When family roles lead to problems
As regular readers know, one of my passions is that readers, clients, everyone, find a way to be truly themselves, truly who they really are, truly authentic.
One of the barriers to this, though, may be the family roles that we occupied as children. If one has taken on a role at a really young age, as often happens in families (particularly but not only in dysfunctional families), it is often difficult to disentangle what one has become in that role from what one really is, or wants to be.
When, as a coach, I ask someone who or what they wanted to be when they were young and “dreaming with shining eyes” (I don’t know why I love that phrase, but I do), most people can remember their early dreams, whether or not they have since discarded them. On the other hand, folks who learned to function in a family-assigned role at an early age may have no memory of dreaming to be anything different. The role they stepped into was the role that, in one way or another, kept them safe, brought them praise, or at least distinguished them from other, older (and therefore apparently more successful) siblings.
What do I mean by a family role? There are many, and not all families have all of them, obviously. They are most likely to appear in extremes in dysfunctional families where each role achieves a purpose, both for the child and for the rest of the family. Often the purpose is to cover up or distract from parental dysfunction. Here are a few of the best-known. Some of these may overlap; a child may take on more than one.
There is the hero child – the child who seeks to achieve, the one who makes his/her parents proud, the one who is boasted about and held up to all the others as a model who they should seek to emulate.
There is the peacemaker, who attempts to smooth out problems, to divert from confrontation, to apologize on behalf of others.
There is the wild child/scapegoat – the rule-breaker, sometimes described by parents as a “bad seed.” Often this child becomes the scapegoat for minor reasons, and is blamed for things s/he did not do. After a while there seems no reason NOT to be a rule breaker, since s/he gets accused of rule breaking anyway, and a downward spiral of behavior continues.
There is the jokester/mascot, who distracts by being funny, often appears hyperactive but may not be truly ADHD.
There is the lost child – the one who few people notice whether s/he is in the room or not. Quiet, often bookish, feeling as though s/he does not fit in, this child often feels as though everyone else matters more than s/he does.
There is the clever one. The pretty one. The plain one. The dumb one.
Not by choice
Often, there is little or no choice in the adoption of these roles. (I am not implying, however, that there is an aware, conscious choice on the part of most children. From the child’s viewpoint, the roles “just happen” and most are barely aware that they occupy them – at the time.) If you are born into a family where friends and relatives gather round to coo over how pretty one of your siblings is, then there is not much point in competing there. After all, if you were pretty, they’d coo over you, too, right? If someone else is often referred to as “the clever one” it quickly becomes obvious to you that this is not your niche, because if it were, they’d call you clever, also. And so on.
If, as a young child, you find that looking after the family. sometimes siblings, sometimes also dysfunctional parents, gains you praise and admiration from all and sundry, it is likely that you will continue to repeat the behavior and so grow into the “hero child” role simply because, in many cases, it feels like the only way to gain approval.
Obviously there are exceptions to the one-child-one niche concept. In some families two or more children will occupy the same niche, at least to outward appearances. Tennis divas the Williams sisters come immediately to mind, although perhaps those who know them well see things differently. Particularly in sports and in the entertainment fields, whole families may move into the same arena so that it is difficult for the outsider to perceive differences. Sometimes this is far from a matter of choice. I think of a family I used to know in which the oldest became interested in competitive swimming at a very young age. I have no way of knowing whether she was pointed in this direction by her parents or came upon it on her own. However, the demands of after-school practice and child-care for the two younger siblings could only be accommodated by their mother taking the younger children to the pool during the older girl’s practice times. So what were they going to do? Sit around doing nothing for hours at a time? Obviously they all became competitive swimmers, though whether they would have chosen this course had they had other options is not clear. So sometimes an older or particularly determined child cleaves a niche that all are subsequently required to occupy.
In many cases, particularly where there was dysfunction in a family (and where was there not?) a role and its accompanying behaviors may have become a means to surviving. Sometimes the chosen behaviors are the only thing the child knows that will gain approval, or, sometimes, avoid abuse. The behaviors were, at that time and in those circumstances, adaptive. This does not mean that these behaviors will continue to be adaptive when we are out in the real world, and here lies the problem. Unlearning behavior that we don’t even remember learning can be very difficult, particularly when it represents who we think we are.
An example: Some of you will know how strongly I feel about the need for codependent people to learn to change their thinking, and their behaviors, if they are to live happy and fulfilling lives. Those patterns were almost always established when the individual was young. Sometimes they come from a child being “parentified,” in which they play the role of parent to other siblings. This is a heavy burden indeed. Hero children are frequently parentified. A child who gets in trouble because his/her younger sibling falls down the stairs (assuming s/he did not push it!) soon learns that s/he is responsible for keeping the entire world on an even keel. This may be the tattle-tale who tells, not to get a perpetrator in trouble and not to prevent the perpetrator from getting in trouble, but because s/he “knows” that s/he has to stop people from breaking the rules. If s/he does not, the sky may fall. That is how it has always been. This is the person who flees confrontation and tries to save everyone else from negative consequence, no matter how richly deserved and no matter at what cost to self.
We’ve read of the clown whose heart is really breaking. I don’t know what the rate of suicide among comics and class cut-ups is, but I suspect it may be higher than average. How many of these people were the family “mascot,” the one who made jokes and kept self as the center of attention, consciously or unconsciously enabling the rest of the family to ignore whatever were the real problems in the family? Such behavior may be adaptive – in that environment. In the real world, as we grow up, things are different. Such abilities can lead to great external success – or not. To what extent it leads to internal serenity is another issue.
Who are you?
Who are you? Who have you always been? Is that role, the one you occupy now, a role that you really want to inhabit for the rest of your life? Is it the real you? Or does a part of you dream of being a “real you” that is totally different from who you seem to be today? Some counselors refer to the “hole in the soul” as the cause of much pain and, often, of addiction and other unhealthy behavior. I believe that this “hole” is frequently caused by our trying to occupy a niche that is not naturally ours. If this is the case, then there is indeed a hole. It is the niche that you were born to occupy, a niche that remains empty because circumstances led you to occupy another one.
Think about what you REALLY want to do and be. Consider whether there are other ways of being, ways of behaving, that appeal to you. How can you start to be that way?
Perhaps counseling would help – but for one reason or another, many people cannot or will not take that route. If that is not your need, or your choice, I recommend an intensive program of self-help, one way or another. Read. Find and talk with others in the same boat. Consider talking with a coach, though with the clear understanding that coaching is NOT therapy. Journal. Journal. Journal. Some may tell you to meditate. I agree, but don’t go overboard. Unless you have a good level of internal stability, long hours of meditation can be harmful, for it can allow internal chaos to filter to the surface. For an individual without close guidance, this can be disorienting at best. On the other hand, a few minutes a day spent stilling the mind cannot help but benefit most of us.
Understand that you may find yourself working against yourself. There is a tricky term that psychologists use – the “self concept.” It is what you believe you are, along with all the strengths and weakness that you BELIEVE you have. The self-concept is seductive. It leads us to do things, and to perceive things, that will support whatever it happens to be. People who believe that they are not very competent will focus on the things that they have done wrong in their lives, on their failures. They tend to assign any successes to “luck” or to downgrade their importance. To focus on success would be to run counter to that “incompetent” self-concept – and is therefore very difficult to do. Thus the child who grows up focusing on being “the pretty one – but not very smart” is likely to keep this focus even if she has a remarkable mind – unless she takes a firm hold of herself, gets support from the right sources, and embarks on a firm process of re-education.
As parents we are faced with a dilemma. We want to encourage a child to work with its strengths. The intellectually oriented child certainly needs encouragement. So does the athletic child, and the musical child. What I believe to be important, though, is that we not allow each of these niches to grow so that it either swallows the child, preventing it from becoming aware of other attributes, or keeps other sibling out because if A is the musical one then B needs to be something else. We need to remember that when one child is praised disproportionately for a particular attribute, other children will tend to assume that they do not have that attribute, since they are less praised for it. We may know that we should not over-burden children with responsibilities that will “parentify” them. Yet we do need to allow them to grow into responsibility, not hold them back and try to keep them as dependent on us so as to bolster our own feelings of self-worth as parents. Finding the right balance is rarely easy.
Hey, no one said that either being a parent. or becoming all that we ourselves can be, was easy! Yet both are well worth the effort.