Roles People Over-Act in Groups

By Dr. Norman D. Livergood

Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1968

    Long-suffering wife: "What time did you get home last night from the meeting? I finished the dishes, put the kids to bed, and went right to bed myself."

    Guild-ridden husband: "Why do you always check up on me, asking me when I got home?

    We see people playing roles every day--in fact we play these roles ourselves. Such roles block self-awareness and sensitivity to others' feelings. At the same time, the roles we play make life interesting and exciting. We like to spar verbally and put on masks. It's only when we over-act certain roles that we lose meaningful contact with other people--and with our own feelings.

      Group discussion or therapy resembles everyday life, for the people in a group become our "world," as it were, and we learn (or re-learn) how to respond to people in that world. For example, if a person didn't work out his feelings towards his parents in adolescence, he might identify certain persons in the group as resembling his parents and learn to respond to parental types by interacting with them.

    The roles discussed below are ways people behave in groups which block their relating honestly to each other. These are blocking roles within a specific program, Consulting Philosophy; in other kinds of educational-therapeutic processes there might be different roles which block effective group work.

    In Consulting Philosophy groups, individuals work on specific problems. In trying to correct their self-defeating behavior, they analyze their values, their ways of thinking, and their patterns of communicating with others. When a particular member works on a problem, others in the group tell him exactly what they think and feel, responding both positively and negatively to his values, his ways of thinking, and his ways of communicating.

    For example, a professional man is unhappy providing his wife and three children a show-case home, private schooling, wardrobes bulging with clothes, and all the other unnecessary luxuries of the upper-class syndrome. Members of the group might challenge his values ("Why send all your children to private schools?"), might question his irrational ways of thinking ("Who says a man has to give his wife and children everything they desire?"), and might reinforce his ways of communicating ("I think you come across very warm and honest and if your wife doesn't think so, she might be wrong.").

    Whatever the response to the individual, whether negative or positive, we try to see that it is honest--that we say exactly what we think and feel at the moment. Over-acting certain roles blocks openness and defeats the group's purpose.

    One of the purpose of the therapist or facilitator (as he is called in this program) is to see that people in the group become aware of the roles they over-act and over-act them as seldom as possible. As the facilitator, I participate in the group as an actual member, not as an authority figure or expert. I also initiate and make suggestions and even direct at times, but I do not allow my role as facilitator of the group to place me in a position of false superiority to any other member. To do so, it seems to me, destroys meaningful group interaction. Persons looking to the therapist as an authority figure, look to him for answers, for leadership, instead of finding answers themselves, instead of leading the group themselves. Many of the problems people face are problems of relating to authority figures. To allow them to continue their unthinking acceptance of and obeisance to oneself as the therapist, is to prolong their difficulties instead of helping them toward growth.

    The names given in this article are not used in group sessions. Using these names to put people down would itself be a game and the group would quickly pick up on it. The role is not named as such but the person over-acting the role is told in very specific terms what he is doing, why it is ineffective, why it is blocking the group process, and exactly how the person feels about it--usually something negative. Here, then, are some of the roles people over-act in groups.

1. The Intellectualizer

    This is a person who wants to do nothing more than talk about ideas, to intellectualize instead of working to know himself better. Instead of solving very specific problems, he wants to discuss abstract issues.

"Do women differ from men?"

    Talking about ideas instead of oneself is a very effective method of keeping people away. "The Intellectualizer," instead of getting into himself, tries to stay as far away from others as possible. "Would Freud or Rogers or Ellis (or .....) do this in therapy?" Such questions are, for the most part, merely academic; they do not concern the person at a point where he is involved in a specific problem. The group process is one of working with problems; to talk about theories exclusively is a way of avoiding one's problems.

    Talking about theories and ideas is an integral part of group work in Consulting Philosophy--but only in the context of a specific problem. If a woman is trying to decide how to respond to her husband's distaste for her career, then theories about women working will naturally arise. But talking about theories divorced from specific personal problems keeps the person in the "safe" realm of intellectualizing. When the group discusses theories, it is in direct reference to a person's problem, a theory embodied in someone's values or ways of thinking.

2. The Therapist

    "The therapist" is a person who tries to get other people to open up, to express their feelings, to work on their problems--while he does none of these things. He does not want to become a genuine member of the group since this would mean giving up the role of therapist. He constantly asks questions:

"Why do you feel that way? Why do you act that way?"

    He is effective in drawing other people out, but not in drawing himself out. He also over-plays the role of therapist by telling other people what to do:

"Why don't you say this to her?"

    Instead of working on his own problems, instead of saying what he is feeling, he is constantly trying to direct other people.

    The role of therapist is a legitimate one for everyone in the group. In effective groups, people help one another express their feelings, draw out their ideas, and understand their problems. They can effectively ask questions and make suggestions to one another. But "the therapist" likes to play this role endlessly, constantly asking people questions instead of expressing himself. He might ask, "What do you feel right now?" instead of saying, "I feel . . . " "The therapist" is unwilling to let others play the role of therapist; he wants to retain the role for himself, always working with others but not with himself.

3. The Defender

    This person is afraid and wants to defend other people from all possible hurt they might feel. Since he feels threatened, he wants to defend other people from feeling these same threats.

"Maybe she doesn't want to work on her problems; leave her alone."

    Fearful for himself, "the defender" projects his fears onto other people. He then tries to keep the group from becoming honest, defending persons from real expression of feeling, whether negative or positive.

"You shouldn't say you feel sexually aroused by her; she's married."

    He tries to suppress any expression he feels might hurt other people. At the same time, "the defender" is very often the person who hurts others without realizing it.

"You're too hard on him; he's really working and you don't see it!"

    His saying that to defend another person is just as potentially hurtful as anything anyone else could say. But he is "the defender," he wants to direct what is said, wants to keep people safe, wants to do it his way, wants to defend others instead of allowing members of the group the free expression of what they feel.

    A person in a group can quite legitimately tell others that he feels they should not say something or that he feels they are being too hard on another person. But it is done in a way where the person says, "I feel that you're being too hard." He does not constantly attempt to control the situation by trying to make the other person feel guilty for being hard on another.

    He may suggest that they stop doing what they are doing, but he is not constantly defending against the possibility of hurt, only on those occasions where he feels someone is expressing an excessive amount of needless negative feeling or an excessive amount of probing or whatever. He realizes that persons sometimes need a great deal of pressure, and at those times he does not break the atmosphere.

    Strangely enough, "the defender" does not usually feel secure enough to defend himself. The whole process of group work, he knows, is based on the idea that we try not to defend ourselves needlessly. So he becomes the defense mechanism for other people, hoping perhaps that they will then defend him.

4. The Wise Man

    This role expresses to the group, in any of several ways, that the person has a superior understanding of his problems and the problems of others. He is the person who says:

"I can accept people the way they are."

    implying that there are some inferior persons in the group who can't accept people as well as he does. He is completely tolerant, completely understanding. Others, he gives the impression, may reach this level--and he hopes they do--but he's not quite sure they will. If they ever do, it will be because they have had some association with him and his infinite wisdom. "The wise man" is the person who is constantly patting himself on the back for having "worked through" a problem.

    "I saw that I was being too critical, but now I say to myself . . ." He then goes on to explain --ad nauseam--how he came to this new-found wisdom and truth and light. He is the person, very often, who says to the group, "I have no problems." He gives people the feeling, overtly or covertly, that he has worked through all his difficulties. He is in the group to observe, perhaps to learn some new techniques, or just to help out because of his vast experience.

    This role, as well, is one which people can legitimately play at times. But it becomes blocking when done to an extreme. It is helpful for people in a group to discuss what insights they have reached, to accept others in the group, to understand other group members. And sometimes it is quite true that one feels no pressing problem at the moment. So each of the parts of "the wise man" role can legitimately be played. It is when they are put together and when the person never stops playing the role of "the wise man"--he is always sympathetic and understanding, he never says anything but truisms, he never has any problems, he is perfect--that he becomes perfectly intolerable and an ineffective member of the group.

5. The Analyst

    "The analyst" has an overdose of Sigmund Freudianism or some such disease. He can never say anything directly, he always uses some psychoanalytic term.

"You're suffering from an acute Oedipal fixation."

    He can't say he thinks the individual is still too dependent on his mother, he has to say it that way. He sees the other person as aggressive toward women because of "latent homosexuality." Everything that goes on is put into the straightjacket of Freudian terminology. If the person is talking about a rectangular corridor, it's a penis symbol. If a person had a dream of an oriental mosque, it's a woman's breast. Whatever is said is somehow fit into the psychoanalytic system. He does not hear people; he listens only with the view of saying, "Aha, this confirms my suspicion that everything is sexual."

    "The analyst" sometimes becomes "the Rogerian," or "the Albert Ellis disciple," or "the Fritz Perls true believer," or whoever's apostle. Most of us approach group work from a single perspective or a combination-of-ingredients perspective, and this is not to say, therefore, that we should not interpret things according to a psychological point of view.

      But "the analyst" avoids listening altogether because he is so busy putting everything that is said into a fixed system. He deliberately seeks out certain things as evidence for his theory. Even if the person says, "When I was speaking about a corridor I wasn't referring to a penis; there's just nothing to your suggestion," "the analyst" doesn't listen. He says to himself, "No matter what he says, it confirms my suspicion. The reference is unconscious and he's unaware of the sexual meaning." "The analyst" is right no matter what. His system becomes so dogmatic that no amount of evidence could disprove it. He doesn't use a theory as something to test. Everything that happens is a verification of the dogma that he has already accepted as absolutely true.

6. The Vague-abond

    This is the person that is so vague that he says nothing. He makes statements but he does not communicate.

"You're immature"

    All that statement really says is: "At the moment I don't like you." It doesn't tell the individual spoken to what behaviors or attitudes he thinks are wrong or what he thinks he might do to improve. The word "immature," as used by "the vague-abond" is so imprecise as to be unhelpful. Even in working with his own problems, "the vague-abond" puts them into terms that make it impossible for him to do much with them.

"If only I could find myself."

    What does it mean to find oneself? Is the problem that you want to decide on a profession, does it mean that you don't know what role you want to play in a relationship? What specifically is it? "The vague-abond" avoids being specific, he avoids getting to problems by using general, imprecise terms.

    In the groups, we constantly try to pin people down as to what they are saying specifically, what is the immediate problem, what is the distinct feeling. "I'm feeling very good," "the vague-abond" might say. Well, how are you feeling, what are you feeling good about, and can you express it more specifically? It doesn't help for us to know generalities; we must have specifics to work on, to understand.

7. The Jargoneer

    This is the person who can never talk straight; he constantly puts terminology between himself and other people.

"You're an introvert with strong
masochistic tendencies which you repress."

    None of that statement is helpful; it's just jargon to impress people or to try to keep them away by putting them down. If he can identify another person by using a psychological term then somehow he has him in his bag. "What do you mean by introvert?" What is masochism?" "What does repression mean?"

      Granted we cannot avoid all psychological terms, but when it gets to the point of pushing other people away, then we're playing the role of "the jargoneer." This role is related to the roles of "the vague-abond" and "the analyst." Jargon is vague, imprecise, specialized, and this is why it's ineffective. If the term is understood, if the person gets the meaning and it helps him to understand himself or others, fine, but very often jargon is used to talk about instead of really talking to a person. It's used to keep people away instead enhancing our understanding of ourselves or others.

8. The Prefacer

    "The prefacer" cannot say things directly, he must always precede what he says by some kind of long-winded approach--a proviso.

"I'm going to tell you about this insight I got last week
and you may not think it's very important, but I found it very helpful in understanding my relationship with my mother."

    That entire preface could be avoided and the group would appreciate it if he would get right to the point. We don't need to hear that he's about to tell us something, that it was an insight, and because of that needless preface we likely won't find it important, as he predicts. Evidently he is somewhat unsure of himself, and having picked up his feeling of uncertainty, our initial response to it may be:

"If he really doesn't want to say it without all that preface,
then I probably don't want to hear it."

    Very often "the prefacer" needs to preface because he is afraid other people are going to dislike him or disapprove of what he says. He tries to say something to cushion what he is going to say. It's all very much round-about and tentative. Sometimes he feels that what's he about to say might hurt someone, so he wants to lead into it gently so they won't dislike him for saying it.

"Now I know lots of people have this same tendency, but in you. . ."

    Here he's trying to give the person an out--that everyone else is just as flawed as he is. Even though what he's going to point out is negative, he begins by saying indirectly: "It's alright to be this way, because other people have this fault also, and if I point it out to you I'm not really bad because after all you're no different than a lot of other people, so don't hate me for saying what I'm going to say."

    As much as possible, groups in Consulting Philosophy try to get right to the point. We try not to "talk about" what we're feeling, we try to express it directly.

Not: "I'm feeling something negative about you."

But: "I dislike you for merely saying that I'm irresponsible, because that term doesn't tell me anything. You haven't taken the time to try to understand me, just dismissed me with a vague word."

    We try not to preface by saying what we're going to say, we go ahead and actually say it. Prefacing is one way of keeping people away longer and trying to build up our courage, a way of trying to make group members like us if we're going to say something that might hurt them. In the group we work to the point where we can immediately say what we're feeling without the need for a protective preface, saying something another person might not like without trying to cushion it.

9. The Historian

    "The historian" desperately tries to avoid the present. He wants to talk about the past, the history of each group member.

"What happened to you as a child"

"What in your past makes you feel that way?"

    "The historian" is constantly looking for reasons, for causes. His supposition is that understanding the past will, in fact, help the person to make a better adjustment in the present. "The historian" feels that staying in the past exclusively gives us great insight and wisdom. But this is not necessarily correct.

      In my work with people, I have found that staying in the past can be an effective way to avoid present problems. One can more easily talk about the past since it is not felt with such immediacy. A person's problem is a present felt difficulty, something that bothers him now. A brief rehearsal of how the problem arose may help to understand it, but to remain in the past as "the historian" does, is often an attempt to avoid the problem altogether.

"How did your mother treat you?"

    By continually asking such questions, "the historian" is trying to avoid the difficult feelings of the present. We can ruminate on our problems until we're blue in the face, but this does not necessarily help us resolve our present difficulties.

10. The Jester

    "The jester" is the group clown. He must avoid any real contact with people by interjecting some form of humor between himself and them. If he is working on his own problem, he might say, "Yes, my problem's as challenging as a one-armed paper-hanger with the itch." He cannot stand for the attention of the group to be on him too long, so he must, through some kind of humor, put the attention back on the others by making them laugh. If he can make them laugh, somehow he feels accepted by them. He tries to please them with humor, to keep the conversation at a level where he can handle it, where he can feel others like him. "The jester" is a person who is insecure enough to need constant attention and approval, even if has to make himself the "laughing stock" to do it.

    In Consulting Philosophy groups, we quickly point out to the person over-playing this role that in fact this is a way of blocking the whole process. If he is working on a problem, he should say what he feels, should say what is troubling him, not make a joke of it. He should learn to express his feelings instead of taking himself off the hook with humor.

    Humor is often effective in a group process. At times, saying something to another person in humorous way is a very good break when the emotional tension is needlessly high. But it happens almost automatically; it is not something one person does constantly. Different people will interject humor at different times, and no one person has to constantly play the role of "the jester."

    "The jester," then, is the person who blocks the process by keeping humor between himself and others. The emotional atmosphere at times should be highly charged--so people can feel intently what they are experiencing. "The jester" destroys this atmosphere with needless attempts at humor.


    Discussing the roles people over-act is not meant to condemn or dismiss people by putting them into categories. I do not discuss these roles with a group, since people might then begin to over-analyze their behavior, watching for this or that bit of over-acting of a specific role.

    Even if the reader sees himself as over-acting one or more of these roles, he can still be an effective member of a group. Every one--including therapists--over-acts these roles at certain times. The purpose of group discussion or therapy is, in part, to help people see the ineffective ways they behave and stop over-acting certain roles.