Siria and Melissa discuss family roles, family systems theory, and how to change our role.
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Family Roles – The Part You Play
In this discussion of family roles, we decided to tackle this role and the holiday roles on the same day because we thought they would both be hard to talk about. We’ve also been enjoying mimosas as we do this.
I like that you preface it, but that’s important for the readers to know. This has been a very touchy close-to-vest type of subject, so the family role was touched on it in the last episode when we talked about surviving during the holidays. Why do we feel that discussing roles, in particular, is important?
People may have an inkling as to what the roles may be. Having that understanding and here’s the thing, there are different roles based on the family that you have. There are going to be families that are enmeshed. There are no rules. There’s a lack of boundaries. It’s basically what it is. In families dealing with any kind of addiction, then you get into these roles that people fall into and they only emerge if you’re dealing with addiction in the family.
You mentioned something in the previous episode, which is something I made note of. When we walk through that door of our family abode, what happens? We revert back to whatever it is, like your thirteen-year-old self. Whatever your role is in that family, you immediately, as soon as you step through that gate.
It’s not even you picking it up. It is you’re walking through, here in your cloak.
It’s interesting because I didn’t understand this until Vince, my husband, pointed it out. He’s like, “You change around your family.” I didn’t even notice it. Once he brought that to my attention, I started noticing the things I was doing. I was overextending myself beyond what I normally would. I was saying yes to things I didn’t want to say yes to. We’ll get more into what each of those family roles is. He was right. I was reverting back to the Melissa that my family has come to know.
Also, expect. You rear your ugly head again.
It’s interesting because, and this is the part I was telling you about because you’re like, “We’ll talk about family roles and like the six dysfunctional family roles.” I was like, “No.” I found new research that is interesting. I often say this to Vince, “I don’t even know how I’m related to these people because I’m so different from them.” Do you ever experience that?
I do, and I also tend to go back and go, “I guess I did get that from somebody.”
Science shows that that’s that statement, “I’m nothing like my parents,” is more of a feeling than a fact. Families profoundly affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions, whether we’d like to admit this or not, we’re seeking our family’s attention, approval, and support. In reaction to that, what we’re doing is we’re reacting to other people’s needs and expectations and if they get upset, we try to accommodate for that. Our connectedness between our family members and the functioning of within family members makes us interdependent upon one another.Families profoundly affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even if we don’t admit it, we seek their attention, approval, and support. Click To Tweet
I came across this research on family systems theory, which was developed by psychologist Dr. Murray Bowen in the 1950s. He says, “A family is a system in which each member has a role to play and rules to respect and that the roles impact what is expected of each individual.” You mentioned expectations earlier. For me, for example, I was the caretaker, the mediator, problem solver, and based on how my family perceived me is how they interacted with me. How family members interact is directly related to how they perceive you or your role in that family.
These roles that we live into are determined by relationship agreements that have been formed over time. That saying, we’ve mentioned in previous episodes like “You teach people how to treat you,” that’s 100% true. Maintaining our role or our behavior in the family may provide some balance within the family system for a while, which also leads to dysfunction.
I’ll take my role in the family as a caretaker, for example. When my parents divorced, my mom was distraught. My dad was all up in the business of his new woman, and I was left to take care of my siblings. As the caretaker, I was giving some reprieve to my mom, who was distraught. For a short period of time, that brought balance and peace within the family because I was fulfilling a role that needed to be filled or so I thought. However, as time grew on, I became resentful and I began to distance myself from that family since that role no longer served me. What Dr. Bowen is saying is that patterns and behaviors will continue to operate that way until it’s challenged.
In a previous episode, I mentioned how one Christmas, I went above and beyond to cook and cleaned for the holidays. None of the efforts that I was putting in was being reciprocated. This is after years of this type of behavior. I grew resentful. I was like, “Fuck this. I’m done.” What resulted from that is I started to change my behavior. Changing your role in the family doesn’t just impact you. The immediate impact might be me. I might be starting to establish boundaries, but what happens is it sends ripples throughout the entire family. Now you’re changing the family dynamics and how people feel and act about that can range.
Also, people will try to keep you in that role. They will try very hard because that’s what they’ve known.
I’d shared that in a previous episode where I was trying to change the family dynamics. I was starting to establish healthy boundaries for myself, but it wasn’t easy and I had to learn how to craft, and how to say no. I draft text to five different people before I sent it to my sibling, and it wasn’t well received, but that’s okay. That’s a normal part of the process when you’re starting to change that role within the family. Just know that that’s not going to just be felt by you. It’s going to be felt by everyone.
For our readers, that caretaker of the family role sounds intuitive, but it’s also known as the family hero in psychology. Inside the family, this person is a good kid, a high achiever, follows all the rules, seeks approval, and responsible. They’re the person in the family that you go to when shit hits the fan. They’re the person that’s going to take on that mantle of being the parent in a way.
Also, real quick to interject, I was doing research. Oftentimes, when a person grows up in a traumatic household and is forced to become an adult quicker than they need to be the parentified child, you are often the caretaker because the caretaker is a parentified child.
What that does, and we’ve talked about that in an earlier episode too, where you have the different developmental changes, the natural changes that you would make in life. If you have to skip adolescence and some of these steps because you have to provide food for the family, you have to physically make the food or you have to do other things that a caretaker’s supposed to do, that’s something that’s going to come out in the family.
In addition to the family hero, which I identify with being the family hero, I got a phone call from one of my siblings. “I don’t know who to talk to.” I don’t know what’s going on here, but one of our cousins needs some help. It turned out to be like this whole other drama, big scam, and I’m sitting there like, “I can’t fulfill this role for you because I have a deposition in twenty minutes. Give me a number. I’ll make one phone call. That’s it. Give me the name.” I looked up the name and the number. The name was associated to a Mexican drug cartel and I was like, “Fuck this. I’m out.” I don’t even know if that was a real name or not, but it did not matter.
I’ve watched Narco. You need to be careful.
That’s why I’m out. I don’t care what this is. I am out. If they need some help on some other things, call mom. That’s probably who you needed to call to begin with anyways, but no, he called me because that is one of the roles that I play. It’s like you got the family hero/caretaker of the family. That’s who you’re going to have. Now, keep in mind that these roles will usually only come out in addiction dependency-type situations.
Every family has some sort of dysfunction. There might be family members or families that have an extra teaspoon or two of dysfunction, but every family has dysfunction. These roles still apply.
No family is perfect. You’re not going to have that. I do think that there are healthy families. I’ve observed healthy families and then there are families with a lot of dysfunction.
No, I appreciate you saying that. The reason is I have not seen a healthy family dynamic, and so for me, I have no frame of reference for that.
I looked up healthy families as part of the research for this one because I was like, “What does a healthy family look like if we’ve got all these other family roles?” I’ll get to those in a little bit. I do want to finish going through these for our readers since I do think that it’s important. You may see this in yourself or you may see it in a partner where when they revert back, they may revert back to some of these roles that they don’t necessarily have in your family. Here’s the thing. Your family role changes depending on which family you are in. If you’re going back to your nuclear family with your parents, you’re going to have one role versus the role that you have in with your partner.
You’re going to have that in different settings, but even in group families, your friends, that’s the family that you choose, some of these roles come out in there too. You’re not necessarily all going to be fully functional, but I do think that these are good things for people to know. The other roles here are you have the victim.
The victim is basically the chemically dependent person. That’s what they call them. This person is going to be blaming everybody else. There’s going to be a lot of manipulation, aggression self-pity. They’re going to be possibly charming and have a lot of rigid values. That’s what they’re going to show on the outside. On the inside, they’re full of shame, guilt, fear, pain, and hurt.
The research that I did, addiction did come up as one of them, but to me, it also reminded me of the other role, which maybe is one and the same, or there’s a lot of overlap between the two, which is the scapegoat.
Also, the scapegoat is a separate role.
I saw a lot of parallels between the two. Just because you are a scapegoat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an addict.
The scapegoat is the problem child. They’re on the outside, going to be hostile, defiant, rule-breaking, and constantly in trouble. On the inside, they are filled with rejection, hurt, guilt, jealousy, and anger. Why you saw those parallels is because what the scapegoat will do sometimes mirrors what the victim is doing in order to take away attention from the victim and take away attention from this big problem that’s happening over here. They can do that. They may not know consciously that they’re doing that, but that is something that’s going on. There are similarities between those two roles.
Also, in my research, the scapegoat has learned quickly and at a young age that bad attention is better than no attention. They’ll act out, and it makes me sad because when I was reading these roles, I’m looking at my siblings because I’m 1 of 4 children. I’m like, “That is me, that is so-and-so.” The person who comes to mind, and all my siblings would agree, who the scapegoat in the family is, it made me sad.
I learned that scapegoats are often aware of their role in the family and may feel rejected, unlovable, and isolated. Maybe we will talk about this later, but you see how these roles play out in our decisions, the partners we choose, and maybe even some of the professions that we go into to help heal or deter the feelings that we felt as children. I found that to be interesting.
Everybody knows who the scapegoat is in the family, and here’s the thing, everybody knows who everybody else is in the family too. You’re going to know who the scapegoat is. What I found interesting on the scapegoat aspect was that aspect of, “I’m going to deflect attention away from the victim, and this the way to do it.” It is by acting out because otherwise, everybody’s so focused on the person who has the main problems. From there, you’ve got the lost child. This is the forgotten child. On the outside, they’re very shy and quiet. They live a solitary life. They’re maybe mediocre.
They attach to things rather than people, but on the inside, there’s a lot of rejection, hurt, and anxiety. I can imagine so and feel like I know who the lost child is in my family. I’m going to not be doing anything to call attention to myself. Now, this next role is an interesting one, too. It is the chief enabler. In my family, I feel like I know who the chief enabler is, but I don’t think they realize that’s what they are. That’s not for me to point out to them, and that’s for them to figure out on their own.
The chief enabler is the closest emotionally to the victim or the protector of the family. On the outside, they’re going to be self-righteous, they’re going to be super responsible, sarcastic, and passive. They’re also going to manifest physical symptoms of being physically sick. They’re going to be the enabler.
On the inside, there’s a lot of anger, low self-esteem, hurt, and guilt. The final role that comes out is going to be the mascot. This is going to be the family clown. On the outside, they’re going to be immature, fragile, hyperactive, distracted all the time, and on the inside, there’s going to be a lot of fear, anxiety, and insecurity.
Interesting, there was another one that I came across, which I mentioned before we started recording it, which was the golden child. If my siblings are reading, they know exactly who we’re talking about. It’s not the child’s fault, but it’s the parent or the caregiver who will often favor the golden child and who represents all that the parents love within themselves, and it can create animosity between siblings.
How do you think the golden child is different from the family hero? I feel like those are the same.
I don’t because I exhibited a lot of the hero tendencies where I would come in and I would come up with a problem to save the day and I would help, whether it was financially giving family members money because they needed books or tuition. I was there to fill that need, but I was not the golden child.
In your view, the golden child does no wrong.
Does no wrong, doesn’t have any accountability, and doesn’t take fault for anything, but that creates a lot of resentment between that particular individual and other members of the family. What was interesting is as you were talking or going over these roles in the family, immediately I was only thinking about my siblings, and that also pertains to your parents too. I hadn’t thought about how my parents’ roles played into that. I have a question. What is the benefit of knowing what role you or others play in the family?
It’s an awareness issue. Knowing yourself and knowing where you’re at. Here’s the thing. Just because you play that role in the family doesn’t mean you need to stay in that role. You have the ability to get out of that. If we’re talking about being agents of change, this is an area of your life that you can change if you want to. You will get pushback since people don’t want you to get out of that role.Just because you play one family role doesn’t mean you must stay there. You have the ability to get out of that. Click To Tweet
However, it is something that if you know where you’re at, and if you revert back to being the lost child when you’re at a family event or you revert back to being the class clown or the family clown, you may not even like doing those things. As you pointed out, Vince pointed out to you, you change when you’re around your family.
I don’t think Matt’s quite pointed that out to me as I change, but there’s a difference in where I’m at and I’ve noticed it in him. He comes from a healthy family. I hadn’t noticed any dysfunction in them. They’ve got their own things, and everybody does. However, he always reverts back to being extra playful during that time period. Even when his parents aren’t around, he falls all over himself to do all these things for them. He does that for me as well, but it’s a different level. Where I see, “You revert back,” but not anything that I’m upset about later.
You mentioned your desire to change. You see that, “Melissa, you are the caregiver, but I’ve also been the hero. You talk about this desire to change. There are so many things at play here. Yeah, I might be sick and tired of being the caretaker. I want people just to be able to handle their shit. I don’t want this extra responsibility. However, there’s also a part of my ego is I like the feeling of being needed.
If it serves you, that’s fine.
It doesn’t necessarily serve me. There are so many different components that are at play that this needs to feed my ego. I want to feel wanted. I need to feel needed, but I’m also leaving each family function exceptionally drained because it’s not filling me. How do you sift through? Is it time to change, and what role do I go into? What’s a healthy role within a family?
Healthy families are going to have respectful boundaries, respect for one another, and not betray each other’s trust. If you share something with one family member, they’re not going to go blabbing it to somebody else. They’re going to be respectful, that’s basically what it comes down to. Another key part of a healthy family is that individuation is going to be a thing.
This is something that Carl Jung came up with, which is basically when you have to become an individual and some families are not going to let you be an individual, you need to be a part of that unit. I feel this is a transformation that I’ve been through. It’s not only just becoming an individual, but it’s becoming an individual and accepting all of your pieces and having full integration of your full self.
Everything’s together. Once you reach all of that, you’ve now realized your full self, not necessarily your full potential, but your full self. The individualization process is something that some families are going to be, “Not in our family. You’re not allowed to do that. You’re not allowed to be an individual. You’re not allowed to not like sports.”
Maybe you are inept at sports, but this family, “No, we like sports. You are not allowed to do that. You have to be part of this unit.” Those are slightly different things. I also came across enmeshed families. They have zero boundaries. You’re giving me these looks right now because when I was looking at enmeshed families, I thought, “Who do I know who has an enmeshed family?”
In an enmeshed family, you’re looking at a complete lack of boundaries. Parents treat their kids like friends, confidence, or partners. Everything is out in the open. This is one of those things that even one of our guests had talked about, and I believe it was Marisa Lupo. She talks about everything being within the family. When you have this enmeshed family, they don’t let you go through this process either because everything needs to be together.
It’s interesting that you say that, and I’m definitely from an enmeshed family. Every decision I make is like, “That’s a reflection of me,” like me speaking about my parents. As you’re talking about a healthy family, I’m like laughing in my head since I’m like, “This is like a fairytale.” You can only control you, so based on the roles that we’ve just gone over, there’s a lot of dysfunctions in my family, and I’m sure yours.
Within enmeshed family in particular. That is a learned trait, and so that goes through families of this is how it’s done.
When you have a large family, though, the impact that I have on the family is going to be minimal because it’s only me that’s changing.
This is where we get into the next generation. You might be able to help your nibblings with, “There are some things here,” and you’ve done that already because there are times when you’ve shared with me when a parent is seeking information on one of your siblings, and you have purposefully said, “I’m not sharing that with you. If you want to have a relationship with them, go do that.”
Go ask them yourself.
What you’re doing there is you’re establishing a boundary of, “I respect my relationship with my sibling and what they’ve told me but I’m not going to share that with you.” I took a lesson from your book, and I did that with my mom. She was asking questions about one of my brothers. She was like, “Have you seen him? Have you done this and that?” I was like, “Yes.” I kept it very basic and did not give her any information about what was going on in his life because that’s not my relationship. I’m not going to be the triangle in that relationship. I refuse to be in triangulated situations if I can avoid them as much as I can. That’s one of those things, being that relationship and being that filter of information. “No, I’m not going to do that. If you want to have a relationship with them, you guys figure out your own shit and then you can have a relationship.”
I feel like this is the thing that we’re talking about here, moving from dysfunction to healthy takes time. I don’t see my family very often. This could be a transformation that takes years to do. I don’t have that opportunity to necessarily practice establishing healthy boundaries with my siblings because maybe talk to them a couple of times a year or I see them at Christmas every few years or whatever it is. Looking at it, you can only control yourself. As you mentioned, establish those boundaries where there’s trust and you’re respectful. That’s all you can do. Others might continue to play the role that they’ve grown comfortable in, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
You don’t have to continue to play that role. For myself, being the family hero, caretaker of the family, whatever you want to call it, being in that role, I have set up boundaries where I will not rescue you. I want to see what you did beforehand, and I do the same thing with me. Show me your work. Show me what you did beforehand and then I can see if I can help. At the end of the day, you need to have a plan as well. I’m here to help. I want to make sure that I can help. I’ve put myself in a position where I can both financially and emotionally, but I should not be your first call. I should be your last call.
It’s interesting. We talk about if I want to change my role in the family and how I do so. I did find or come up with four steps, many of which we’ve talked about. 1) identify the changes you wish to make. There might be some pool, but it might not even be clear cut. As I mentioned, I want to feel needed, but I also find the role of caretaker and hero exhausting. Get clear as to what changes you’d like to make.
This one is interesting. 2) is watch for familiar clues or triggers. As I mentioned, some of these triggers or cues we may not even be aware of. I didn’t even know that I was changing until my husband pointed it out. Ask yourself, “If I were in a different environment, how would I behave and react in this situation? 3) remembering that change takes time. We just talked about that. Especially if you don’t interact with your family members often, this could take months or years to do. 4) the only person we can compel to change is ourselves. Not everyone’s going to like the changes that you’re implementing for yourself, but who cares. As long as you are happy and it serves you best, continue with that.Not everyone will like the changes you’re implementing for yourself. But as long as you’re happy and they serve you best, continue doing them. Click To Tweet
People who are going to tell you things like, “You changed, man. You’re not the same,” all these things, they’re mad at you because you’re no longer fitting their narrative and the role that they want you to have. Here’s the thing, you’re not living life for them. You’re living it for you. Who gives a fuck what they think? It takes time to have your level of fucks go down as far as mine has gone down. It is possible for you to do that and just know that you’re living your life for yourself. You’re not living for them.
If they didn’t fulfill dreams that they wanted to have, that’s on them, and they have the ability to pursue things that they want to do if they’ve chosen not to do those things. Those are choices. They have to own their choices just like you have to own your choices of what you decide to do and what roles you decide to keep in your life.
When you were just talking about how others might perceive certain changes you’ve made, I’ve been through that. I’ve had siblings use different tactics. It’s funny since I didn’t see them as tactics, but play to my emotional part, whether it’s guilt or whatever. Oftentimes, I would bend. I’m like, “Now they’re going to be put out.” Sticking to your guns. If you’re starting to establish new boundaries, it’s uncomfortable for you, and it’s uncomfortable for them. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable but to be steadfast. If you’ve already told a person no, that you’re not going to do something, or you’ve established a new boundary, stick to it.
It’s going to be super uncomfortable and difficult at first, but I promise you it gets easier the more you do it. Over time, those family members will start to understand, “Melissa’s not going to do X, Y, and Z,” so they no longer ask me for X, Y, and Z. In the end, I’m happier. They might be angry or upset at first, but again, that’s something they’re projecting on you. That has nothing to do with you. As you said, you’re no longer fulfilling what it is that they want to. It’s a selfish act.
Once you identify what your boundaries are, a good way of knowing that you’ve crossed your own boundaries is the feeling of resentment. Resentment is something that my counselor keeps going back to. She’s like, “When you feel resentful, it’s not something somebody else did. It’s a violation that you did to yourself. You violated one of your own boundaries in doing something.”A good way of knowing that you’ve crossed your own boundaries is getting the feeling of resentment. Click To Tweet
When that feeling pops up, that’s when I think about, “Why am I resentful here? It’s because I didn’t say no. It’s because I agreed to do something I wasn’t enjoying. It didn’t fit my 90% rule.” That’s a way for you to monitor that. Here’s the thing. We’re going to let them slip. We’re going to go back to things. We’re going to say yes in a moment of weakness or bend because of some emotional thing, and that feeling of resentment is going to remind you. Why is this important for you? If you find yourself in resentment over and again, you can even change your boundaries.
Nothing is set in stone. You can always adapt, and that’s the beauty of it.
That’s the whole thing. You can adapt no matter what you’re doing. You can adapt to these roles. You can keep these roles. You can move out and in your nuclear family, you might serve one role, in your larger family, you might have another role. In your partnership and your own family that you build for yourself, you’ll have a different role and it’s up to you to decide, “Does this serve me or not. How much of this do I want to continue to take on?”
- Marisa Lupo – Past episode
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