Dysfunctional Family Roles
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: “Stars,” Ayla Nereo
Functional vs. Dysfunctional Family Roles
Ever wonder why you are the way you are, especially in terms of your patterns in relationships and habitual ways of relating to others?
As a long-time Denver therapist and life coach, I can assure you that we’re all a sum of many things: our innate temperament, our personalities, our thinking styles, and our accumulated life experiences. But the dynamics of the family system that you were a part of growing up can have a profound impact on you too, for better or for worse.
If you’re interested in personal growth, self development, and improving your relationships, at some point it is vital to ask: Who was I in my family? What role did I play in that system? Who did my family want me to be? What did my family bring out in me? Most importantly: Who did my family need me to be?
Understanding the functional and potentially dysfunctional family roles that shaped you can give you insight into yourself, and a deep level of self-understanding that leads to choice and empowerment.
Today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is taking a deep dive into understanding the power of family roles, how dysfunctional family roles can create long-term impacts on the adults we become, and how to use this awareness to grow into the person you want to be.
How to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles
Our families shape our way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Unless (or until) we do deliberate personal growth work in life coaching, evidence-based therapy in Denver (or online therapy), or couples counseling, we will subconsciously bring these ways of thinking and feeling into adulthood. Some of the patterns and expectations we unknowingly carry with us are helpful to our adult relationships, and some are not.
If we want to create positive changes in our adult life and relationships, it’s important to understand how we were forged in the crucible of our family of origin.
I’ve seen time and time again, as a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach, that as my clients do this work they become aware of themselves in an entirely new way. Most people come into contact with the fact that they are reflexively operating on a set of core beliefs, values, expectations, and habits that they didn’t even know they had. Many of these “operating instructions” instilled by families of origin are positive and helpful. But some are not.
Let’s face it: We were all raised by fallible, imperfect humans who were almost certainly operating on the subconscious legacy from their own family of origin. It takes both hard work and support to become the clear-eyed, self-aware, mindful and compassionate parent and partner that intentionally cultivates healthy family dynamics. Most people never get the opportunity to do that type of personal growth work.
As a result, our parents didn’t know what they were doing either. If they came from (mostly) healthy, nurturing families, that’s (mostly) what they gave to us. If your parents grew up being forced to participate in dysfunctional family roles, unless they were privileged enough to do high-quality therapy, they probably subconsciously re-enacted those old ways of being in your family growing up.
On the bright side, the fact that you’re even reading this and learning about these subterranean psychological forces gives you awareness and power that your parents probably never had. You get to deliberately make changes in yourself that lead to your ability to create an entirely different outcome for your family.
But the first step is developing a genuine understanding of how the legacy of dysfunctional family roles may be operating in you. That’s what we’re talking about in today’s podcast: Dysfunctional Family Roles!
Dysfunctional Family Roles: What they are, and how to transcend them.
Listen to today’s episode of the podcast to:
- Learn how your role in your family of origin can affect your relationships in adulthood.
- Know the impact of our early experiences in how we manage stress and anxiety.
- Get insights and direction into how you can break the patterns of your dysfunctional family role (and cultivate the strengths of a healthy family dynamic).
- Learn to recognize other people’s patterns and see them with compassion.
- Discover how you can be independent and empowered in creating the relationships you want.
- Know how you can build real and lasting changes in your family life and relationships.
- Discover strategies to improve your family dynamics.
You can listen to “Dysfunctional Family Roles” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. Or, you can scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com.
If you’re more of a reader, I’ve provided some episode highlights (below) as well as a full transcript. Otherwise, thanks so much for listening, subscribing, and sharing this with anyone in your orbit who could benefit from hearing it.
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Family Of Origin
How did your experiences in your family of origin shape you?
Ask yourself these 4 questions:
- Growing up, who did your family need you to be?
- Are you the same or a different person when you are outside the family system?
- How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your family and when you’re with others?
- Do you change when you’re with other people and go back to your patterns when you’re with your family?
Considering the answers to these questions can begin the process of giving you some insight and self awareness around how the dynamics of your family of origin impacted you.
Psychodynamic Therapy, Attachment Theory & Family Systems
Tackling your deepest, most entrenched patterns often requires the support of a great therapist. There are many effective ways to accomplish this work, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist who understands psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and family systems.
In these evidence-based types of therapy, you will have the opportunity to explore your family roles, your patterns in relationships, and why you are the way you are. This type of therapy focuses on first, raising self-awareness and insights. Then, once that is established, a good therapist will help you begin to actively experiment with new ways of being that help you overcome dysfunctional family roles and begin practicing new ones.
Family Roles Follow Us Everywhere
We think of our patterns in relationships as being exclusive to how we show up in our actual families. Not so. Your habitual ways of relating will also show up in your friendships and even your working relationships. Family systems dynamics appear whenever groups of people form, because people naturally assume different roles in relation to one another. When the roles are complementary, cooperative, and flexible, they make for a healthy relationship.
Healthy Family Roles vs. Dysfunctional Family Roles
Dysfunctional family roles are characterized by inflexibility and that they serve to maintain homeostasis. (Meaning that when one person stops engaging in the dysfunctional family role other people in the family fall apart). In contrast, healthy family roles are flexible, supportive, and interdependent. The individuals in a family don’t “need” each other to be a certain way in order to be okay. A child can be imperfect or sad without a parent becoming overwhelmingly anxious or angry. One member can step into another’s role. In a healthy family, for example, both parents can be nurturing at times.
Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times.
In contrast, the roles in a dysfunctional family are rigid, fixed, and distinct. The members must stay in their roles in order to maintain the functioning of the others. When one steps out of their role, it disrupts the system, and places an enormous amount of pressure on individuals to resume their dysfunctional role (often at the expense of their own mental and emotional health and wellbeing).
Understanding Dysfunctional Family Systems
There is not a cutoff line between a functional family and a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t have an on and off switch. Instead, it is a spectrum.
In some families, someone tends to over-function. This person makes up for the deficit of another who is not functioning fully. People in codependent relationships easily over-function in fulfilling their caretaker or enabler role.
There is also someone who plays the victim. They always blame their problems on others. This person is always having a hard time, usually because of mental health issues. The victim also often has a substance abuse problem because that’s how they cope with the unfairness of life.
These are the other roles commonly found in a dysfunctional family. Listen to the full episode to learn some of the most common dysfunctional family roles including:
- The Problem Child (aka, “The Scapegoat”)
- The Family Clown
- The Lost Child
- The Gold Star Kid
In extremely toxic family systems, the roles are more rigid. There isn’t enough space for everyone. The three primary roles you will see are:
- The Abuser
- The Protector
- The Victim
When a person is in a healthy family, they get to inhabit many different roles — or better yet, just be themselves. They can be funny and nurturing and accomplished, and they can also be sad and in need of help and even lazy too. They can be their whole selves, and it’s all okay.
In healthy families the roles that do emerge tend to be more task or responsibility based rather than serve an emotional purpose (think, one person usually takes out the trash or manages the finances). But again, there is flexibility. For example, even if a family member goes away for a while, the family can adjust and cooperate because they are an interdependent system.
Examples of Dysfunctional Family Roles
In this episode of the podcast, I talk through a number of examples of dysfunctional family roles in order to illustrate how they all work together.
A family composed of a victim-feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, a clown son, a silent child, and a problem child is a stable family system. However, just because it’s stable doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Being in a dysfunctional family system creates an artificial sense of stability. If any one of the family members decides to change for the better, the others would be forced to confront their problems, disrupting the system.
Self-awareness and recognition take an enormous amount of emotional health, emotional stability, and emotional regulation skills. Dysfunctional families can’t do that easily. Professional family therapy is often required.
The Path of Growth in Dysfunctional Family Roles
This podcast was intended to provide information and awareness about the fact that dysfunctional family roles exist, and to help you think about to what degree they may have impacted your life. However, this podcast is in no way meant to resolve these patterns: It can’t. Growth and healing from dysfunctional family roles is a process — often a long term one. However, you can absolutely change and overcome the impact of dysfunctional family roles. Through the awareness and self reflection that you get from therapy, plus guidance around how to experiment with different ways of being, you can take action to change yourself. And when you change yourself, you will become a force of positive change in your family too.
Dysfunctional Family Roles — Resource List
If you think you’ve been impacted by dysfunctional family roles that are affecting the way you think, feel, and behave as an adult, the most important thing you can do is get involved in effective therapy. Look for a highly qualified therapist with a background in psychodynamic therapy, attachment therapy, and/or family systems. If you’d like to do this life-changing work with one of the therapists at Growing Self, the first step in getting started is to schedule a free consultation session to discuss your hopes and goals and see if it’s a good fit to work together.
In addition to therapy, there are some self help activities that can support your work to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family role:
- Read books about dysfunctional family roles
- Journaling can also help you gain self awareness
- Consider a cognitive-behavioral therapy program
- Bookmark the Growing Self blog to read expert advice on relationships, career, and personal growth
- Check out How to Stop Being Codependent
- Learn about Attachment Styles
- Look at the Karpman drama triangle
- Listen to the Shadow Work Podcast
I have shared valuable advice on coping with dysfunctional family roles. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.
Back in touch soon, with more Love, Happiness and Success advice for you.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Dysfunctional Family Roles
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: “Stars,” Ayla Nereo
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.