I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the topic of family roles. All I know about the subject is from my personal experience, in learning about, and working on, healing my addiction to the role I have played.
According to many family therapists, there are four dominant roles that children play in dysfunctional families. I believe everyone knows what a dysfunctional family is, but if you’re wondering and not sure, I’ll give you a textbook definition. I remember, when I began my healing journey, hearing John Bradshaw say that 98% of families have some form of dysfunction.
Definition of a dysfunction family: A term used to describe a family where conflict, misbehavior, and abuse of varying degrees and types continually takes place. Dysfunctional families are continuously out of balance and often teeter on the edge of crisis, or they may be in continual crisis. The family is full of unresolved conflicts and negative emotions such as toxic shame and fear, and typically, some form of co-dependency issues of abandonment and enmeshment are present: www.adultchildrenofdysfunctionalfamilies.com (click on dysfunctional?)
The reason I’m writing about this is because of an incident that happened in my family this past week. Without going into detail, let me say that there was an emotionally traumatic event. I sat quietly looking at the dynamics of what happened, and processing my feelings,and I had an epiphany. While praying about the issue, and asking universal energy, “Why do I wind up getting blamed for what others feel?” the answer came to me as if on a giant Technicolor screen. “Because I’m still playing the role of the scapegoat, which was my family role as a child.” I wondered, “Could this be true?” I sincerely believed I’d left that role behind. What I’ve learned in just three short days, is how hard it is to walk away from a family role, even when you’ve changed your life and taken a different path.
John Bradshaw, psychologist and author of The Family: A Revolutionary Way of Self-Discovery says, “In dysfunctional families, the individual exists to keep the system in balance. This is the fate of every individual in a dysfunctional family. The whole family is dis-eased and each person gives up his true self to play a role in keeping the family together.” There are four basic roles that children adopt, in order to survive growing up in dysfunctional families. Those roles are:
Hero: This is the perfect child, the one who does everything right. He or she may be the first one to graduate high school or college. This person is trustworthy and responsible and is the child who makes the family look good to outsiders. On the inside, the hero may feel inadequate, afraid of failure, shamed, and/or numb. As an adult the hero is usually rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmental.
Mascot/Caretaker: This child is the class clown, and/or the family clown. He/she helps to lighten the mood in the home through humor. Mascots are funny, attention-seekers, lovable, immature, and needy. These children take responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family. On the inside they may feel left out, shamed, lonely, and/or insecure.
Lost Child: This is the quiet one who stays out-of-the-way. He/she will play alone a lot, is independent, agreeable, soft-hearted, invisible, and usually likes to bury his/her nose in a book. Lost children are non-confrontational and they hide behind the role. A lost child usually makes the family look good also, because he/she is such a good kid. On the inside they may feel unnecessary, depressed, confused, shamed, and/or scared.
Scapegoat: This is the child that the family feels ashamed of. He/she is the trouble maker or problem child. The scapegoat gets into trouble, which helps to take the focus off of the family problems, because everyone is focused on his/her bad behavior. The child is usually strong-willed, rebellious, rude, and sassy, however, the scapegoat is the most emotionally honest child in the family. The scapegoat usually becomes pregnant or addicted as a teenager. On the inside they may feel rejected, misunderstood, shamed, and/or betrayed.
Children, many times play more than one role, depending on the family dynamics. The problem in adapting to these roles is that we can get a distorted view of who we really are, and therefore lose self in the process. Before we know it, we’re grown up, we’re still playing the same role, and our authentic self has been lost.
I understand that role-playing in families can have some positive results, but when we continue in the role, the effect on our lives can be treacherous. Being a scapegoat and seeing what it has done to my life, I feel safe in comparing it to an insidious disease that can creep up on a person and take over without the host even being aware of it. Because of my identification with the role, I try extra hard to make sure everything is okay with everyone, exhausting myself and my resources trying to stave off any type of disagreement, unhappiness, or disaster. No wonder I’ve been so exhausted.
Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of taking the blame for others discontent in life, feeling somehow that if I’d done things differently, others lives would not be so screwed up. I’ve taken responsibility for things I haven’t even done, to try to fix “my mistakes.” That’s how strongly identified I have been with the scapegoat role. I am aware at this moment that as long as there’s a scapegoat around, people do not have to deal with their emotional reality. They can blame someone else for what’s happening to them, and therefore escape taking responsibility for their feelings.
It’s hard to face this truth about how entrenched I have been in this role, but it’s a fact. I can honestly say, seeing this has been one of the best moments I’ve had this summer. I understand in my core what Jesus meant when he said, “and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I feel a lightness of being over this revelation, and know that since I’ve seen what’s happening, I can choose to move in a different direction in my life.
I’ve reached within and summoned up the courage to take a stand for me. I’ve set some strong boundaries to make sure that I’m no longer the fall guy, I’m speaking my truth clearly (whether I’m heard or not), and I’m committed to healing this area of my soul. Right now I”m still hurting, but because I’m familiar with the road to recovery, I know healing is always happening, moment by moment in my life. Once again, trauma came bearing a gift.
My prompts for this week were: back, wicked, style, and wind.