The phrase “dysfunctional family” may have become a cliché, but it does describe something real and all-too-common. Dysfunctional families are characterized by abuse coupled with denial that any abuse is going on; by disrespect and violations of members’ boundaries; by shaming and lack of empathy; and usually by a fair amount of chaos, often due to alcoholism or drug abuse. Children in dysfunctional families inevitably find themselves tracked into surprisingly predictable and limiting roles. The most four most commonly discussed of these are the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, and the mascot. In this column I’ll discuss the first of these roles, and in the next three I’ll talk about the others.
The family hero is most often the first-born child in a family. He or she adapts to the chaos and disorder in the system by becoming super-competent at everything – by being very helpful at home, often to the point of parenting one or both parents; getting good grades in school; excelling at sports, and. becoming a leader. Heroes seem to be eternally grown up: as children, they’re often described as “six going on sixty.” They “have it all together” and are expected to “have it made” in all their endeavors as adults.
If you grew up playing the role of hero in your family, you probably recognize that there are many strengths in this role. Heroes are highly self-reliant; they take risks in the world and are usually very successful in their work life. The people around them trust and rely on them. But you may also be painfully aware of the difficulties and drawbacks of having to live up to so many high expectations. Many heroes were forced to give up their childhoods, and you did that you may live with a deep background sorrow over that loss. You may find it easy to be serious and task-oriented, but have a hard time lightening up or being playful. You may have an intense need to be in control at all times, and feel panicky if you ever feel that you are losing control of anything.
The deepest issue that adult heroes live with is loneliness. Heroes make good leaders and managers, but often have a hard time being close and intimate with others outside of work roles. There are several reasons for this. First, while they may try to conceal it, they tend to be highly judgmental people. They have a difficult time tolerating imperfections in themselves, and are usually equally harsh toward the imperfections in others. They also tend to be as controlling toward others as they are regimented in their own lives. More problematic still, they have trouble tolerating vulnerabilities in others because they are terrified of accepting their own. Behind their façade of strength and confidence there is usually a frightened and lonely child inside of them that they dare not acknowledge, even to themselves. Since they’re used to feeling loved, not for who they are, but for what they can accomplish, they are deathly afraid that their inner vulnerability and insecurity will be seen by others and result in contempt and rejection.
So the greatest challenge heroes tend to face in their relationships is just to let themselves be known. In therapy, this usually means remembering and re-living the secret anguish, fear, and isolation that they felt in the background as children while they were busy trying to hold themselves and their families together. It can be very difficult to enlist heroes in that kind of process of inner exploration. After all, quarantining themselves off from experiencing their pain was a highly successful survival strategy in very challenging circumstances. What possible advantage could there be, later in life, in pulling the scab off of old wounds? The answer is that, in undergoing such a process, they won’t lose any of the qualities that made them heroic, but they will strengthen their compassion, their empathy, and deepen their capacity to love.