Groups are complex systems. Whether a family of a friendship group, they can be fraught with complex dynamics and transactions.
Far from being just a group of individuals with differing personalities, different roles develop between members, or between one individual and the rest of the group or family. We might act differently with one person compared to another.
We usually have a favoured role, developed as a way to get what we needed as children in our family of origin. Our role helped us get attention, or affection, or approval. It helped us avoid punishment, blame or neglect.
We developed roles as a way to get what we needed
A question for all of us is – do we still need to play the roles we learnt? Can we recognise where we tend to fit in within our family, and asked ourselves if we take that role in other groups too? Can we test out being different… and simply be ourselves and express however we are feeling at any given point? That approach is less predictable, sure, but ultimately freeing and potentially more rewarding.
The below are the commonly seen roles that we take on in our family systems – and therefore usually in subsequent groups. You may perform one or several, or several each with a different relative. Which of these sound familiar…?
This is the good and responsible child. This person is a high achiever and carries the pride of the family. The Hero may overcompensate to avoid looking or feeling inadequate. They’re often a good leader and organiser, goal oriented and self-disciplined. Sometimes, however, the hero lacks the ability to play, relax, follow others or allow others to be right.
Would you like relax, and let others take over occasionally?
The Rescuer takes care of others needs and emotions and problem solves for others in the family. The rescuer might have difficulties with conflict and take on the role of rescuer in the name of helping others, though often it is to meet their own needs such as relieving their own anxiety. This person doesn’t realise that sometimes helping hurts. They they live with a lot of guilt and find it challenging to focus on themselves.
If this is you, remember to look after yourself too, and do something just for you.
The Mediator can be a rescuer type although they mainly work to keep the peace in the family system. They do the emotional work of the family to avoid conflict, acting as a buffer. They do this in the name of helping others although it may also serve their own needs.
This can be a healthy role depending on how the person mediates. Just remember it’s not always your responsibility to keep the peace, and conflict is not always a bad thing; sometimes things may need to be said.
The lost child is the subservient “Good” child. They are obedient and often passive, perhaps hidden in the family dramas or traumas; they stay hidden to avoid being a problem. Generally this person is flexible and easy-going however they may lack direction and, being fearful of making decisions, can follow without questioning.
If this sounds familiar, focussing on what you want, what “problem” you fear creating, can help you identify what you need too.
This is the person the other family members feel needs the most help. Usually this is a family member in need of treatment, or in treatment. Where the family has been unable to work through their own problems, often symptoms show up in the Black Sheep. This person may have great strengths such as a sense of humour, a greater level of honesty, and the willingness to be close to their feelings. Yet there can also be an inappropriate expression of feelings, and perhaps they may experience social or emotional problems.
Family “problems” are not solely yours to bear; they are shared and the result of a dynamic between people. Talking to a professional can really help untangle things.
The Switchboard is the central information centre within the family. They keep track of what’s going on, aware of who is doing what and when. This person has strength in being the central person to go to and in understanding how the family is doing. However, this person focuses on everyone else’s issues rather than their own – when they cannot and are not obliged to solve, or even listen, to everything for everyone else, always…
The clown uses humour to offset family conflict in order to create a sense, or an illusion, that everything is okay. This person has a talent to readily lighten the moment and see the light and the funny side. However they may also hide their true feelings – which over time is not healthy. It’s ok to not feel ok sometimes.
The Thinker provides the objective reasoning and focus. Their strength is being able to see situations in a logical objective manner.
This is very valuable, however they may find it difficult to connect emotionally with others, or themselves. Recognising and experiencing a balance of thoughts and feelings is important to our mental health. Gradually, the Thinker can get used to feeling, if they allow themselves to. It can help provide a richer way of living, and our emotions are a great source of information too.
The person in this role works maintaining a hierarchy in the family, with him or herself at the top. For them, their safety and security in life depend on feeling in control of the environment around them.
This is understandable, especially in uncertain times, but life is full of change. There are some things we can control, and some things we can’t. Learning to recognise and accept that is a valuable step in our growth.
The cheerleader provide support and encouragement to others. This is a wonderful skill – but there does need to be a balance in taking care of their own needs whilst also providing a positive influence on those around them.
Remember to keep up the cheer on both sides of the equation.
This person reflects back the family system as it is. At times their challenge is how that information is relayed. Other members of the family might be offended or feel threatened because of the power of the truth that they see, and say. Strength is found when this person is coupled with another positive role, such as cheerleader.
Where did you fit in as child? And what role do you continue to take on now? Do you still want that role…?
For as adults, we no longer need to adapt to every constraint, quirk and demand of a family system. We are independent self-sufficient beings that can now choose how we act and react in response to people’s behaviours – in a way that is perhaps more balanced, that helps us thrive rather than merely survive.
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