There’s a term used in psychology known as ‘role expectations’ and it goes like this: you and me have a role to play and it’s expected that we play that role. If we don’t, trouble ensues.
Role expectations are used to keep us boxed in. If we try to breach the perimeter of our predefined box, or escape it entirely, our roles become confused and this is unacceptable for those in our surroundings.
So, they slap a label on us; ‘not living up to (role) expectations.’
But we must remember: We also deliver these expectations in the way we act in this world and to become aware of that, is the first step to not get stuck in them.
The flipside of that coin is that role expectations can also be very constructive. If we reach a point where we figure out that the role no longer fits, we can reject our role expectations and redefine ourselves. We step onto the path of self-empowerment by breaking free of that role.
This is the point where friends and family think we’re renegades and try to push us back in our box. But while the idea of role expectations can be a very suppressive mechanic, they also have benefits. We just have to weigh them up and see them on difference frequencies.
If I show up to teach a seminar, the expectation is that I’m the teacher. That’s the role expectation that I can actually deliver and should. If I can’t, well I’m not a very good teacher. A teacher should be able to teach, a comedian should be funny, and so on. These are healthy role expectations.
Toddler role expectations
The problematic thing about role expectations is that they start so early.
Even as toddlers we have a role to fulfil, whether it’s the expectation of being clumsy, outspoken or whatever. If we have a toddler who is always sick, we define that child with that role and expect them to stick to it. Meaning: we expect them to keep getting sick.
In developmental psychology there’s a term called the ‘age of defiance’ when, at around 2 to 3 years old, a child will start to say “nope, I don’t wanna do that.”
They’re communicating “I used to be a baby but look at me now: I can walk, I can talk, I can dance, I can shuffle, in fact, I can do all kinds of cool shit. Man, I’m potent. I’m two years old and I can conquer the world!”
They no longer want to be labelled as a helpless baby anymore. They’re breaking free of a role expectation.
Parents get kind of worried at this point. Does the toddler need some pills? Probably, they think. And that’s actually what happens. We feed three-year-olds psycho medication. What the actual beep.
We need to allow a child to break free of their role expectations. It’s all about allowing.
Role expectations in the school years
Then we go to school.
It’s here that our classmates and teachers put us in a box. They do it subconsciously, because when we have labels, we’re much easier to recognise. The funny kid, the smart kid, the quiet kid, the weird kid (that was me).
But we shouldn’t do it.
If our child has a label at school that they want to break free of, be warned, it’s a seriously hard undertaking. Maybe as the class clown. We have to educate the teachers and students about role expectations to the extent of them seeing our child in a new way, which is no easy task.
If it can’t be done: My advice? Change school.
Your child will only benefit from losing the classmates that keep them stuck in that role.
Let them leave the role expectation that is sabotaging their school years. Maybe they planted the seed themselves and wants to break free of it.
So tell your child: Learn from this experience.
Help them transcend and evolve out of a static situation that’s not serving them well.
Adulthood roles and expectations in relationships
In my years as a couple therapist, I’d say the theme of role expectations was the main source of the storm in consultations.
When the wife inevitably says “but I don’t want to be the good wife anymore” this creates confusion from the husband who thinks “hang on, when we married 10 years ago you were happy to clean, cook, raise the children, what happened? Do you not love me anymore?”
Men have it too, so many predefined roles that we want to break, but caught up in so many expectations.
If she’s happy, the whole household is happy. Also, flip the coin, if she’s unhappy, the whole household is unhappy.
It’s not the same with men. They’re rarely the emotional architect of the family, the woman is.
She’s classically the emotional architect.
And speaking of the feminine power: A woman who doesn’t know she can control a household with the lift of an eyebrow, doesn’t know her own power. Instead of shouting and bickering there only needs to be a lift of the eyebrow to communicate “hey, don’t step over my boundaries.”
Communicating our need for change
In a marriage or partnership, we need to ask for space to change, to avoid confusion when we break free of the role.
But, if we change our behaviour without communicating why, the person closest to us becomes very confused. They immediately think of the worst, thinking we’ve found someone else. Or else they pull the victim card, bemoaning that they’re not enough for us anymore.
Needing space to breathe doesn’t mean you’re desperate to go off shagging other people and come home with new interesting STDs. No, you just need freedom to explore your life and ponder on whether you’re satisfied.
It’s so delicate.
They might not feel the need to change. They might not think you feel the need to change. And if you don’t want to completely blow up your relationship, you need to feed it to them with a teaspoon, not a shovel.
Just be honest. “I’m so tired of doing the same thing on a psychological, practical and emotional level each goddamn day and I want to break out.” So, break out. There are always solutions. Just avoid the confusion with communicating.
But be aware of over-communicating.
Avoid a therapeutical relationship with your beloved where you talk into the navel of things. That’s toxic. Instead, create a coaching environment, based on you being each other’s best friends, supporting each other and breaking down the role expectations. Inside the relationship and outside of it.
It’s called nourishing and flourishing together and I’ve seen it work. Families exploding into expansion by just one of them saying to the other “let’s get out of these predefined roles.”
Family patterns in the work environment
Beyond relationships we also see these suffocating role expectations transfer into the workplace.
I call these dynamics ‘family patterns’; the horny uncle, the clumsy little sister, the strict aunt, and the danger is that they can easily become the psychological blueprint of a company structure. Businesses, especially small ones, morph into a family with family patterns.
And it’s no good.
I’ve dealt with a lot of businesses who struggle with toxic role expectations and, while it can be commercial suicide not to break these familial pyramids of expectations, they need breaking because employees become stuck in the expectation of their role. It also keeps them functioning poorly.
Whether we align to these frequencies on purpose, subconsciously or purely to survive, either way, it’s a shit show.
Slipping and sliding into role expectations
When we meet up with old friends it’s easy to fall into our old role expectations. Why? To make things easier for those around us to decipher who we are and maybe not: who we really are.
In fact, we all slip into roles whether we’re conscious of it or not. We become regressive inside. Like when we visit our grandparents, we slip into our child-like selves which is not always a bad thing. It’s loving and provides some level of comfort for us all in the nostalgia.
If we’re spiritually-orientated there’s also a role expectation. But hey, I’m a little devil and I like to break this.
I don’t wear the spiritual uniform I see around town of orange clothing and sandals, holding a little guitar.
I dont like ‘role’ uniforms, so that’s not me.
The uniform of role expectations
Like the spiritual uniform, what we wear creates role expectations in the eye of the beholder.
If people go to the bank and apply for a loan, they put on some of their best clothes to give the impression they are a decent person. Helps getting the loan, says the narrative. That’s the way we’re manoeuvred into these boxes.
Another example. If I go to the doctor, I’m supposed to be the patient and listen to what they have to say. They’re so used to the doctor-patient role expectation that they take every question I ask (and I ask questions..) like I’m challenging their authority.
If we don’t submit, we’re difficult.
The last discussion I had didn’t go so well. I told my doctor that I didn’t think she had the right job.
Yes, you’re insurance-driven. Where I’m from, asking your doc a question about medication and enquiring about side effects isn’t seen as a threat to the doctor’s authority, it’s seen as you being engaged with your own healing.
“Well, we don’t do that here.”
Yeah, I get that.
It creates a lot of friction but hey, friction always changes things.
Get creative with role expectations
If we go into a new environment, and I’ve seen this so many times, whether it’s a seminar, work event or friend thing, create your role. Just go in there and claim your space.
If we show up and don’t say anything for the first couple of hours we’re labelled as the ‘silent one’. If we say too much we’re labelled as the ‘talkative slash annoying one’. If we crack a joke we’re labelled as the ‘funny one’. Watch out.
In a new work environment, it’s so important to speak up. At least say something in the first hour or two, whether you ask a question or give an opinion. Anything, just be seen and heard. Same with other events. Go social, ask questions, be part of the conversation. Don’t hide behind the ‘safety of being out of range’.
Doing these things means there’s no role to break out of. If we stay quiet it becomes much harder to overcome the threshold of taking down the role expectation because now it’s been internalized. We align to that frequency.
Prepare the ground in the beginning and you won’t be challenged. Be conscious of it. Say to yourself “nope, I will not be in my box anymore” and if we struggle to get out, or our surroundings want to force us back in, we can choose the other path.
Pattern-breaking and freedom
We need to watch out for placing each other in these rigid boxes. Check yourself, how do you act around those who are trying to pattern-break out of their role expectations?
We need to support that person who wants to escape their box. They might just need to step out and breathe. Don’t trap them in because you feel uncomfortable. It takes emotional courage to break free of role expectations.
Let them redefine their role. This is how we evolve out of the status quo. We need to allow it.
Like a child born into a working-class background, with parents addicted to drugs, who later on becomes a doctor or lawyer. They’ve broken the pattern and exceeded the role expectation to follow the family DNA. Sociology calls them ‘Pattern Breakers’ and they are.
They’re breaking free, having battled role expectations for years, it’s a beautiful thing.
And so can you.
© 2021 Soren Dreier