Without stress in a family, members of the family feel free to be themselves, to take on different roles in the family or group at different times. There’s fluidity in the way family members relate to each other. But when a family becomes stressed or traumatized, they change in how they behave toward each other, now coming from fear instead of the way they normally interact. People begin to relate from a stress-driven state of mind, and to interpret each other’s behavior and words from a different mindset. Everything is now filtered through these feelings of stress and fear. People become more rigid, stuck, locked into family roles.
Family Stress Roles Are Needed at First
When a stress or trauma first happens in a family, specific members of the “family organism” are unconsciously chosen by the family organism to take on specific family roles (for simplification, we’ll just refer to the family and not always to “family or group” from now on). At that point, members no longer feel free to move among the family roles but, without even knowing that’s what’s happening, they become stuck in the family roles they’re assigned, often throughout their whole lives. At first, there’s some usefulness to the family stress roles, as they help the family solve and resolve whatever stressful or traumatic situation they’re faced with—for example, job loss, death of a critical member of the family, disasters such as earthquakes or floods, war, and so on.
What Are the Family Stress Roles?
Let’s say one of the above very painful or disastrous situations happens to a family. There are various family roles that need to be taken up by members of the family:
- Someone needs to work on finding a solution to the problem so that the family can survive and hopefully thrive into the future
- Someone needs to carry on making sure day-to-day things are taken care of—cooking meals, bathing the children, going to work.
- Often someone is unconsciously assigned the role of carrying the fear of future disasters—to keep the family focused on making sure that if a stress or disaster happens again, the family won’t be affected again
- If the solution seems to be taking too long or it seems the person(s) assigned to finding a solution doesn’t seem like they’re going to be able to succeed, there’s an even stronger “pushing” role—someone often begins to come up with really drastic attempts to resolve the problem that don’t fit into the family’s idea of a viable solution, such as suggestions to rob other people to get money to survive, killing people, etc.
Family Stress Roles Are Passed Down Through Generations
Although family stress roles are useful when the family actually needs to resolve something, unfortunately, families often get stuck in these anxiety dynamics generation after generation, long after they’re useful. People suffering in these stuck long-term roles often are the ones that come for family therapy. The roles become increasingly rigid and change into entrenched family habits in the way members relate to each other. Each member of the family often also takes on the same role in whatever group he/she becomes part of, for example, at work, in social groups, in romantic relationships, and with their own next-generational families. Professionals in family therapy have written about these roles, using various names for the roles. Again, the assignment of roles is unconscious—it’s not done on purpose, and the family usually doesn’t even recognized that the assignments are happening. The roles can be called:
- Caretaker Role: This is one role that should be given to an adult in the family, but inappropriately, it is often given to a child, who is expected to be the “go-to” person when anyone needs help. As the child gets older, he/she takes on the role more and more frequently. The great thing for caretakers is that they feel very competent. The downside is that they feel burdened with everyone’s problems. The caretaker becomes increasingly competent and everyone else feels and acts increasingly incompetence . In the long run, no one benefits.
- Distancer Role: This role should be assigned to the children, but it’s often taken by one of the parents, who stays wrapped up in the newspaper or soap operas or sports when the others in the family are dealing with emotional problems or conflicts. The great thing for distancers is that they experience no anxiety. They are always at peace, leaving the emotional stuff to be dealt with by everyone else. The downside is really for everyone else, who gets no help from the distancer and who feels abandoned.
- Identified Patient Role: This is the person, often the youngest child or sometimes one of the parents, who feels the emotional pain for everyone but either is too young to have the power to do anything about it or (in the case of a parent in the role) doesn’t feel up to the task. This person feels weak and is also perceived as weak by the others. He/she often becomes ill and/or suffers from nightmares. Identified patients hold the pain for the family. The benefit to the family is that, unconsciously, they can leave all that to the identified patient.
- Outcast Role: This person actually experiences the most anxiety in the family. People in this role are “pulled” to go against the taboos of the family, sometimes so much so that the family decides they don’t want to have anything to do with them. They may use swear words in a religious family, take drugs in a family that believes that’s wrong or sneak out at night when everyone else is asleep to break windows. They seem extremely “wrong” to the rest of the family. Strangely, the benefit to the family is that everyone focuses so much energy being upset at the person in the outcast role that the rest of the family doesn’t have to deal with whatever problems the family is really dealing with as a whole. This person is a “scapegoat” in the family.
Healing Stuck Family Stress Roles
The secret to healing is to become more fluid, for members of the family to feel free to move around the roles instead of staying stuck in the one they’re used to playing. For example, caretakers can decide they don’t need to solve a particular problem this time and leave it to someone else to deal with. Distancers can choose to move in and listen to someone who’s upset about something and try to help. Identified Patients can think about what they can do about a problem, a part they can take in the solution. And the Outcast can let him or herself feel their own fear, sadness, and pain—and also the sadness, fear and pain of others.
Here’s an Exercise to Get You Started
Think about the following questions and write down your answers:
- Which role did you have in your family? How do you know?
- How did other people in the family act that got you more and more entrenched? How did your reactions to how they were behaving entrench you even more?
- Are you still playing that role in your relationships today? What are you still doing that’s part of the role?
Here’s an exercise that can help begin the process of moving you out of being stuck in your role:
If you’re used to being a Caretaker, you’re probably assuming that nobody can handle anything and that you have to do everything. Over time, you’ve taken on more and more responsibility for solving problems, for dealing with everybody’s emotional welfare—it’s your job to deal with everything! What if that’s not actually true?
- Try picking one thing you can back off from and let somebody else take care of.
- Try saying inside yourself “I don’t need to think about that now,” or “I don’t need to do anything about that right now,” or “That’s not my job to deal with right now.” Do it like a meditation. Pick a subject and sit there and say it to yourself over and over until you feel that you can let whatever it is go for now.
If you’re used to being a Distancer, it’s really hard to get motivated to get involved in anything like this, because it’s so easy and great for you most of the time. Usually you tell yourself that if someone is having a problem, it’s their problem and their responsibility to deal with it. It’s got nothing to do with you. So you might have to say to yourself that you’re doing it for the other person because you care about them and they’re in pain. If you can tell yourself that, here’s your exercise:
- Ask the person in pain to tell you what’s happening—what are they feeling, thinking. What they’re having a problem with. Really listen and focus.
- Try to feel into what it might feel like for them to be in this situation or this emotion that they’re feeling.
- Repeat to them what you imagine they’re feeling or experiencing.
- Ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
- Listen carefully to their answer and then do what they’ve asked of you.
If you’re used to being an Identified Patient, you probably feel in emotional pain a lot of the time, and you feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do to make it better. You probably feel that other people are the ones that have the power, that they have all the choices, that they keep doing painful things to you and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
- Do a meditation: Imagine you are the center of the universe and that everything else is secondary to you. You are huge and everyone else is very small. You are what’s important. You are the only thing that’s important. Keep with this until you really feel it.
- Think about what you want in a situation, how you would want it to be, what the ideal would be for you. Notice what you’re willing to offer on your end and what you’re not willing to do. Don’t think about what you want from the other person, only what you’re offering yourself.
If you’re used to being the Outcast, you’re probably angry a lot of the time. You’re so angry you want to do something drastic to wake people up. You don’t care if you get in trouble for it; you think people are outrageous, stupid, horrible, and they deserve whatever they get. You might notice that every time you get angry, afterwards your nervous system and your body are all jazzed up and you might recognize that you’re actually constantly retraumatizing yourself. You can’t get any peace. But I’m saying that you deserve some peace.
- Try feeling how hard things are for you, how painful it all is, how alone you feel. Really let yourself feel that. And notice how hard it is for you to go there. How much you want to just shut it all down again and be hard and numb. But if you can,
- Feel how sad it is to be in pain so much of the time. Feel the grief of having spent so much time being shut out from other people’s love.
- Notice that you don’t know how to change how people react to you, and notice how helpless you feel about that. Just let yourself feel helpless, without having to do anything about it.
- It’s also useful to try to put yourself in another person’s place, to try to feel into what they’re going through and feeling, to imagine if that were happening in your life and imagine letting yourself feel the fear, sorrow, or pain rather than shutting it down.
I’ve got a number of articles, blog posts and case studies on family roles. Check out my family role case study page , my Examiner.com articles, my E-zine article , my blog posts on family patterns and more on my website.