Set Yourself Free

By Lise Funderburg

Ladies Home Journal

March 2004

Pigeonholing Yourself

From the outside, Colleen Sprague’s life looked pretty good: a great husband, three adorable kids, and a high-powered career in real estate after 12 years as a stay-at-home mom in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. But inside, the 42-year-old was on the fast track to burnout. Then a life coach made an old-fashioned suggestion with a twist: Take a vacation — but take it alone. Sprague had never been away on her own, never planned a trip without her husband and, most important, had never left her kids behind. “I thought if I did that,” Sprague says, “then I certainly wasn’t being a good mother.”

Everyone has tapes that loop through their heads: I’m not good at math; I have to host Thanksgiving because I’ve always done it; good parents don’t need any time for themselves. At best, our identities incorporate our passions and curiosity. At worst, we end up typecasting ourselves in roles that feel more limiting than liberating. When that happens, even if the core impulse is healthy — to be a responsible mother, for example — the outcome can be demotivating and draining.

The problem isn’t just that we typecast ourselves, either. Sometimes family members, friends, or coworkers do it for us, and their expectations only serve to push us deeper into our assigned pigeonhole. The roles we’re given span the gamut and are often born of positive attributes — fearlessness, kindness, or a strong work ethic. Still, even complimentary typecasting can be confining.

“What happens when someone who is admired by friends — as Norma Rae or Rosa Parks — wants to sit out a particular conflict and bake bread instead?” asks Deborah Anna Luepnitz, PhD, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia. “Being known for our strengths is inevitable, and it’s not a bad thing. But when the need for change is met with anger, derision, or disbelief, it can make us feel stuck.”

Sprague can’t say if it was her own mother or the culture at large that framed her sense of what motherhood should mean — or if it was entirely her own invention. But wherever it came from, the image left her own needs and desires out of the picture. In examining her concerns, she realized that not only would she benefit from recharging her batteries, but her children would also benefit from time alone with their dad. She booked a flight to Aruba and spent five gloriously restful days on the beach, speaking to almost no one. “I came back a better person,” she says, “and a better person for the people in my life.”

No More Role Playing

We often find comfort in the roles we play; they tell us what’s expected of us, so we know how to behave. But as we mature and change, we sometimes outgrow our assigned parts, or find that they were never right for us in the first place. Breaking out of the role we’ve conformed to requires an unflinching assessment of what our life is like now and what we want out of it — a difficult but not impossible challenge.

Often the first step is to identify the parts you, and those around you, play. At your next family gathering, observe the occasion as if you were a camera, suggests Caroline Adams Miller, a life coach in Bethesda, Maryland. Step back and identify people by their first names, such as “Mike” and not “my father.” Identify the various typecast molds and what their value is to the person and the system. For example, “Susan is the peacemaker because it enables her to always be in the middle of every situation,” or “Jimmy is the black sheep, which means he never has to adhere to the same rules as everyone else,” or “Amy is the smart one and she always does the right thing,” and so on. Identify your own role, and ask yourself what you get from it and whether it is serving you well at this point in your life.

Next, Miller advises, brainstorm what other roles you’d rather play. It’s also helpful to ask people who know you well to tell you what they see as your strengths.

Finally, consider what you’ll gain or lose by making a change. For instance, if you’re always the first to volunteer for functions at your children’s school, cutting back would undoubtedly mean you’d be less involved, but it would also mean you’d have some much needed time to do other things.

While it will certainly take emotional fortitude to break out of any hard-and-fast role, physical strength also plays an important part, says Miller. “When a client expresses an interest in making some sort of change, whether it’s to be more financially responsible, more emotionally resilient, or to be perceived as smarter, I often assign exercise — especially weight lifting — because when people feel more empowered in their own bodies, they feel more empowered to take on massive changes.”

Change = Courage

But even if you’re in the best of shape physically, change takes courage. Nancy Friedman-Cohen, a mother of two from central New Jersey, who worked full time as a psychotherapist, longed to incorporate more creativity into her life, to sing more and return to painting, activities she enjoyed when she was younger. But after long workdays, which included evening hours, she often had a headache or was too tired to pick up a paintbrush. “I realized that I couldn’t be creative when I was so busy running around,” she says.

She considered cutting back on her evening hours, but worried that some patients would be inconvenienced. More practically, with one of two kids in college, she knew this wouldn’t be a great time for income loss. The risks seemed daunting, but doing nothing seemed worse.

“I took a leap of faith,” says Friedman-Cohen. “I let clients with evening appointments know I was available during the day, and guess what? People came to me during the day.”

Now, on one of the evenings she used to work, Friedman-Cohen is either singing, painting, or playing the piano. The exhaustion and headaches are gone, and she feels that she’s reframed her identity as someone who takes care of others in a way that is not at her own expense.

“I’ve learned to be in touch with my own needs and assert them when necessary, and still care for people around me. I’m much clearer about what I want and about setting boundaries, and that’s all part of the process of nurturing myself and not worrying so much about what other people will think.”

Make a Break

Sometimes we find that trying something new is hard because it’s, well, new. Often it’s helpful to act as if you’ve already made a change, which in and of itself can lead to change. “Research has shown that the mere act of smiling, even when you’re not happy, can actually change your brain chemistry,” says Miller. “Therefore, it’s been hypothesized that if you behave as if you are already in a new role, then you can begin to authentically become that person.”

Role breaking takes some strategizing, says Dr. Luepnitz. “Most people whose personas seem to shriek Funny Girl! or Miss Fix-it! have been playing that part for years, and they’ve trained friends to react to them in a certain way. So it’s important to realize that you created the type, and therefore you have the responsibility to creatively and persistently turn it around.”

Try humor, suggests Dr. Luepnitz, such as using a birthday or New Year’s resolution to joke dead seriously about the new you. “Make a toast and tell everyone the rules of the New Me: ‘No one calls me before 8 a.m. to discuss romantic woes or anything less dire than a terrorist attack in my own backyard.'”

Once you decide to make a change, be prepared for mixed reactions. There’s the best friend who insists you can’t possibly be interested in applying for that job in sales because you’ve never been the bubbly, outgoing sort. Or the husband who encourages you to go back into the workforce after staying at home with the kids, then complains that you’re never around when he needs you.

In most cases, critical comments are more about what’s at stake for the speaker than they are about you. That’s because your changes inevitably create loss for others, explains Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends: How Your Friends Can Make or Break Your Health, Happiness, Family, and Career. “People worry they’ll be dropped by the wayside,” says Isaacs. “If you win the lottery or get that degree, they’re not where you are anymore.”

When you foresee an unsupportive response, lay some groundwork, advises Michele Weiner-Davis, a family and couples therapist and the author of Change Your Life and Everyone in It. “You can say, ‘I know you might have some difficulty with the change I plan to make,’ or ‘You might not be expecting this, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.'” It may help to reassure him or her that you’re going to continue to hold up your end of things, that the family or the person is still a priority, she says.

More Time for Me

When Westport, Connecticut, freelance writer Corrine Thompson, 37, told her family members of her plans to write a screenplay, most of them either scoffed at her or became very, very needy, worried that Thompson — aka Miss Always Available — would no longer have time for them if she took on such an ambitious project. “I’ve actually come to the point where I don’t tell them I’m writing anymore,” says Thompson. “They take a lot of energy from me, and I just want to focus on the screenplay. In fact, I actually told my sister I’d stopped writing and now she’s not bothering me anymore.”

Sometimes, less-than-positive responses contain information that can be helpful to you in making a change. About 20 years ago, when Nan Feyler, of Philadelphia, turned 28, she decided to redirect her life. She’d worked as a circus clown and a job counselor, but she wanted to affect the world in a more substantial way.

Feyler, bursting with enthusiasm for her newly hatched plan, couldn’t wait to break the news to her father. “Dad, I’m going to go to law school,” she announced.

“What makes you think you can get in?” he responded and then went back to reading his newspaper. Even at the time, Feyler knew her father’s question had merit: She had never been a strong student. So she took a prep course for the LSAT entrance exams, and scored in the top 2 percent in the nation. She was awarded a scholarship to New York University’s law school.

Topping that, Feyler went on to run the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, and, at the age of 48, went back to school again and earned a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. She didn’t let her father’s skepticism slow her down, and in the end, she says, her father was incredibly proud of her.

When people make positive changes in their lives, says Weiner-Davis, good things generally happen as a result, and resistance from others isn’t likely to last. “Sometimes it’s just a knee-jerk response, especially in the beginning,” she says. “Even the most fiery responses fizzle over time.” And the payoff can be priceless.

“The mental wiring that leads to typecasting can be undone by understanding and affirming that you can finally be your authentic self,” says Linda Durand, a Philadelphia-based life coach. “When that happens, you’ll realize that living the truth not only is possible, it’s healthy and natural. It is what’s supposed to be.”