Karen's Story

Role Given - Role Taken

This story describes the way in which we often accept roles that are given to us by other people, rather than consciously exercising our own constructive roles. So we react to others in a way that we become trapped, not free.

For a printable version please click here

Karen is seen as a dedicated employee; spending evenings, weekends and holidays in the office, she doesn’t complain of her 60-80 hrs a week work. The truth is Karen is not particularly fond of her job; she simply dreads going home to her demanding ailing mother who Karen believes pretends to be sick, just to rouse sympathy and dominance.

Karen is the youngest child and the only daughter of four children. Her mother, who was widowed 15 years ago, has made it quite clear she is totally reliant on Karen for her ongoing happiness and wellbeing. She regularly praises Karen for her commitment to that role but in a way that there is not any other way that things could be. Karen’s siblings are grateful but, as they have families of their own, they rely on Karen to take of mother. Karen tries to be a good daughter, but at 35 she’s exhausted has lost her shine and doesn’t have any energy left for friends.

Even before the death of Karen’s father, Karen’s mother regularly reminded Karen of her expectations of her as a daughter while at the same time professing a deep concern for Karen’s development as a woman. In reality, Karen can only develop in ways in which her mother approves. She cannot change jobs because her mother says it’s too risky. “We have to endure in life”. No boyfriend has ever been “good enough” and going out with friends invariably brings on an asthma attack resulting in Karen needing to return home to attend to her mother’s needs. Karen’s mother won’t accept help from anyone else – Not from her sons and especially not from her daughters-in-law, who are ‘arrogant bitches’. “You are the only one who understands me” she tells Karen.

After engaging in a Play of Life session, Karen identified that, up until the age of 21 or so, she had felt privileged in being favoured by her mother. She often defended their “close” relationship when friends told her what they saw, a mutual dependence that seamed not right . Now she feels trapped and is becoming increasingly resentful but knows her mother will never change

The Role of Karen’s Mother is called Role Given, it’s the role that provokes a response.

Karen’s role is called Role Taken, This role it’s the role that responds to the stimulation


In Role Given-Role Taken, the power and control is in the hands of the Role Giver. The dynamic between the two perpetrates cultural conserves, which are difficult to change, and which produce guilt, tension, resentment, bitterness, burnout, deception, mistrust in relationships, low self-esteem, confusion and depression. Cultural conserves create a relationship that is based on pretence, dishonesty and lies. If the situation is not rectified, the person who plays the Role Taken will eventually take on the Role Given with another person; expecting the pattern to continue. Abused people often become perpetrators.

Carlos A. Raimundo

Role Given - Role Played

Upon learning how to name roles, Karen identified that the “Role Given” to her by her mother was that of ‘Dutiful Carer’ and that her “Role Taken” was ‘Resentful Complier’. This dynamic is called “Role Given-Role Taken” and, if not changed, it will become more and more entrenched; creating a specific, predictable relationship culture. As the culture is set, it is called a cultural conserve.

The cultural conserve is an institutionalised, expected and predictable way of playing certain roles in life. It is difficult to change, and change can only be achieved through a creative process where spontaneity plays a decisive role. The power and control in this particular relationship is held by the Role Given, as the other role simply responds without any creativity or spontaneity. The Role Taken is like a robot, automatically responding in a predictable way to a stimulus.

Every time Karen is approached by her mother, Karen has the opportunity to respond as a robot or as a protagonist (someone who is proactive in choosing an appropriate counter role). She responds as a robot not because she likes it or because she chooses to, but because she doesn’t know how to do otherwise.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 5.45.18 PM

Karen identifies the alternative role she would like to play as ‘Willing Supporter’, where she can feel a sense of freedom and choice. This is called “Role Playing”. The role given her is ‘dutiful Carer’ but instead of relating (Role Taken) as a ‘Resentful Complier’, Karen can play the role of ‘Willing Supporter’. This involves giving her mother appropriate help through a caring nurse, and doing things that work for Karen rather than things that work only for her mother. The role of ‘Willing Supporter’ also involves meeting with the family to change the family culture. Let’s note that the role expressed here is a catalyst, and it does not require that Karen be the one who must change the culture of the family.

The power in the relationship of Role Given-Role Played is shared. It is a dynamic of growth, freedom and spontaneity. It creates relationships of honesty, openness, frankness and joy.

Identify a role you have ‘taken’ in response to a role ‘given’ that you would like to consciously replace with a ‘role played’. Name the Role Given, Role Taken and Role you would like to play.


Finding the Point of Power

In any interaction with another person, the roles we play can be Constructive, Fragmenting or Ambivalent.

Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, especially in situations of high anxiety, a Constructive role we would like to play is insidiously hijacked. We ask ourselves, “How did that happen? S/he did it to me again! Why did I go there?” Before we know it, a discussion has turned into a battle of wills; an appropriate confrontation has escalated into a screaming match; a firm resolution to stand our ground crumbles into resentful submission.

Karen identified the role she wants to play with her mother as Willing Supporter but when she is stressed, fatigued and caught off guard by her mother’s response, she finds herself defaulting back into old roles.

Karen maps out the sequence of roles played out in one of their interactions. She creates a “Role Cascade”.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 5.52.21 PM

Looking at each of the above rolls, mark both the feeling and the action as Constructive (C) or Fragmenting (F) then decide what kind of roll is being played.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 5.54.02 PM

Point of Power
Whenever we map out the roles in a Role Cascade, it is easier to pinpoint where we stopped playing a Constructive role in response to the other; the point where we defaulted into an Ambivalent or Fragmenting role. This is the Point of Power.
Karen’s Point of Power: __________________________
Constructive Role Karen could have played at that point: __________________________

The Role Cascade Technique 

Think of a recent relational dynamic that developed into a dispute, a conflict or a battle of wills. The interchange may or may not have started with you but ultimately it went in a direction that became unproductive and frustrating, from your point of view.

1. Map out the roles you and the other person played in the process.
Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 6.01.47 PM
2. Analyse each role and categorise it as Constructive “C”, Fragmenting “F” or Ambivalent “A”.
3. Locate the Point of Power; the point at which you moved from Constructive role playing to Ambivalent or Fragmenting role playing. Circle that role.
4. Looking at the Point of Power, what Constructive role could you have played in response to the other person?

The Role Cascade is like an x-ray into patterns of behaviour.

Carlos A. Raimundo

Categories: Case Studies