Roleplay in Schizophrenia


That is one of the first things that I noticed about the voices that I heard in my mind. After I discovered that I had late-onset schizophrenia. I could tell that they were roleplaying. Not Dungeons and Dragons, or kinkier bits. But roleplaying just the same, much like an actor in Hollywood. Except, I came to the realization that the topics often involved the things that were happening to me or concerned people and places really near to my own life.

At first, it was difficult to separate my feelings from what was being said. The words are often very personal. But as I was able to become emotionally detached as an observer, the roleplay elements became clear to me over time. I also had an advantage in coming to this conclusion. Initially, I had thought that the voices I heard were coming from a radio or television set in the next room. The voices that I hear have the quality of a radio broadcast at times. Perhaps one with a really faint or noisy signal. But at the time, that quality also gave credence to the impression that I was hearing an actor or spokesperson on the public airwaves.

I’ve spent years playing roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager. I’ve also spent a good amount of time playing video games online. It has given me the ability to both participate in and recognize roleplay when acted out by others.

We all roleplay every day in our own lives. At work we roleplay the positions we hold in the industry to which we belong. We play our own unique roles with our families at home, whether it be the obedient child or the hardworking father.

I think of it as a critical component to our survival skillset. We roleplay out the acts and speech that would yield the optimal outcome for our desires. Our minds constantly evaluate the potential ways that we might behave in the world.

We create endless simulations of interactions and in them we practice our conversations to see how they might play out. And in the end, we act on those that seem best suited to our needs.

If we wish to talk our mother into giving us a cookie we must find the best speech to give to her if we hope to receive it. If we simply ask her for one, we may come away empty handed and disappointed. But if instead, we tell her that we have cleaned our room and completed our homework, we are much more likely to be successful in our pursuit.

When I mention actors in terms of roleplay you probably have a preconceived notion of what I mean. Movies and television shows are a large part of our cultural experience. But the most common type of roleplay found in decision making for survival is much simpler. I call them the Critic and the Advocate.

When we have a decision to make, one actor plays the part of the Advocate for a position and the other actor plays the part of the Critic. Now, it is important to understand that Advocate and Critic are not stand-in phrases for “good” or “bad”, “positive” or “negative”. It simply means that an actor will advocate for a given position or critique an idea or action.

An example could be of a person standing in a store with the urge to take a candy bar without paying for it. The actor who is in the role of the Advocate for this position would say “Yes, we want it. We don’t have the money to pay, but we should have it. Steal the candy bar.” The actor who is in the role of the Critic might say “No, it is wrong. If we get caught we will be in trouble. Do not steal the candy bar.”

It might seem in this scenario that the Advocate is a “bad” guy. But the actor is simply fulfilling the demands of the role, which is to provide argumentative support for whatever position is being considered. They do not have to believe that the position is a good one. Much like a defense attorney, their job is to advocate for their client. In our case, the client is the current action being considered. It is the job of the Critic to prosecute a case against the considered action. While this scenario leads us to feel as though the Critic is the “good” guy, it is a false impression in the sense that the Critic doesn’t actually care whether stealing is a good thing or a bad thing. The Critic role is to criticize any position regardless of its moral implications.

We could reverse our perception of “good” or “bad” for each of these actors by presenting a different scenario. Suppose that you found a lost wallet with money in it. Your Advocate may propose returning the wallet to its owner, while the Critic would argue that you should keep the money for yourself. Their role is not to have you do the “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong” thing. They simply take a position according to their roles and do their best to argue for the merits of each.

This type of expression of roleplay is a version of the decision engine we require to make logical decisions. Now the engines themselves, the Advocate and the Critic, are very complex actors. But their form is the simplest decision engine that we have. Advance or retreat, say yes or say no, do or do not. And it is also the most common form of dialogue that I heard from my voices.

This was the first time that I understood a defense for the voices that I heard in my head. The voices that I have learned to love. When I found that they were simply fulfilling the roles they were assigned in our intelligence, it keyed me in to an understanding my own.

Imagine if we were to vilify our Hollywood actors; for choosing to play roles as the bad guys in our movies and television shows in the same manner that our ethereal voices, our muses, are blamed for the negative aspects of roleplay in our minds? Such an idea is not even considered in Hollywood. Instead, actors receive awards and accolades for a job well done! We praise them for their skills at roleplay. We don’t seek to restrain them or prevent them from performing such roles.

And so we finally understood the reason for an often negative dialogue in our minds. What was even more enlightening to realize was that we did not have to continue to engage in it.

While it serves an important function in our lives, we can over-utilize such a tool. When people discover that they are better at being critical, than at advocating for ourselves, it is time to find a better balance.

Whether you hear voices manifested in your mind as I do, or you hear your own voice saying negative things to yourself, you can stop. Too many of us are way tougher critics on ourselves than we need to be. Rather than using criticism as a quality improvement tool, we end up tearing down or confidence and morale.

Change is not simple and takes perserverance to keep to it. We need to find ways to direct that mental energy elsewhere. Those ways will be different for each of us. But time spent in the past is lost to being in the present, being in the now and preparing for our future. We can never change the past. No matter how hard we try. And often we endlessly review events that may never happen again. So instead of telling yourself what you should have done, tell yourself what you are doing right now. How you are going to move forward. Even if that is only to prepare for the next moment after that.

With those moments saved, you will find time for the happier you. It doesn’t take as much energy to get you up and into a good mood, when you don’t waste your efforts needlessly beating yourself so far down.

So spend those moments on something positive for yourself. Take on new advocate roles. Find ways to praise yourself instead. We have too many critics. We we want for are supporters, uplifting dialogue and creative ways to find new activities. If nothing else, just spend those moments to see how much happier you can be just watching the world around you.

It’s a much more pleasant way to be.

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