Family System Theorists have the interesting idea that in order to make dysfunctional families (Isn’t that just about all of us?) run smoothly, different family members divide up the emotional responsibilities. They call the part we play in our family the “role”. In her book, Tools for your Toolbox, Susan Hanson defines the four roles. Check it out and see if you can find yourself.
The family hero is the so-called “perfect child”. He tends to be responsible, respectful, successful in school and probably even well dressed. On the outside he can look; capable, talented, conservative, serious, trustworthy, strong, superior, creative, busy, arrogant or angelic. This child makes the family look good, and families like to look good. The message is “How can anything be wrong with a family that produces a child like this?”
A problem exists when the role is accepted and encouraged at the expense of the individual. On the inside The Hero often feels; anxious, inadequate, terrified of failure, angry, sad, lonely, worthless, ashamed or numb. To help yourself or someone you know break out of having to play the role of The Hero, you will need;
1. Permission to make mistakes and not be “perfect”.
2. Opportunities to play.
3. Opportunities to express feelings and needs.
The Scapegoat is the “problem child” or the “trouble maker”. He helps the family by taking the focus off the families’ problems and pulling negative attention onto himself. Scapegoats often hear things like, “Everything would be fine if you would just stay out of trouble.” On the outside they often look; angry, sullen, strong, rebellious, wild, defiant, rude, tough or mouthy. They can have unplanned pregnancies, legal trouble and engage in alcohol or drug abuse.
On the inside however, the scapegoat often feels; hurt, afraid to trust, rejected by the family, misunderstood, hopeless, blamed or betrayed. To help yourself or someone you know break out of having to play the role of The Scapegoat, you will need;
1. Permission to be successful.
2. Supportive confirmation.
3. Structure and consistency.
The Lost Child is usually known as “the quiet one” or “the dreamer”. He stays out of the way of problems and spends a lot of time alone. The purpose of having a lost child in the family is similar to that of The Hero. Because The Lost Child is rarely in trouble, the family can say, “He’s a good kid. Everything seems fine in his life, so things can’t be too bad in the family.” On the outside he looks; quiet, creative, independent, agreeable, artistic, musical, soft-hearted, invisible, soft-spoken, lost in a book, and certainly avoidant of conflict. He strives to go unnoticed during family conflict so anger is never directed at him.
On the inside The Lost Child often feels; left out, lonely, angry, fragile, sad, isolated, powerless, scared, confused, unnecessary, depressed or suicidal. To help yourself or someone you know break out of having to play the role of The Lost Child, you will need;
1. Positive attention.
2. Encouragement to take chances.
3. To feel connected to other people.
The goal of the family mascot is to break the tension and lighten the mood with humor or antics. He is usually “the cute one.” On the outside The Mascot may look; funny, carefree, attention seeking, charming, light-hearted, dramatic, lovable, needy, manipulative or immature.
On the inside he often feels; terrified, needy, confused, ashamed, left out, helpless, dependent, angry, guilty, lonely or insecure. To help yourself or someone you know break out of having to play the role of The Mascot, you will need;
1. To be taken seriously.
2. To hear that your opinions count.
3. Support and validation of all feelings.
I don’t want you to get the idea that functioning in one of these roles is automatically bad; it can actually set the stage for future success. Consider for example my friend who practices immigration law, and earned her status as the family scapegoat by protesting social injustices while attending school in Berkeley. Or my husband who actually gets paid while being The Mascot and delivering speeches related to the old west. A problem only occurs if functioning in one of these roles has a limiting effect, and doesn’t allow us to be unique individuals expressing our own particular set of skills, talents and abilities. Knowing our history is an important piece in the puzzle. Like the physician Moche Feldenkrais said,
“You can’t do what you want ’till you know what you’re doing.”