Understanding Your Role

Often during the counseling process it becomes helpful to take a look at your family of origin—the family you grew up in. In some ways this makes a lot of sense. C.S. Lewis uses a math analogy to illustrate how if somehow things don’t seem to be adding up while working through a problem, the most helpful course of action is to return to the start and look for where things may have gotten off course. However, for some this can prove particularly painful recollecting the loss or abandonment of a parent or the chaos created by addictive behaviors. In truth, none of us are immune from pain, and it is in our family of origin where we learn how to deal with pain and to carve out space for ourselves.

Within the family ecosystem, each person plays a role in the unfolding narrative. Sometimes these roles are assigned, at times adopted, but generally with little awareness of the “job description” that is lived out. Although not always unhealthy, these roles we assume can create negative implications for life if they cause us to avoid dealing with pain and emotion. Mark Laaser, in his book Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, suggests that members of a family can interact with each other via the following roles.

The Hero: Often scholars, athletes, or social rock stars, the hero is expected to excel. Families devote more time, money, and attention to their success, for they tend to legitimize the family.

The Scapegoat: Sometimes called the black sheep, they are the opposite of the hero. They are expected to be in trouble and to make mistakes, and are not expected to have much talent. They are blamed for many of the family’s problems.

The Mascot (clown): Jokes, sarcasm, and wit are used to deflect attention from family tension or emotions. These comedians bury their own emotions while getting others to laugh and smile.

The Lost Child: Lost children also bury their feelings, but through isolation, reading books or playing silently and alone in another room. Seen as the strong, silent type, they typically really have deep feelings they must learn to numb.

The Doer: This person is always busy, keeping the whole family running. Prone to workaholism, they tend to resent other family members, setting themselves up as the martyr, complaining that no one else helps but declining any offers of help.

The Enabler: In a family system with addiction or abuse, the enabler does nothing to confront the offending behavior. This quiet toleration serves to protect the reputation of the family and hold up the image that everything is “normal”.

The Little Prince/ss: Similar to the hero, this charismatic role expects the child to look good more than achieve success. The job is to entertain and please others by being charming, poised, and polite. They put on a happy face despite inner turmoil.

The Saint: The saint is the religious hero. They take on the role of spiritual and philosophical depth in the family, often becoming ministers, monks/nuns, or rabbis. They initiate or are called on to perform all religious activities.

Recognizing what role (or roles) you played in your family of origin can offer some incredible insights into how you currently interact in relationships, the job you chose, and why it can be so awkward to go home for Thanksgiving. It does make me curious, though. What role did you play? How do you think that role impacts your life today?

– Tim