Who are you underneath the roles?

Who are you underneath the roles?

By Berenice Boxler.

I love my kids. They are adorable most of the time. Recently, they spent 23 hours at a relative’s house and I was so happy – for me. Within 15 minutes of their departure on the afternoon, I felt a heavy burden lifted from my chest. Everything was suddenly so easy, and I very much enjoyed my online teaching of 2 ½ hours that evening. Well, I always enjoy teaching classes, but recently I have been very tired. That day, the kids were gone and I felt like I could finally breathe again, be me again.

Carrying the emotional burden of several people

As a family we have been dealing with this lockdown overall rather well. We spent time playing games, roughhousing, working in the garden, teaching the kids the difficult experience of not getting everything they want, baking cakes together, fighting over the ipads in the house and discussing the meal plan. We also had a lot of children and adult tantrums (“You are not my teacher!”, “Stop the whining for once, please!”), quite a few screaming sessions, many important talks about people and the world and discussions about the daily sugar intake. Work-life-balance was not easy of course, as I am not only mother but also a mindfulness teacher who loves her job.

Whatever your job or your situation is at home, there are probably some people you know that are making their emotional burden visible, be they 6 or 36 or 60 years. There is nothing wrong with this, it is completely common and human. However, some people are more sensitive to moods and emotions of other people and with the lockdown of the past weeks and the staying at home, chances are that it became more tense and visible during that time. More people in one place means more emotions and rollercoasters of moods in one place – be it your own emotions or those of other people, no matter if in person or over the phone or monitor.

There is a constant tension in my being, and even if I notice it and try to get a break, to meditate or go for a walk, it is still there. It’s nothing physical, it comes with the role of being a parent. And no matter how many breaks I grant myself during the day, it is always there. Don’t get me wrong, breaks are so necessary and wonderful, but they don’t do all the trick. When my kids left the house, the role of “mother” just disappeared, and with it the invisible tension of having to be there, having to stay awake, having to do certain things, having to be someone. What was left was me. Just me. How liberating.

Roles and how they play out in daily life

The thing with the roles is that they usually come with a sack full of expectations (your own and those of others), duties and clear rules and limits – most of them we are not aware of until the role is gone. Be it mother, daughter, employee, police officer, nurse, politician, friend, neighbour, school kid … in almost every part of our life we have to fill out a role. I am not talking about an artificial role as actors take on to play. I am talking about the roles we take on in our everyday lives, those different ways of being and doing, depending on the person we are with or the situation we are in.

This is no problem, as long as we are aware of them and we know that we do not have to meet every expectation or duty. And as long as we know who we are underneath. “Who are you without the doing?” is a question that Jocelyn K. Glei regularly asks in her podcast Hurry Slowly. My question is: Who are you underneath the roles you have in your life? This is nothing one can learn or explain. One has to experience it, listen within, check in with the deepest needs and longings, no matter if in real life they are met or not. Just knowing who you are when you don’t have to be anyone to anyone else, not even to yourself. You see, we also pose expectations on ourselves too, with all those little thoughts containing “should” and “supposed to”.

What is meant by “underneath the roles”?

Do you prefer dark or milk chocolate or rather tortilla chips with salsa? What song makes you cry? When no-one – not even your inner critic – is watching, how does your body like to move to music and rhythm? If you would have all the time in the world right now, would you puzzle, read, chill in the sun, go for a walk, have a nap or watch your favourite soap show on TV? Do your taste buds appreciate green or rather juice smoothies or do they prefer a sharper taste and cleaner texture like a tonic water? Do you feel excited and energized in a big crowd of people or rather stuck and uncomfortable, even if your favourite band is playing live on the stage in front? What makes you stop in awe: mountains, the ocean, the sky, your favourite corner in the park nearby? Those questions and thousands more may hint to how or who you actually are underneath all of life’s and time’s constraints and expectations.

Letting go of the tension to be someone is not easy when you are in full armour of your current role. Most of us have been noticing this in the past weeks. We have been parents, online teachers, home office employees, truck drivers, police officers, grown-up children caring for and missing their parents and siblings, singles without direct personal contact to anyone, sick people, people in an ending relationship but being stuck together, household managers and receiver of government directives. The burden of having to fill out a role and meet all the external and internal demands can be extremely tiring. Maybe you felt or still feel a physical and emotional exhaustion that does not have anything to do with too little sleep? Well, I certainly do.

Coming to terms with what is

This time has been very intense, and in Luxembourg (this is where I live) we are now approaching a new phase where the kids will go back to school. I suppose with continuing to practice simple being, it might become possible to drop into the moment of just being without getting tensed up by having to be mother or partner or teacher. I am not there yet and I don’t know if one day I will get there. You see, it is not only a matter of practice and openness. So many factors come into play such as unconscious patters, childhood experiences and raising, getting to know the inner family system with being able to bring relief to the suffering parts and soothing the parts that try so hard to do everything “right”. Coming to terms with what is does become easier, but there is no guarantee whatsoever that equanimity and acceptance will ever be truly tangible in every aspect of life.

But as always when practising mindfulness, it is not about getting anywhere but acknowledging what is here. In this acknowledgement lies immense power: “Only after I have accepted myself as I was, I was able to change”. There is no use in letting the roles go, as this is impossible. Only when being the only monk or nun on a remote island one might be able to let go of roles such as sister, friend, teacher. But then one is still monk or nun… The roles will always be a part of our daily lives. Sometimes we can decide if we want to take on a new role (team leader, politician, spouse, caregiver, choir singer) and sometimes we cannot choose (being a daughter/son or a sibling, consumer of goods and food, a person in a quarantine, a person who has been betrayed). We have to come to terms with our roles but not forget who we are underneath them. And in becoming still lies the great power of tasting what it means to just be. The more we allow ourselves to just be, the more the pure being will run the show – and not what we are supposed to be or have to do as a mother, teacher, friend or supermarket cashier.

Drinking the moments of stillness

If you feel stretched or tense or short of breath again and again, then you are a human being. A human being who tries to do what is expected of him/her, as every role brings duties and of course also joys (let’s not forget that). In the past weeks the roles have been increased as for many people there was no break and an intense situation at home, be it with family or with work or both. Breathe in, breathe out, and know that you are not doing anything wrong. Whenever you can, give yourself some time to become still, to not do anything, to not be anyone but yourself. You may find it quite liberating and nourishing for what lies ahead.