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Is the Role You Play in Your Family Hurting Your Life?

Posted Mar 18 2010 10:55am

Every living system seeks balance. In nature, this process is called homeostasis. Within a family system, homeostasis explains why members adopt certain roles. In healthy families, members take on different roles at various times to meet the family’s needs. But in dysfunctional families, the roles are more rigid. For example, if one parent is addicted to alcohol, the other may be busy providing for the family and seldom home. One child may take on the role of Caretaker, preparing meals for younger siblings while another becomes the Hero—the one who strives to do everything perfectly.

But the family dynamics that shape family roles aren’t limited to severe dysfunctions like substance abuse. One of my coaching clients grew up in a loving, close-knit family in which he was the Hero. Because his parents wanted him to have opportunities they never had, he was expected to get straight A’s, a good education, and a successful career. And while this role enabled him to become an accomplished and wealthy lawyer, his life was falling apart. High blood pressure was causing health problems, workaholism threatened his marriage, and the responsibilities of providing for his elderly parents, an expensive home, and three children in private schools overwhelmed him.

Another example is Casey, who dreamed of becoming a professional photographer. Casey was in a financial-services job she hated, but in which she felt trapped. Growing up, both of her parents struggled to hold down jobs. Casey started babysitting at the age of 12, and had been helping her parents financially ever since. She lived with her boyfriend, who was supporting his ex-wife and son. He was unsupportive of her making a career change, because they needed her income to pay the bills. By continuing to make others’ needs more important than her own, she had unconsciously recreated her family role of Caretaker in her adult relationship.

While our family role may have made sense growing up, it often wreaks havoc in our adult lives. As our primary role takes hold, parts of us become suppressed—parts we need to live a healthy and fulfilling adult life. These can include the part that feels like a worthwhile, deserving person; the part that feels intelligent and competent; the spontaneous, playful part, or the part that can feel and express joy.

If the role you play is sabotaging your life, change the behaviors that reinforce it. If you play the People-pleaser who always says what others expect for approval, start expressing your real thoughts and feelings to others. If you’re the Hero who works relentlessly to achieve, bring fun into your life. Take an improvisational comedy class, do karaoke, visit a water park, or anything else to reclaim your spontaneous, playful part.

Many people’s unhappiness is rooted in the habitual role they play. By consciously shedding your limiting role, not only will you achieve greater well-being, but you’ll reclaim the innate wholeness with which you were born, that’s critical to living a healthy, balanced, and fulfilling life.

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