D. Mackler and M. Morrissey "Understanding Your Role in the Family"

The following text is from the book "A Way Out of Madness" by Daniel Mackler and Matthew Morrissey.

Chapter 4
Understanding Your Role in the Family

We all grow up playing roles in our families, and more intensely and rigidly so in more troubled families. Family roles and family dynamics are generally unspoken and unconscious, especially in families with a higher degree of conflict. Sometimes these roles can be somewhat healthy and prepare us for a strong, independent adult life. Yet other times they can literally cripple us. Understanding your own historical role or roles in your family offers you the key to make more informed choices about your present life, to modify the way you interact with the world, and ultimately to unfold your life and your future. As the saying goes, “The truth will set you free.”

Some family therapists even go so far as to see psychiatric disorders as an expression or a facet of troubled family dynamics. They share the observation that when family dynamics begin to shift for the better—in more loving, respectful, and supportive directions and away from hostility, high emotion, and conflict—the psychiatric disorder of individual family members can become much milder, or even go away entirely. Furthermore, it has been argued by some that it is not even individuals who are “mentally ill,” but whole systems—cultures, societies, and, perhaps most potently, families. Sometimes the people who get labeled with a psychiatric disorder are just the token carriers of the larger problem. Everyone else in the system merely expresses the greater problem latently or in more socially acceptable ways.

So, in that way one might argue that being “mentally ill”—or having patterns of behavior that get labeled “mentally ill”—is itself a role in the family or culture. It, like every role, can serve a purpose. Yet how, one might ask, could having behaviors that get labeled as a psychiatric disorder serve the family in any positive way, and why in the world would anyone take on such a role? This question seems counterintuitive, as clearly a psychiatric disorder wreaks havoc on the family in so many ways. But does it always?

Sometimes an emotionally troubled child, now grown to adulthood, can serve to maintain family stability. For instance, if one child stays behind and needs extra care and attention, this allows parents to maintain their parental role for many extra years and sometimes decades. Although many parents might be miserable about this, others find a degree of comfort in it: there can be a great satisfaction and feeling of usefulness in being a parent, sometimes even a beleaguered parent. In other cases, a troubled adult child can save a parental marriage that might otherwise have ended in divorce. It is hard to have an “empty nest”—a contributing factor to so many divorces—when your child never leaves home or demands all your attention.

There are also times when a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder can be related to the myths of the entire family. Most families believe certain myths about themselves that are not quite true but serve to maintain family stability. Sometimes the person diagnosed with the psychiatric disorder can be the strongest defender of these myths, to the point of absurdity—and a diagnosis. At other times, the diagnosis can represent the person swinging to the opposite extreme and rejecting those very myths—or adamantly rebelling against them—to the frustration not only of the family but to the society that might be sharing some of these very myths.

But often it is difficult for a family or even a society to look at itself closely enough to understand the role of the person in its midst who is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Isn’t it just easier to say that a psychiatric disorder is the result of bad genetics or a chemical imbalance or a faulty shake of life’s dice?

We would reply in this way: look at all the people who have recovered fully from a severe psychiatric disorder and gone on to lead highly mature, satisfied, productive lives. Look at how their brain chemicals readjusted, how their genetics failed to impede their healing, and how their faulty shake of life’s dice shifted for the better.

Yet it can be extremely difficult to recover—and to change one’s way of interacting with and viewing one’s family and one’s society. This requires massive amounts of growth and independence, and this is almost never easy, whether a person has been diagnosed or not. Often it is simply terrifying to grow up and face new challenges, even with family support (though sometimes a family’s way of supporting, by jumping in and trying to help, can prove to be unhelpful). Regardless, the anxiety inherent in this process of struggling for growth and independence can be overwhelming—and itself can lead to breakdown. It is not surprising that most people diagnosed with schizophrenia have what is labeled their “first psychotic break” in their late teens and early twenties—a time of incredible stress and transition, where new roles and expectations abound. Sometimes it is easier to retreat into a private world, a private reality, and a protected family system of familiar expectations, familiar people, familiar myths, and even a familiar setting.

Meanwhile, let us look at some family roles to study what purposes each serve for the family system, and how each has the potential to throw off an individual’s emotional balance:

The Nurturer: The Nurturer plays the role of caretaking his or her parents or other family members. Starting in some cases as young as one or two years old, he is sensitive to their feelings and needs, their wounds, their anger, and puts forth his best energy to assuage them. This gives him a sense of purpose and self-esteem. It also maintains the stability of his parents, filling their inner void, giving them the love they either never got as children or do not presently get in sufficient quantities from their spouse or friends. The Nurturer lives with a massive sense of internal pressure to “be there” for others and take inappropriate responsibility for them—at the expense of himself and his own legitimate needs. This can malform the foundation of his sense of self, stunt his development, and leave him with a twisted sense of guilt for wanting to break away. And all of this prevents him from being able to seek and find his own equal companions on life’s journey. He lives with a huge void within, and if his role collapses—which can easily happen if something disrupts his relationships with those he caretakes—he risks spiraling into nothingness and even into psychosis.

The Hero: The Hero is the child cultivated for ultimate success in the world. He grows up to become a leader, a torch-bearer, a bastion of strength and maturity. He carries all the family’s seemingly positive qualities, and receives self-esteem, praise, and admiration in return. But, as with the role of the Nurturer, being a Hero can create a terrible sense of responsibility within a person, because even the most talented, brilliant, and successful person cannot be perfect all the time. And when this success fails, which may be inevitable on life’s stormy path, there’s nothing left behind the Hero’s façade but the emptiness of breakdown—and sometimes deep psychological breakdown.

The Scapegoat: The Scapegoat is the lightning rod for the family’s split-off and repressed anger, rage, and hatred. Every family, especially a traumatized family, holds hidden negativity, and often it cannot be expressed toward the people or situations that really deserve it. So the child playing the role of the Scapegoat becomes its convenient receptacle. He gets humiliated, smacked, tormented, blamed, put down, teased, bullied, even sexually abused. This maintains the family’s troubled equilibrium. As he grows up he may even mold his behavior into unhealthy or seemingly “punishable offenses” so that he makes their job of rationalizing their abusiveness all the more easy and convenient. He derives a warped sense of self-esteem from this, because even though his role is overtly self-abusive, he knows he is important to the family system. The problem is, this abuse permeates him, throws off his healthy self-perception, and sets him up for a lifetime of abusive relationships, self-hatred, and stigma. On the other hand, heaven forbid the Scapegoat insists on putting a stop to his family’s abusiveness, for then he discovers a deeper truth: that they have little other use for him. He then ends up even more rejected, marginalized, and alienated—or worse—and now finds himself without even a role that serves the family. This can drive anyone over the edge of sanity.

The Broken One: The Broken One is ever in need of family members’ help. Although all children need help and love, and in massive quantity, the Broken One becomes a bottomless pit of need, and unconsciously keeps digging the bottom deeper. He cannot seem to take care of himself properly, and always needs others to fight his battles, guide his way, clean up his messes, correct for his errors, and take responsibility for him, long after these needs have become age-inappropriate. Families can derive great self-esteem from caring for him, because they get to feel strong and mature and powerful in comparison to him. Secretly they say, “He’s the problem, not us!” He is the perpetual victim, and his family rewards him for it with extra attention, nurturance, and caring. His problem, however, is that all their over-the-top caring and support prevent him from growing strong. He lives his life on the wooden crutches of his family, so when the time comes for him to become independent and leave them he risks falling flat on his face.

We realize that we have listed only a few of the basic roles that people play in their families. There are many other roles, or combinations of roles, that people play. Some of the other roles include, but are not limited to, the Mascot, the Bully, the Addict, and the Enabler. For an excellent book on roles and family dynamics in general, we recommend Virginia Satir’s book The New Peoplemaking.

So, to recap, your job is to study and understand your role in the family. If you can do this you will derive the strength that only insight can bring. If you do not understand your role, you risk becoming unwittingly vulnerable to the weaknesses inherent in each role, and to play out these roles throughout your adult life. Knowledge is power—and we hope you take it.


Questions for Self-Reflection

1) What was or were my historical role or roles in my family when I was growing up?
2) How did these roles affect my development as a growing person?
3) In what ways did this role(s) shift over time?
4) To what degree am I still playing the same role I was raised to play?
5) What are the roles of my other family members?
6) In what ways do I like versus dislike my role(s) in my family?

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  1. These family roles are interesting and a tad dependant on one having siblings so all the parts can be played out. It becomes trickier for the sole offspring who is often yanked back into the parent's generation to surrogate a role made vacant by a deceased aunt/uncle so the pattern can continue. Especially if the 'vacancy' occurred before the age of 27, for the deceased and the close family members. The unlived life of the stillbeing born has unlimited permutations. Very easy to track as well - there is always someone who is named in memory of the abandoned role.
    They become The Plug.

    On the contrary, heaven helps the Scapegrace who persists on drawing a line under the abusiveness of the family. Upon learning that the family has no further use for them and illusions of rejection/marginalization/alienation and assassination of one's character have worn off, a most rare insight blooms: that it is utter and absurd insanity to allow a handful of near-sighted and narrow-minded humans on a planet with at least 7.2 billion other humans, to determine the role you are most adequately evolved to occupy and full-fill.

    Eventually one outgrows the hypotheses of pop-psychologists, flips the bird to FOO, and gets on with it.


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