Family roles

Therapists who work with families know that unhealthy ones tend to draft their members into roles meant to offset the family’s dysfunction.  Like the Hero, whose unconscious job is to make the family look good, and who does this by overachieving and trying to be perfect.  Or the Scapegoat, whose unconscious job is to alert the world to how screwed up the family is, and who does this by self-destructing.

The tragedy of such roles is that so long as you occupy one you can never be happy. You can never be yourself, never make your own choices, never recognize your own needs and feelings.  You’re not a person.  You’re a living sacrifice.




From Bert’s Therapy, Session 7:


So?  How do you feel?

Read the rest here.


4 responses to “Family roles

  • Mike

    That’s weird. So some unhealthy families want to look good, and others want to alert the world to their dysfunction? Is it possible for one family to have both?

    • Steve Hauptman

      It’s less about what the family wants than what it needs.

      Like an individual person, a family needs to (a) feel good about itself, and also to (b) identify and solve problems. Healthy families find ways to do both at the same time. Unhealthy families don’t, usually because some pathology — alcoholism, say, or mental illness, or abuse — prevents the free communication necessary to need fulfillment. So instead the family unconsciously drafts the kids into these roles, mainly by rewarding some behaviors and discouraging others. Thus the Hero (by succeeding) helps the family feel good about itself, and the Scapegoat (by failing) helps it identify and solve problems. The family’s needs get met, sort of, but at an awful cost to the individual kids.

      Most families I work with are led into therapy by the Scapegoat, the kid who’s drinking or drugging or angry or depressed. The family has usually identified the Scapegoat as the problem (“We’d be fine it it weren’t for Johnny”), but actually he/she is just carrying the symptoms for the whole family.

      And yes, it’s common for a unhealthy family to contain both a Hero and a Scapegoat.

      Here’s a short (2:08) video outlining typical roles in an alcoholic family:

  • Shankar

    I (and my wife too) am a caregiver for my 82 year old mother and 6 year old grandson (during daytime until his mother picks him up after she comes back from work). How do I guard myself from the thought of “sacrificing” for the family.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Well, it sounds like you’re clearly doing some sacrificing. I assume your real question is, “How do I keep from resenting it?”

      If I had you in my office I’d ask you to talk about why you sacrifice (eg, is it your idea, or someone else’s?) and how it feels to you (voluntary or involuntary? appreciated or taken for granted?). That in itself might start to relieve some resentment. Often caregivers focus so intently on others that they never get a chance to address their own legitimate feelings or needs.

      I’d also ask you about how well you take care of yourself, whether you get enough rest, food, R&R, and emotional support — especially the latter. To neglect such needs is to set yourself up not just for resentment, but for burnout, physical illness and depression.

      To relate all this to family roles, caregiving is often an invitation to Heroic behavior. The main challenge to the caregiver is to not get defined by the role. It’s easy to do, since others are more likely to reward your self-sacrifice than your self-care. But you’re just a person, not a superhero or saint. So you really need a support system of your own that will continually remind you of how important it is to value and take care of yourself.

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