the Kabuki Player”. In my attempt to get you to like me, I have had to act and to be phony.  I can never take off my mask and show you my real self because, if you showed you liked my performance, I can’t take the chance that you will like me for myself. In our relationship, I am trapped in the role that I have created for you. I can never be myself with you. 

One might wonder when and why this role playing, mask wearing begins. Small children, afraid of being alone, will do anything to maintain a connection with their parents. If they discover early in life that many of their feelings and emotions are unacceptable, they must bury them in order to avoid possible rejection. As children learn to conceal their real selves, they are forced to become Kabuki players to assure themselves of their parents’ acceptance. The price they will ultimately pay for this sort of adaptive behavior is loss of connectedness which results in their living with a pervasive feeling of isolation. 

In many families, parents assign roles to their children practically from birth. The colicky child, for example, may be labeled “difficult”. The smiley child is labeled “good natured”. Later, parents let children know what they are valued for. For many people “playing the role” is unconscious. However, if they suddenly sense that the role they are playing is just that …a false persona … the feeling of phoniness creates an awareness of how truly alone they are.  No one knows “the real me” they say. 

In both subtle and sometimes overt ways, parents let their children know what is expected of them. There are many roles that children will play in order to satisfy their parents’ conscious or unconscious needs.  The child who attempts to please its parents by conforming to their expectations is often referred to as “the Good Kid.” Another child might be recognized and unconsciously rewarded for its toughness and earn the label of “the Tough Kid.” Yet another child might be praised for its looks, labeled “the Beautiful Child”, and later develop a value system based on physical appearance. Some children quickly learn that their parents are amused and entertained by their sense of humor and are seen as “the Clown” of the family. In our society much attention and financial reward is based on a person’s athleticism and, therefore, if the child displays some athletic capability, it is soon cast in the role of “Star Athlete”. Some children, who may not have the coordination for sports, may be praised for their visual perception and artistic abilities and, thus, earn themselves the label “the Artist”. 

How often have we encountered children whose identities have been determined by how “popular” they are! For the child whose self image is predicated on whether or not they are accepted by the “in crowd”, there is immeasurable suffering when they feel that they don’t fit in. For those in the “popular” group, too, there is intense competition and fear of the loss of the status which they have been led to believe determines their value. 

Yet another role into which children are often cast is “the Caretaker”. Often the oldest child gets this role as it is given responsibility for its younger siblings. This child receives both praise and criticism for its relationship with its sisters and brothers. It is expected to always be “mature” and to tolerate the sometimes difficult behavior of the younger children. Rewarded for “adult behavior” and criticized for being intolerant of the younger kids’ obnoxious behavior, this child often loses the opportunity to just be a child.  

If they object to their siblings’ behavior, they are told “You are older than they are. You should know better.” Clearly they feel resentful and helpless. Caught between a rock and a hard place and cast in a role for which they are ill prepared, many of these caretakers manifest childhood depression. 

There are few of us who could truly say we have not experienced the impact of being labeled one thing or another by our families. We are cast in these roles so early in our lives that we generally have no real awareness of how or why we behave the way we do. Unfortunately, we often carry these roles and values into our adult lives. The things we consider important are based on what we learned as children.   

If we learned to value financial success, anything less feels like failure. Similarly, the high school beauty queen whose looks begin to fade struggles to find her value.  The high school football hero’s star fades as he finds himself no longer at the top of his game. Eventually, even the most “in” of the “in crowd” is forced to realize that life is not a popularity contest. There is no way that you can get everyone to like you. For the high school “Brain”, finding himself just one of many bright students in college, there comes the moment of truth. What is his value if he cannot be the “Top Student” or get the plum position? What if all of his intelligence isn’t enough to help him attain the level of accomplishment that has been expected of him?  

What of the class clown who, like Pagliacci, is laughing on the outside but crying on the inside?  

What about the Caretaker who finally allows himself to ask, “What about me? Don’t I matter? 

In much the same way that we carry within us an idealized love image (see The Love Illusion), we develop an early image of ourselves based on what was expected of us by others. Eventually, we must give up these illusions and accept ourselves for who we really are.  This is often a painful process. When we can no longer be the Kabuki Player, we begin to question our choices and values. We no longer want to play an empty role in our relationships and in our careers. As we question our expectations of ourselves, our mates and our children, we find ourselves in a quandary.  Will we be accepted if we remove our masks and reveal the True Person underneath? Can we take that risk?  

Additionally, if we are to be true to ourselves, we must be willing to take the first very challenging steps and ask the tough questions: 

      Who am I?

      What do I really want in life?

      What really makes me happy?

      What is really fulfilling? 

Sadly, much of what I see in the office can be traced to the frustration and disappointment people experience when they begin to recognize the emptiness of the roles they have been forced to play.  

Patients have said, “I’ve been phony all my life and it’s just hitting me.”  

In certain marriages, for example, the person finally shows who he really is when “playing the role” no longer matters or works. Often those closest ask, “Where did this person come from?” Actually, outside the relationship, that person was always there.  Inside the relationship, though, there was pretense, accommodation and the basic phoniness that created a feeling of distance, self-loathing and despair. 

Ultimately, as we take a hard look at where we are in life and in our relationships, we reconsider what we were programmed to believe gave us value.  

For the Kabuki Player who is willing to take a risk by dropping the mask and becoming more genuine, life stops being a charade. As relationships become based on who we really are, the stress and sadness of feeling isolated by the mask go away. It is only then that we can experience the freedom of truly being accepted for ourselves. 

copyright 2007 - Dr. Gerard Bomse - All Rights Reserved - duplication and re-publishing prohibited without consent from Dr. Bomse (