That’s Men: We are locked into roles and habits that we might wish to change but somehow never can

Tue, May 6, 2014, 01:00

He stood at the bar in an airport explaining the future of the airline industry. Whether he knew anything much about his topic, I don’t know, but he sounded as if he was making it up as he went along.

What interested me, though, was his appearance. Something in the style of his clothes, in the cut of his hair, in the jewellery he wore, located him in the past. But where in the past?

Thirty or more years ago, I guessed, he might have cut a dash in the advertising or entertainment world. Today, he looked like someone who had forgotten to move into the future. His audience was the barman. When people came up to order a drink, he tried to engage them in conversation by making general remarks in their direction. Nobody took the bait.

He was very much on his own, desperately seeking a connection with somebody else but without wanting to be obvious about it. I knew what he felt like, and I felt sorry for him, but I pretended to be engrossed in my newspaper. After reading a few paragraphs I looked up and he was gone.

Out of sync
He struck me as someone who had once found an act, a way of presenting himself to the world, that worked in a specific time and place. Then he got out of sync with the changing times. His act no longer worked but he was unable to drop the role.

Of course, he should have shaken off the old persona years ago. But how do you do that? Well, you stop putting on an act for one thing.

Easier said than done.

I think of all the people I have known who have strutted their hour upon the stage of life. I think of myself. Have we been acting a lot of the time even when we convinced ourselves we were sincere and authentic? Probably.

The Buddhists maintain, as I understand it, that the self is made up of a series of actions, thoughts and assumptions that we keep repeating in order to make up our identity, in order to keep ourselves going, so to speak.

That strikes me as a plausible explanation of the behaviour of the man at the bar, of the behaviour of many acquaintances and colleagues over the years, and of my own behaviour.

But knowing that doesn’t seem to help. It’s a bit like being convinced by a philosophical argument that proves you don’t exist, but having to pay the bills anyway.

All of this brings me back to the necessity for acceptance, particularly of how we are locked into roles and habits that we might wish to change but that we somehow find we never manage to change.

Acceptance might seem like second-
best compared with a sparkling makeover. But I am convinced as I go through life that we need to accept more about ourselves than we need to change.

When we are being trained as we grow up, our socially unacceptable behaviours are knocked out of us by family, friends and teachers.

That’s probably a necessary process but it means that dissatisfaction with how we are is built into the system and into our own way of looking at ourselves.

Then, like the man at the bar, we find a persona, a mask, that seems to work well enough and we stick with it.

Most of us are better than he has been at changing the outward colours of the mask to suit our surroundings. But, although we are more skilful at it, we are playing the same game. What difference would acceptance make?

Perhaps if we can accept more of how we really are, we can drop some aspects of the mask and allow more of our authentic selves to emerge into the sunlight.

Moreover, the mask is about being acceptable to the world. So if we can manage self-acceptance, we have given ourselves the treasure we have been searching for all our lives.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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