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Typecasting, Candice Bergen, and Family Relationships

by Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.

I’m experiencing some challenges in my relationship with Candice Bergen.

I recently started watching Boston Legal on Sunday nights, because Candice Bergen had joined the cast. (She joined the cast so that more people like me would start watching Boston Legal on Sunday nights.) Like most Candice Bergen fans, I mainly associate her with her character on Murphy Brown: tough, smart, funny, sharp, no-punches-pulled, slightly over-the-top, and definitely not someone you want to have angry with you. Even the Vogue editor she played for a few episodes of Sex and the City fit this mold.

While I’m certainly enjoying watching her on Boston Legal, it’s been an interesting challenge for me, because the character she plays, Shirley Schmidt, is different from Murphy Brown. I expected her to be playing a larger-than-life version of her usually type. Instead, we’re shown a very different Candice Bergen, and I’m noticing that even after three episodes, I’m still having to adjust my expectations.

Shirley Schmidt does embody all of the strong qualities that Candice Bergen’s characters are famous for: brilliant, no-nonsense, sharp and canny. But she’s also much softer and more compassionate than I expect from her characters. This new character is still Candice Bergen, but she’s a far more subtle and nuanced Candice Bergen than I expected.

I realized this after the first episode. And yet, I still expect her to behave in the way she did in Murphy Brown. I expect her confrontation scenes to be bigger and louder and broader, and I don’t expect to see her character as a layered and multi-faceted person.

This is creating a certain amount of strain on my relationship with Candice Bergen. I’m having to alter my expectations of how she behaves, and who she appears to be as a person.

Sadly, I don’t actually have a personal relationship with Candice Bergen. I simply have the same relationship to her that millions of other television fans do. But even in this one-sided relationship, I still have safety and validation needs, and this change in her character is disrupting those needs. The fact that she has evolved, that she is playing a different character requires me to adjust my expectations and redefine my relationship with her, and this makes me feel less safe in our relationship.

(At this point, in the interest of avoiding a restraining order, let me state that I am only using Candice Bergen as an illustration.)

In Hollywood, actors are, often arbitrarily, assigned a “type.” We see an actor in a certain role, and identify her with that role. The stronger the identification, the harder it is for us to accept her in different roles. Actors constantly struggle against “typecasting,” because once they’re seen as a certain “type,” they find it more difficult to be cast in roles that differ from this “type.”

Jim Carrey, for example, is a fine dramatic actor; however, it’s taken him many years (and a number of baby steps) to be able to be accepted in more serious roles, and audiences still relate to him best when he’s being a clown.

But typecasting doesn’t just happen in Hollywood. We also encounter typecasting in our family relationships.

For most of us, we first experience typecasting because we’re the ones being typecast. Our families have an uncanny knack for not recognizing how much we’ve evolved and matured as individuals. No matter what our accomplishments, no matter how much we’ve achieved, our parents and siblings invariably remember us as we were in our most memorable (and usually our least favorite) role from our childhood.

When we spend time with our families as adults, we struggle against this typecasting. We try, in increasingly less subtle ways, to get our families to recognize and relate to us for who we are, rather than for who we were. It’s an ongoing struggle--one that we seem to lose more often than we win, reverting to type and playing out our well-established roles in the family drama long after we believe we’ve outgrown them.

What we rarely notice while we’re feeling typecast ourselves, is that we’re making the same typecasting assumptions about our family members. We’re so concerned that our family members notice how much we’ve changed and evolved that we don’t take the time to notice how our family members have also grown.

Since the Universal Law of Relationships states that our partners in relationships are our mirrors, (and therefore it’s never about the other person), if we want our families to accept us for who we are now, all we need to do is to learn to accept them for who they are now. When we change how we relate to our families, the way that they relate to us will also change.

It’s quite simple, actually. Unfortunately, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Just as it’s taking me time to adjust my expectations of Candice Bergen and accept her in her new role, it takes us (and our families) time to adjust our expectations and begin to relate to each other as adults.

One essential thing to recognize is that anytime the nature and dynamic of a relationship changes--especially a long-standing relationship such as a family relationship--we’re dealing with the question of safety needs.

Let me explain. One of the fundamental things that our egos need in order for us to feel safe is to know what to expect. On the most fundamental level, “safe” is the same thing as “familiar.” We don’t have to like what we expect in order to feel safe; we simply have to experience what we expect.

Consider this: Our family relationships are some of the most important (and frequently difficult) relationships in our lives. We value safety in these relationships tremendously, because safety often seems to be in such short supply. No matter how well defended we may feel in the rest of our lives, our family members always know where (and how) we’re the most vulnerable. We instinctively cling to what’s familiar (and therefore safe) in our family relationships, and this results in typecasting.

On a conscious level we may want to embrace our family members and recognize their evolution as individuals. On an unconscious level, however, the fact that our family members are no longer playing their familiar and safe roles in the family drama is very threatening. We (and our family members) unconsciously cling to the familiar family dynamic (no matter how dysfunctional it may be), and try to impose it on our family members—even as we attempt to escape it ourselves.

There may be some very deep and dark fears at the root of this. As long as we stick with the original family dynamic, we’re still a family. We’re bound by blood and we are required to stay in relationship with each other. Parents are required to raise and protect children; children are required to live with their parents and abide by their rules; siblings are required to put up with each other, or at the very least not fight in a moving vehicle.

Once we become adults, however, this dynamic no longer applies. The thought that our family members are no longer required to be in relationship with us--and worse, that they could choose to reject or abandon us--is fundamentally terrifying.

This is not necessarily a universal fear, of course. But I invite you to consider that we do derive a certain amount of comfort--and safety--from the knowledge that there are some relationships that will always be a part of our lives.

So, how do we overcome typecasting in our family relationships? The same way that we change any belief or pattern in our lives: through AWARENESS, OWNERSHIP and CHOICE.

First, we become AWARE that our expectations of our family members may be out of date. Next, we OWN and take responsibility for our expectations, and for our safety needs. We are responsible for maintaining the balance in our own safety accounts. It is not the responsibility of our family members to help us to feel safe by living up to our expectations of them. Finally, we CHOOSE to relate to our family members as they are now, rather than as they were then.

When our family members have difficulties in accepting us for who we are now, remember that they’re feeling unsafe. Who we are is unfamiliar and threatening to them. Once we’re AWARE that we’re involved in a safety issue, we can OWN the situation. Owning this particular situation means recognizing that we’re not responsible for the fact that our family members feel unsafe. We are, however, responsible for making sure that their lack of safety does not result in us feeling unsafe as well. Finally, we can CHOOSE to be gentle with our families, helping them get to know who we are, not making them wrong for relating to us as we were, and ultimately allowing them to feel safe in our relationship once more.

I’m gradually overcoming my expectations in my relationship with Candice Bergen, and as a result, our relationship has improved tremendously. Just imagine how powerful overcoming typecasting can be in your family relationships!


Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit http://www.EveryRelationship.com for a FREE Report on creating Amazing Relationships.

©2006 Kevin B. Burk, all rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article in your publication, web page, or eZine (which you may do for free!), click here for details.

 

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