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May 12, 2014

Stuck in that blasted family of origin role

As a therapist who primarily conceptualizes from a family systems perspective, the idea of family roles is far from new to me.  However during a recent meditative retreat, I was struck anew by how pervasive the roles instilled in family of origin can feel. It is one reality to help another person with their family role rigidity and another to personally confront the emotional struggles of my own role despite years of contemplative growth. 

In my family of origin I was socialized into the role of caretaker. While at a couple of times I believe my older brother and I swapped roles, the caretaker role stuck with greatest fervor. During this retreat I found myself drawn to meditating on the instances when the helper role has been difficult to put away at the end of the work day. It was a logical progression from family role to profession, but the hazards therein lie when a crisis occurs and I feel the temptation to let boundaries grow fuzzy. This is like a drug of choice to my psyche and if not for mindfulness, I find myself pulled back into that family of origin role.

By way of review, in traditional family systems theory, a dysfunctional family has there are four major roles a person may take in their family.

  • Hero – This role is characterized by success, responsibility, specialness, denial, needing approval, self-sufficiency, drive, being rigidly controlling, success, independency, and guilt. This role provides self-worth to the family system.
  • Scapegoat – This role is characterized by strong peer needs, defiance, withdrawn, acting out, rejection, shame, addiction, emotional honesty, and self-destructive behaviors. This role distracts the family from the other family problems.
  • Lost Child – This role is characterized by being withdrawn, aloof, quiet, escape by becoming invisible, difficulty expressing and connecting with their emotions, fear of intimacy, distant, independent, rage, and fear. This role provides relief from problems / tension by being unseen (not helping but not hurting either).
  • Mascot / Placater / Caretaker – This role is characterized by telling jokes, being fragile, seeking attention, clowning, insecurity, taking responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family, generosity, caring for others to the neglect of their own needs, and fear.  This role provides relief from tension in the family.

    This same family systems theory will add two additional roles in families with addiction:

  • Addict / Dependent – This role is an addicted person in the family who is at times characterized by anger, grandiosity, shame, pain, guilt, and self-delusion.
  • Enabler – The enabler role is often characterized by powerlessness, self-blaming, self-pity, manipulation, anger, responsibility, and fear. This role takes responsibility and enables the addiction to continue without push back.

Experiencing this draw in helping gives me more empathy for my clients as they also struggle against the seemingly pervasive characteristics of the roles they often are rigidly socialized into in their own families of origin. While seeing my own struggle I appreciate the pain and difficulty in their struggle a bit more completely as I experience my own anew. I ask my clients to practice healthier patterns in contrast to the role rigidity they were taught as children, so moreover I must do the same and maintain healthy boundaries that push back against that role I have felt pulled toward since childhood. 
Stephen Ratcliff is a Counselor in private practice in Albuquerque, NM. He specializes in helping Children and Adolescents with Addiction, Psychological Trauma, and Attachment Disorders. For more information or to contact Stephen, please visit

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1 Comment

  1. 1 CS 13 Jul
    Very helpful post -- thank you for writing it.

    A couple questions:
    1) In the scapegoat description, did you mean to write emotional honesty, or were you thinking emotional dishonesty / notable struggles with emotional honesty?

    2) Once people in a family start to see the roles they have been playing, what do you do next after identifying this?
    (Do they try to take on characteristics of an opposite role to try to balance things out?, or is that not the point, or goal?)
    What steps are next?

    Thank you for your help,


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