Co-dependent families and the roles we play in them

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: (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.


About brendamarroy

blogger, and author
This entry was posted in Consciousness, Family, healing stories, inspirational, Making choices, personal, Reflections, spiritual and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Co-dependent families and the roles we play in them

  1. alexupcast says:

    Brenda, This is a great post-and so timely.

  2. Grace says:

    Brenda, I just came across this post and found it so interesting and relevant to this upcoming holiday. I was a mix of hero child/lost child while my brother was the mascot. We still have these roles even though we are both in our 50s. Our relationship has always been shaky. Reading this gave me a lot of insight. Thank you.

    • brendamarroy says:

      Dear Grace,
      Thank you for reading and for leaving your comment. I daresay, we all play different roles in our lifetime, however, every one does not have the insight to see into their life. I am grateful you are a see-er. Light and love to you as your walk your enlightened path. ❤

  3. This was a very insightful piece. I reblogged it on Musings On Life & Experience and pinned it on Pinterest.

  4. Interesting post, Brenda ~ I was the Lost Child but have recently been turned into a Scapegoat by my own adult children gossiping behind my back. (Now I’m wondering how often this has happened in the past, without me identifying it!) My refusal to play and to speak my own truth has caused an enormous rift, and I haven’t been allowed to see my grandchildren for most of this year. Your words about healing and about trauma bearing gifts is encouraging to me right now. Thank you 🙂

    • brendamarroy says:

      I feel you, Jacqueline. I’ve been there with my children and went through an almost two year healing process around it. I got very clear that they wanted to make me responsible for what did not work in their life. I let them know I took responsibility for my contribution to how they were raised and the mistakes I made but that they were responsible for healing their life, as I am for mine. I changed the dance steps which made them uncomfortable and angry.

      I am thrilled to report that we are all pretty much dancing together again. During the time apart I got to see how I contributed to our dysfunction and was able to transform my “mother” role first within myself, then with them.Our relating to each other is on a different level now and it feels very good.

      I’m thinking of you as you go through this uncomfortable time with your children and my heart is with you. ❤

  5. Julio says:

    I loved this blog. Reading something that describes you pretty much to a T is very enlightening. In my family I’m the mascot/caretaker. I will try to learn more about this topic and hope to start my path to recovery.
    Thank you so much for writing this.

  6. The roles of the dysfunctional family are so complex. I think you forgot the rescuer. I’ve read Bradshaw book.

  7. Hermionejh says:

    I can so relate! I was definitely a scapegoat in my family, and that continued to play out through-out my life. It still surfaces once in a while, but I’ve learned to stand up for myself more, even if I’m not always successful in being treated as I want to be.
    I so enjoy your thoughts on relationships and the dynamics at play, as well as other areas you’ve explored. Thanks Brenda!

  8. Tameko says:

    Brenda, this is an amazing blog. I, too, identify with the codependent roles. Although, I’m not an only child, I was the only child being raised in the house because my older sibling was out on her own with her own family. I took on all 4 of those roles as a child and from time to time, especially recently, I find myself in those roles at various times. One thing I’ve learned throughout my healing journey thus far is that these roles are learned within the family, but they have a tendency to spill out into other relationships (friends, life partner/spouse, co-workers, etc.), if we’re not careful. Awareness is truly a gift from the Divine. Awareness of where we’ve been and we are now helps us to travel a different route to our future. Thank you for writing this blog. Blessings!

    • brendamarroy says:

      Thank you for your encouraging words. And, you are absolutely right. These roles do spill out into our other relationships. How can they not, unless we’re split off from ourselves?
      Awareness is such an amazing gift from creator. Like you, it allows me to continue to see where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I want to go. Blessings to you also. Brenda

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