Are you a salsa dancer? Free form? Do you watch from the side and “don’t do dancing”? All family systems have a dance and all family members play a role. There is nothing wrong with this, unless you find yourself square dancing when you prefer salsa or if you are being called to lead a partner dance with your parent and you are 5-years-old.
My preschooler recently was at the “small manipulatives” table at preschool and made this:
He called it “Trapped faces.” Though I am 95% sure this was not his intent or interpretation, it did remind me of what can happen in family systems when individual members carry certain emotions, roles, or characteristics for the family. When everyone is not allowed to have all aspects of their human experience, certain aspects of being human can become trapped in individuals. Some of these may include being: the responsible-one, the one-who-is-depressed, the angry-raging-one, the one-who-takes-care-of-everyone–else, the-one-who-is-creative, or the one-who-achieves or-looks-good-for-the-family.
Below is a list of family roles that children often adopt (based on the work of clinicians Virginia Satir, Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider) summarized beautifully by Laura Doughty, LMHC:[i]
The hero is the responsible, accomplished one. She gets good grades in school, is goal oriented and self-disciplined. Externally, she appears successful and together; internally, however, she bears the burden of making the family look good. She holds the belief that if she is perfect enough, the family problems will go away or be solved.
The People Pleaser
The people pleaser tries to ease and prevent any trouble in the family. She is caring, compassionate and sensitive. She also denies her own needs, and, as a result is anxious and hypervigilant.
The scapegoat is the family member who is blamed for the trouble in the family. She acts out her anger at any family dysfunction and rebels by drawing negative attention to herself. While she is more in touch with her feelings than the other roles and is often creative, in school she gets poor grades and is often in trouble.
The Mascot is the class clown with the uncanny ability to relieve stress and pain for others. But there’s something missing that he won’t find until he looks beneath the humor façade and faces his own pain.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is quiet, withdrawn, lonely and depressed. She doesn’t draw attention to herself because she doesn’t want to be a burden. But what she wants most is to be seen and loved, and to be healthy, she must allow herself to be visible.
Many family systems “roles” also include the Alcoholic/Addict and the Caretaker/Codependent. The Codependent often tries to prevent the alcoholic from experiencing consequences of their behavior and cares for others at the expense of themselves.
In my clinical practice, I often see aspects of all of these family roles and “trapped faces” in adults. Many recovering anorexics identify with the hero child or the people pleaser, many bulimics or alcoholics can see the mascot or the scapegoat in themselves. Adult children of alcoholics may see the lost child in themselves. In the process of recovering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, codependence, or alcoholism, there needs to be room to include allowing ALL aspects of yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to act it out all of these roles. If you’ve never expressed anger, it doesn’t mean you need to start raging. However, it does mean that you allow yourself to own parts of yourself that may not have been able to develop in the “trapped-ness” of your family system.
If you were the scapegoat as a child, you can now see, embrace and practice as an adult that you have hero responsible, leadership qualities as well. You have skills that are valuable and you are not the problem. If you played the role of the hero as a child, you can consider getting a B+ or even failing a class as an adult, just to practice imperfection and seeing the world doesn’t fall apart if you don’t get an A. It means you allow yourself to have aspects of being angry, sad, happy, carefree, irresponsible, responsible, pleasing, rebellious, and creative.
The Past and the Present
My clients often ask me: “But what if my mother/father/family member boss/husband doesn’t change? How can I?” The answer is that YOU can embrace all of your human experience, whether or not your mother/father/other family member does or does not. That can be challenging and difficult, especially if they want to trap you into staying in the role that is most comfortable for them to be playing within the family system. As a child, you didn’t have much of a choice. Your survival depended on fitting into your family system to have your needs get met. As an adult you have other choices. That is where recovery is simple but not easy. Emotionally, it feels like you don’t have choices and you need to continue being the Hero/Scapegoat/People Pleaser/Mascot/Lost Child. Time does not exist in the emotional world, so your inner child will feel as if it needs to keep playing that role.
That is where you can bring your newly growing conscious adult self in and practice differently. You may need to risk shaking up the family system in practicing a new dance. If your family system is used to a precise salsa or ballet dance and you start practicing a chaotic free form dance, it may not be welcomed. Nobody in your family knows the steps to that dance. Do not be surprised if you encounter resistance.
The Gift of Resistance
I recently heard a Zen teaching about a master and a bird. The master was holding the bird on his finger and the bird was learning how to fly. If the master dropped his finger down quickly, the bird would fall, and need to be caught. If the master held his finger still, the bird could practice jumping off his finger and flapping its wings in order to develop strength. This allowed the bird to fly.
Externalizing Parts of Yourself to get free of them
One way to release feeling trapped/stuck in playing only one role regardless of whether members of your family system change is to externalize them through art, writing, or drama and see what wisdom they have to share. These parts of yourself are often “protecting” vulnerabilities that were too scary to be seen as a child but can now offer wisdom as an adult. They also hold strengths that can offer you help in your life currently. The “Lost Child” part of myself is the one that makes art and studied to become an expressive arts therapist. Here are some examples of my own and some of my clients’ soulcollage® card collaged images (shared with permission). Soulcollage® is a process of making a whole deck of collaged cards, each card representing one aspect of your multifaceted Self.
I am your addiction. No matter what it is: food, pills, worry, it will never be enough. Feed me and I will want more.
Listen to me; believe me and I will take over. Listen to me, but know that there is fear underneath that needs tending, and I will get smaller and not run your life.
Body image stomach in knots.
I am one who has pain internally and believes all others can see it. The wisdom I have to offer you is that this pain is not something you can avoid or run away from. There will always be pressure. If you accept that I am here, I can offer you ways to own your power and listen to your gut.
I look like I have it, all but there is part of me lying on the couch hiding all the time. I want to go to sleep. I can’t be perfect. Not even going to try.
The wisdom I have to offer is that you can no longer overachieve. This is the ultimate experience of practicing imperfection and asking for help. Let someone see me and you may find you are not alone.
Creating Recovery Families
Last but not least, many recovering people find they need to create a “recovery family” to help them practice new roles. This can be a collection of recovering friends, your therapist/treatment team, a 12-step sponsor or other people who embrace and welcome all the parts of you and themselves. These are people who want to help you practice new roles, want to help you learn how to practice imperfection if you are recovering from perfectionism or playing the hero or practice taking leadership steps if you are more familiar with being a scapegoat or lost child.
Where in your personal relationships, work life, home life currently are you playing the same role over and over? Where can you embrace the strengths that some of your more familiar roles offer? Where can you risk bringing in another part of you?
[i] “The Effect of Family Roles on Life’s Choices” Laura Doughty, LMHC, Thriving, A Journal of Well being, Spring 2010.
For those of you who are old(er 🙂 ), you may remember a television show titled “Fantasy island.” In it, there was a fictional character Mr. Roarke who ran an island that visitors flew into to fulfill their personal wishes. A mentor of mine calls this place in your mind “the island.” In this magical place, all of your “If____, then___’s” are accomplished, and you feel relief from whatever your particular form of suffering is. Some common versions of “fantasy island” type wishes include:
“If I lose weight, then_____”
“If I am out of debt, then______”
“If I earn (fill in amount of money), then______
“If I am in the right job/career/livelihood, then________”
The Alcoholic version:
“If I find exactly the right way to stay relaxed and socially confidant without blacking out, getting a hangover, or having any other negative consequences, then______”
The New Mom version:
“If I find the right formula for getting my baby to sleep and eat exactly right, have lost all the baby weight, and am not comparing myself to any other mothers, then_____________”
The Eating Disorder version:
“If I don’t eat any ‘bad’ foods, my stomach looks this way, my arms looks this way, my thighs look this way, then____________”
The Romantic Relationship version
“If I am in a relationship (in a married relationship, could change my partner, am no longer in a relationship) then ___________”
Note the irony of the last one. See how the mind creates suffering? As Oscar Wilde famously said:
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
You can fill in your personal versions “Ifs” and “thens.” However, the “thens” are often harder to fill in, because they are usually more intangible, like “be happy” or “stop feeling anxious or not enough.” Apparently, even in the fantasy island tv series, Mr. Roarke attempted to teach the guests life lessons through assisting them in seeing errors in their thinking or living in their fantasies.
The Thin Ideal
Carolyn Costin, a leader in eating disorder treatment who recovered herself calls these illusions the thin ideal. The thin ideal goes something like this: of if I were thin, I would be (happy/accepted/worthy/not have uncomfortable feelings…) Many of my clients recovering from disordered eating or body image distress know, intellectually, these beliefs about body image to be not true. They know what they are really looking for is not in there. What they are seeking in the desire to be thin doesn’t provide what they are actually looking for. They know “being thin” is not really going to give them freedom from ever having feelings of anxiety or grief or anger. They know being thin is not really going to give them meaningful relationships. They know that being thin is not really going to give them confidence, contentment, or a sense of purpose in their life. However, this part of the mind gets attached to its beliefs and stories. And when one is challenged, it comes up with new scenarios of “if, then.”
When I was never-thin-enough in my eating disorder 17 years ago, I was unhappy. When I finished my Master’s degree, supposedly “accomplishing” worthiness, I felt disappointed. And when I finished my doctorate, mostly what I felt was tired! After having a baby, I did feel content (amidst the exhaustion). However, none of these experiences provided me with an ongoing and easily accessible “You have now arrived” stamp of approval, feeling of contentment, or belonging in life.
I joke with my mentor about this island not actually being an island, but a mountain. Once I have climbed the mountain, reached the top, I will have “arrived.” Another illusion. One of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron writes:
In the process of discovering our true nature,
the journey goes down, not up.
It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the
center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky.
Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures,
we move toward the turbulence and doubt.
We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it.
We move toward it however we can.
We explore the reality and unpredictability
of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.
If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes,
we will let it be as it is. At our own pace,
without speed or aggression,
we move down and down and down.
With us move millions of others,
our companions in awakening from fear.
At the bottom we discover water,
the healing water of compassion.
Right down there in the thick of things,
we discover the love that will not die.
It’s not about the island, it’s not about climbing anywhere, and it’s definitely not about going up a mountain. It’s about going down, right down into the thick of things, with your heart.
What provides the experience of “then” for me are:
Relationships with people who value the gifts I bring and with whom I value the gifts they bring
Being of Service helping others
Dancing or moving my body
Looking at things that scare me in a straightforward, nonavoidant way
I would love to say it IS about the product and there IS an endpoint! Here is where it is and here is how you get there! I have created a map! Just follow it and you will arrive at fantasy island! But the name kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This is not a fantasy. This is real in the trenches imperfect life, with all of its ups and downs every day throughout a nonlinear journey called your life. What provides the experience of “then” for you? I’d love to hear it!
Yes, but not now:
I have something better (or different) in mind:
What are your visions for 2015? There is no wrong way to make a vision collage. Sometimes people I work with use all words, sometimes they use all pictures, sometimes they use a board and sometimes colored paper. Often they will choose magazine images that speak to them intuitively that they don’t necessarily know why. And sometimes they will choose very specific images. One of my favorite quotes is from Meister Eckart and says:
“When the Soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.”
This past weekend, I went on a women’s’ 12 step recovery retreat. It was excruciatingly hard to leave my baby (who is no longer a baby but who will always be my baby, I now understand). There was the mother guilt, something I am familiar with as a Mom who works outside the home. However, I knew, having not had a full night’s sleep in 3 years now, that I needed replenishing. I knew, as they say in 12-step program, “you can’t keep it unless you give it away but you can’t give it away unless you have it.” I knew I needed to refill my spiritual tank.
There were other mothers at this retreat. When I shared missing my baby, they all related: those with 7 year olds, those with teenagers, and those with grown children and grandchildren. There was a mother and grandmother; 89 years old celebrating 40 years of sobriety, who said to me “your recovery is the greatest gift you can give your child.” There was a mother, now a Grandmother, who shared the memory of being away from her 3-year-old child and booking the next flight home after hearing her daughter’s voice over the phone; there was a mother who shared about making amends to her grown daughter, now a recovering alcoholic herself, apologizing for the way she raged as a single mother. There was a mother who shared about fiercely protecting her two-year-old (now teenager) from the police breaking down the door for her boyfriend; there was a mother who shared about the almost unspeakable loss of losing her child due to the disease of alcoholism; there was the grandmother who shared about the gift of having a “do-over” with her grandchildren in which she gets to be as present as she wanted to be but couldn’t as a Mom struggling with alcoholism. (Some identifying information changed to protect anonymity).
I do believe, feel in my gut and experience daily with my child, that there is a universal experience of motherhood. I do not mean the over idealized glowing pregnant Mama to be or Virgin with wings in the sky. I mean the gritty and visceral vulnerability and fierceness that comes with being and becoming a mother to an innocent, vulnerable human being with whom you are inextricably and viscerally connected. Recently, my 2 year old got sick with a fever. When I got the call informing me that he had a fever, everything else became simply an obstacle that needed to GET OUT OF MY WAY because my baby is sick and he needs his Mama. I am not normally someone who is described as aggressive. In fact, I may tend to error, shall we say on the pleasing codependent side of practicing expressing anger (though I have worked hard on cultivating assertiveness and direct communication skills in recovery). However, on that day, Look OUT for the person that was in my way because I would have pushed over a truck if it was blocking the path to my baby.
Motherhood isn’t the easy or the lightning bolt transcendent kind of spiritual experience. It is more of a “before enlightenment do the laundry, after enlightenment, do the laundry” kind. The biggest gifts for me in going on spiritual retreat were: 1) No laundry 2) No dishes 3) No diapers 4) No 3am wakings. And yet many, many, many people choose to become mothers, an unpaid, 24 hour job for a minimum of 21 years (and more realistically a lifetime). And yet we do it. And we do it willingly. Why? Because even with the grit, and perhaps because of it, it is a miracle. It was a miracle for me, after having survived a life-threatening eating disorder fifteen years ago, that I was able to become pregnant and give birth. http://www.exploringwomanhood.com/mindbodysoul/health/anorexia_fertility.htm
Mary knew that. She knew it when she said yes to the angel. She knew it when she said yes, even though (I would imagine) many people including her husband were saying “Really? An angel impregnated you? Sure…” She said yes to the miracle despite all the disbelievers because saying yes to the miracle was more important than giving credence to the naysayers. Anyone in recovery from any kind of addiction or eating disorder knows that saying yes in the face of doubt and disbelief is a crucial element of recovery. Mary said yes to the miracle, even if it meant giving birth to her baby in a barn full of scratchy straw without pain medication or an epidural. Why? Because it is an honor and a gift to be a Mom; it is truly a miracle. Amen.