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

by Lauren Mackler

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.

© 2012 Lauren Mackler

Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach and author of the international bestseller Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life. To sign up for her free Live Boldly e-newsletter, click here.

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Posted in Article, Mind-Body Tagged with: , , , ,
  • Lauren,

    Wow–what a great article. I’m clicking over to amazon right now to check out your book.

  • This is absolutely true. Amazing…

  • TMJ

    Growing People,

    This article provides an excellent start for self discovery. I recently broke some strongholds over my life at age 33. My mother always made me the responsible one, she would consult me as a child about decisions that were too mature for me, she always weighed me down with her issues. I was so serious and to top it off I’m an accountant. Well life can be dull when you are trying to be perfect and not only that I found I was out of touch with what I truly needed and wanted to be happy. I had to learn to make my own decisions. So from months of seeing a therapist after my Dad’s death, and some great books, and journaling. All 3 just exploded in me being a happier person, 27 pounds lighter, I have met new friends, i have a very active social life, I am changing careers–something that reflects the real me. Aaand I learned it was ok to tell my mother no and I had to get away from aswering the phone. Now I got her “trained”. I felt like I was never taken seriously when I tried to show my creative side or true emotions,now I am aware; now I simply push back all things and people that do not serve me well. I stopped playing into that image and I have matured a great deal! Its articles like these that create personal curiosity and self confrontation! Thank you Lauren and Brett!