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Breaking Free from the 5 Dysfunctional Roles

Part 2 of the Dysfunctional Roles article

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article describing 5 roles that people inherit when they come from dysfunctional families.

Of course, you may personally come up with more roles; I just listed the ones I see that are most common. In this article, I copied and pasted the description of each role from the previous article and then underneath I describe ways you can break the chains of those roles to become more of your authentic and true self.

1)   Enabler/codependent:

In this role, you gave up your own needs and wanted to protect and take care of another member of the family that had issues that seemed more serious than yours.  

You may have grown into an adult who is not even in touch with your own desires and preferences.  Example: You had a chronically ill parent and you became the person that your parent can count on and you sacrificed much of your childhood.

What to do to expand past the role of enabler:

Start by asking yourself, what desires do I have that I ignore?  What do I avoid doing for myself because someone else may have to sacrifice for me?  Start replacing “You time”- the time that to do things for others, with “Me time,” time that you spend doing something for you.  Start with just a few minutes a day if you are one of those people that doesn’t spend any time with yourself or for yourself. The goal is to work your way up to more of a balance.  

You are at your best for others when you take care of yourself.

2)   Responsible:

You did everything well; you may have even felt like you had to be perfect.  

You did everything to make your parents proud and may unconsciously have had the pressure to keep up the self-esteem of one or both of your parents.  Typically, you did very well in school and extra-curricular activities and would rarely if ever relax and just be a normal kid.  You may have grown up into an adult that very much fears disappointing people, which can lead to a persistent low-level anxiety.

What to do:

Think of something you have never done or that you know you are not good at that you might enjoy if you were not so concerned about doing it well.  Do that thing or activity.  Enjoy doing it badly.  Realize that you are unchaining yourself from a very restricted rule that says you have to be perfect or always do things well.  Rejoice and be playful no matter how well or badly you are at it.  

I can relate to this role and one of the things I did for a while was call my mother up (I was a young adult) to share my flaws such as when I would be immature with my wife.  When she asked me why I was telling her these things, I explained to her that I knew she loved me when I was that model –perfect child but I needed to experience her acceptance when she found out how far from perfect I really was.  Both she and I grew from these encounters and I learned that I am lovable even with my flaws and imperfections.  (If you do not have one of those mothers that would grow with you, you may need to find another person to share your flaws with who has the capacity to accept you).

3)   Aloof:

You inherited the role of aloof child and may have been perceived as the most “selfish.”  

This was your mostly unconscious way of dealing with unresolved pain on the family.  It is a defense so that you can get through the days and nights with a family that is unhappy, volatile, violent, abusive, neglectful or a combination of these.  As an adult, you may have become one of those people that live on the surface of life, not getting too involved with other people’s lives and not letting them too close to yours.

What to do:

Decide to get more curious about the lives of your significant others and friends.  Notice your tendency to be aloof and keep things shallow and instead practice asking open-ended questions.  Also be willing to risk sharing more about you.  Don’t let your role of being aloof keep you from the joy and meaningfulness of having relationships with depth.

4)   Problem child:

Having the role of problem child could have been your unconscious way to make other family members’ issues fade into the background.  

Or, it could have been a way for you to act out the pain you were feeling in your family of origin.  The individual rarely falls into these roles alone.  There is usually some unconscious family dynamics that push you into that role.  This is not an excuse for your problem behavior but could be an important factor.  By looking deeper at the underlying dynamics, you can learn healthier options for dealing with the underlying reasons you slipped into that role.  

These problem children can become problem adults unless there is an intention to become more aware and to break out of obsolete patterns.

What to do:

First, know that this role of problem child or problem adult is not you.  

You inherited the role to balance out some dysfunction in your family and you did it unconsciously in the beginning.  Now you need to consciously get out of it.  Being responsible, self-reliant and capable usually involves grieving once and for all that your parents will never be those people that you hoped they would be.  Your parents are and were who they are.  Now you need to parent yourself (with the help and support of others) to become the truly capable adult that you are.  

I had a client once who kept losing jobs; he was 29 years old.  In therapy with me, he discovered that his instability and flakiness was an unconscious way to get his parents to finally be there for him.  He realized that they weren’t there for him as a child and weren’t going to save him as an adult.  He grieved his unconscious (and now conscious) fantasy and became a stable and financially secure man in his very early thirties.

5)   Placater:

This person is always trying to cheer people up.  

His or her job is to regulate everyone else’s emotions even to the detriment of him or herself.   Like the codependent, they do not let others go through the normal pains of life.  The placater is a people pleaser and avoids conflict and can be overly agreeable even if he or she deep down disagrees.  This person ignores his or her own anger or thinks feelings away.

What to do:

Firstly, practice disagreeing with people.  

Be genuine and look for those opportunities.  Be a force to be reckoned with.  Have a dissenting opinion.  

Secondly- if someone is hurting, keep in mind that pain is part of life.  People develop strength from it.  Don’t rush to make them feel better.  

My daughter broke up with a young man today.  She is very sad.  I would prefer her not to be sad but I know it is a part of life and she will develop more strength and resilience because of this.  I compassionately listened to her and did not try to save her from the pain.  It is not my job and would not have served her if I did try to rescue or placate her.  So, basically the rules you need to follow is:

  • Look for and appreciate conflict and
  • Let them suffer!  (and just love them)

This is all good news because you do not have to stay stuck in your roles.  

Just know that at first, it may feel awkward, strange or “wrong” to go outside those roles.  Just know that it is your right to expand past these roles so that you can be more of your authentic self.  I remember Stephen Covey, a noted author once say- “Every breakthrough requires a break from.”   

Allow yourself to break from old, limiting roles so that you can break through to more joy, more aliveness and more abundance in all areas of your life.


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