Role-taking, Emotion and the Two Selves


  • Thomas Scheff University of California, Santa Barbara



This note links three hitherto separate subjects: role-taking, meditation, and theories of emotion, in order to conceptualize the makeup of the self. The idea of role-taking plays a central part in sociological theories of the self. Meditation implies the same process in terms of a deep self able to witness itself. Drama theories also depend upon a deep self that establishes a safe zone for resolving intense emotions. All three approaches imply both a creative deep self and the everyday self (ego) that is largely automated. The creativity of the deep self is illustrated with a real life example: an extraordinary psychotherapy experiment appears to have succeeded because it was based entirely on the intuitions of the therapist. At the other end from intuition, in one of her novels, Virginia Woolf suggested three crucial points about automated thought: incredible speed, role-taking, and by implication, the presence of a deep self. This essay goes on to explain how the ego is repetitive to the extent that it becomes mostly, and in unusual cases, completely automated (as in most dreams and all hallucinations). The rapidity of ordinary discourse and thought usually means that it is superficial, leading to greater and greater dysfunction, and less and less emotion. This idea suggests a new approach to the basis of ‘mental illness’ and of modern alienation.