There are many different reasons why we sometimes drift into playing unhealthy family roles in our family (past and/or present). No family is perfect and we all have room to grow in our communication, how we relate and how to best meet each other’s needs. But often when there is one person in the family, (particularly a parent), who is significantly dominant it tends to skew the way the family functions, leading them into unhealthy family roles. One example might be when someone in the family struggles with addiction or has significant (and maybe untreated) mental health issues. Another might be when someone has a strong personality and doesn’t leave room for grace or flexibility with the people around them.
Picture the solar system. The sun sits in the middle and everything orbits around it because of its strong gravitational pull. In this type of family, family member’s choices about who they are and what they need all depend on the “central” person. They aren’t “allowed” to have needs apart from him/her.
5 Common unhealthy family roles:
1. The Enabler– The enabler is typically the caretaker of the home and someone who is a people pleaser. This is someone who tries to keep the peace by making excuses for this person’s behavior or doing things to keep them happy. It can look like bailing them out of a situation and not letting them experience consequences. It could mean avoiding problems at home or denying they’re even there. This also might mean pretending to everyone else that things are fine when they really aren’t. Enablers can be very caring, compassionate, and good listeners but they often take on the family problems as their own. This results in anxiety and depression because they carry the weight of all those unsolved problems themselves.
2. The Hero– Picture Superman. His job is to swoop in, rescue people, and save the day. The hero is usually someone who is an overachiever. They may be a perfectionist with a type A personality. They are typically very responsible and look like they have it all together. As a result, they have a hard time asking for help or admitting when they do something wrong. This can cause significant stress and an automatic desire to control everything in their world.
3. The Mascot– Picture your favorite sports mascot. Their job is to entertain, create laughter and help people forget that they are waiting for the game to continue. The mascot is the family clown. He/she makes jokes to lighten the mood and draw attention away from the unhealthy family member. They are sometimes able to break the tension but as a result, become unable to handle difficult emotions themselves. Their emotional immaturity impacts their ability to have their own healthy relationships in the future.
4. The Scapegoat– The scapegoat is blamed for all the family problems. They usually look like someone with behavior problems who “acts out,” drawing attention away from the real issues. This also causes tension in the family because they are typically honest about the real family issues, refusing to pretend that everything is OK. Their anger may lead to other problems like self-destructive behavior, truancy, underachieving at work or school, and substance use.
5. The Lost Child– The lost child is typically easy-going, flexible, and goes with the flow. They are afraid to be a burden or rock the boat. This can look like acting quiet and withdrawn as a result of being ignored. This role can cause someone to struggle with social skills and have difficulty standing up for themselves. The lost child can also look like someone who is very independent because they are forced to learn to do things on their own. They have difficulty asking for help because in the past no one was there to ask.
Maybe you play (or have played) one of these roles in your family. Maybe you have played a few different roles in your life. Maybe the person your family is revolving around started out playing one of these roles in his/her family too. Learning which roles we gravitate towards (and why) is the start of change. If you need help understanding how one (or more) of these unhealthy family roles has influenced you or your family, we’d love to support you.
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