Life has been quiet but busy in my little corner of the earth. I’ve been working, coming home, working on the book. My days have started early and ended late. Not enough sleep (definitely).
My son’s wedding was Sept 15 and that had kept me busy all summer. I’m putting together a “How To Get Through The Holidays After A Breakup” seminar for NYC.
Answering email has been slow and I’m answering some on here. My references to “black sheep” “scapegoat” and “identified patient” have generated a big response so I’m going to outline some family roles in family systems. Because this is a pretty complex subject, this will be PART I. Please send questions and comments so I can develop Part II.
I don’t know how many parts there will ultimately be, but keep those cards and letters coming. :)
When I write about family systems, it’s broad, and this is not to say that all families have these roles, but dysfunctional families (esp alcoholic/substance abuse families) tend to be pretty on the mark with these. If you have questions, please send them in email.
According to (some) family system theories, the structure of the family is designed around roles. Mom and Dad are usually locked into a struggle with one being an actor in that he or she acts out and the other bounces back and forth between anger and enabling. The kids take on one of the following roles:
1. Hero. This is usually the oldest. The person who can “do no wrong” even when they are doing wrong. Somehow the view of the family is skewed to believe this is the greatest person ever. Gets a lot of positive attention. Faults and wrong-doings are underplayed. Parents expect big things from this person. This person sometimes falters under the weight of the expectations. Heros have a lot of coping problems but they are not that obvious. The hero may take on a role of placator in the family…often acting as mediator and some heros can become enmeshed in the parental conflict…trying forever to smooth things out.
2. The Scapegoat. The one who acts out, gets in trouble, gets a lot of negative attention in the family. Also called the black sheep or the identified patient. If something goes wrong, it’s usually the scapegoat’s fault (it’s not really, but they take the blame). Other family members magnify the faults and shortcomings of what the scapegoat is doing during times of stress. Even when trying to please, their actions usually backfire on them.
3. The Mascot. This is usually someone who is comic relief for the family. Kinda silly…kinda funny…if he or she does something wrong, it’s usually treated as a joke.
4. The Lost Child. Someone who isn’t quite there. Isn’t actively involved. Doesn’t show up a lot and when he or she is there, they are just not quite there. No one knows what this person is doing so their behavior is not usually called into play.
These roles can change as things go on.
Growing up my oldest brother was the hero. When he flunked out of high school, mom and dad blamed each other. My sister was the scapegoat/lost child, always in trouble or not quite there. I was the mascot because I was very clumsy and accident prone. My brother was the lost child/baby.
When my oldest brother went in the army and mom and dad separated my sister had to step up to the plate and go to work and help keep the family afloat. She was parentalized and also became the hero. She was like a partner to my mother. She definitely took on a surrogate spouse role and was even MORE like a father than my father had ever been. She helped cook and clean and pay bills and she went Christmas shopping and did all the wrapping and took the pets to the vet and disciplined the kids (all things my father never did).
But when she was trying to get my brother and me in line, she was just as (if not more) abusive than my mother. She obviously had a lot of stress/resentment toward “the kids” as my brother and I were called. My mother had to go to work so my sister would come home to start dinner and clean up. Inevitably, my brother and I would not be doing “ enough ” and she would start beating us and then throw us out of the house. My brother and I spent many a night outside waiting for my mother to come home.
The tension and the situation got to me and I assumed the role of the scapegoat. My brother didn’t really become a mascot or a lost child. He was a little of both but because the mascot role was not definitively assigned, we lost a lot of humor that had once been there even in the dysfunction.
When my father moved out after my brother was in the army, the family definitely changed. There were some good changes but also bad changes. And I was the almost always the scapegoat for the bad stuff.
We lived in the Bronx and my youngest brother could get mugged walking to the corner at 4 pm. I could walk through the projects at midnight and nothing happened to me. Scapegoats/black sheep tend to have a bit of bravado. Maybe that is why they get to shoulder the family dysfunction.
You can’t do or not do something to become a family scapegoat but you can put yourself (usually by your rebellious nature) in a position to be picked for it.
Family scapegoats are the LEAST likely to buy into the dysfunctional family system which is why they get to be the black sheep and then the dysfunction is HEAPED upon them until they GET OUT. Family scapegoats are more likely to get out than any other role.
But do you get out because too much has been heaped on and you break more quickly than anyone else? or is your strength what made you the family scapegoat also made you the type to bolt for the door? It’s a chicken/egg thing.
For me, becoming the black sheep/identified patient/scapegoat was easy because of my adoptive status. But it was also easy for me to get out after I realized I couldn’t win. I put up with black sheepness for a long time because I wanted to be accepted, treated like a bonafide family member, and approved of. I was the scapegoat trying desperately for approval I was never going to get. I was, forever, an “outsider” and always would be.
The mental and emotional abuse led me to partners who would treat me similarly and the pain of that led me to desperately trying to “ GET OUT ” and once I realized I would never be approved of in a million years, led me to sever ties with my family. The fact that I was always an outsider made that relatively easy. It was no longer, “I’m leaving because you don’t approve of me.” it was “I’m leaving because I don’t approve of YOU.” Big change.
I will keep writing on family systems in response to your email and questions. For now, I’ll leave you with this.