A lot of factors influence our upbringing. Our parents’ psychological functioning. The quality of their relationship. Our socio-economic background and our personalities. While there are many other factors, there is one hugely influential one that is a secret to most of us: our family role.
Families are not just collections of individuals, but systems with their own systemic laws and needs that can overrule the needs of the individual. The health of the system requires that certain functions are performed and to this end, roles are assigned to family members.
Here’s the thing: no one asks for their family role. Your parents didn’t decide yours and you never had a say in the matter. There was never a poll, a vote or a brainstorming session. The family system decides who gets to do what and, well, that’s that.
These roles have tremendous influence. They impact our development, our strengths, our weaknesses, our inner turmoil and our outer freedom. Inner growth – but personal and professional – starts with knowing which role each of us performed and how it shaped us.
There are four roles and at the end of this blog you may be able to determine which was assigned to you and how it shaped you. And how it perhaps continues to shape you.
The Golden Child
The first child is often the Golden Child, whose task it is to make the family feel pride and self-worth. As children, they did well in school, excelled at sports, were deemed beautiful or displayed gifts and talents that others admired. For the parents, the Gold Child was easy to brag about and look at with a sense of accomplishment.
Now, if you feel envy for the Golden Child, hold on a moment. Instead of being free to pursue its own path, this child conforms to the values, aspirations and expectations of the family system. The Golden Child experiences constant pressure to perform, may feel like they are never good enough, and find limited space to discover what they really want in life.
The second child tends to be the Scapegoat. The anti-thesis of the Golden Child, the Scapegoat will draw negative attention and do whatever is rejected or frowned upon in the family. The Scapegoat will fall seriously ill, do badly in school, dabble in drugs, have bad friends, get involved with the law or get pregnant at an early age.
Now while the Scapegoat is a celebrated anti-hero in our culture, their reality is not so cool. For one, they serve as a diversion for the family’s unprocessed shame or disfunctioning. Also, parents whose relationship is weak will find intimacy by bonding over their shared concern or rejection of their Scapegoat. As a result, Scapegoats may internalize toxic messages – such as I am bad, I am unworthy, I will never amount to anything – and feel guilty, hurt and worthless. This inner state guides their choices, self-care and relationships later in life.
The Lost Child
The third child tends to be the Lost Child. Entering a family system that is already pretty busy, these children need to unburden their parents and siblings. And so they become invisible, learn to play by themselves for hours on end, or end up wandering the streets on their own as teenagers. They appear to need little and be independent early on, which means the rest of the family is free to focus on their own pressing matters.
This supposed freedom and ease comes at a high price. The Lost Child can end up suppressing his needs and withdraw from family life, feeling forgotten, different, and like an outsider. Later in life they can have difficulty connecting with others, being present and being clear about their needs, both to themselves and their partners or bosses.
The fourth and last role is the Mascot. Often the fourth child and the youngest sibling, he or she is tasked with bringing joy to the family. The mascot goes beyond the good-bad duality of his Golden Child and Black Sheep siblings and simply brings lightness and fun to the family system. This lowers the family’s anxiety and deflects attention from more serious matters.
Mascots can become energetic, even disruptive crowd pleasers and class clowns. They are fun and funny, but can find it hard to ask for and get attention for their own troubles and can end up feeling lonely and insecure. As the Benjamin of the family, they can also be regarded as fragile and be overprotected, which makes it hard for them to find their inner strength and independence.
Liberating yourself from your role
So having read all this, are you able to guess your family role? Were you a Scapegoat, Lost Child, Mascot or Golden Child? Bear in my that your role as a small child may be different from the one you had as a teenager, because family systems are dynamic and things change over time.
And when you know your role, do you know how it shaped you? By performing the role, what burden did you on? What did you not get round to doing as a result? Which messages about yourself did you internalize? How did the role make you feel and how does that still resonate in you today?
It can be fascinating – and perhaps a bit daunting – to have a close look at this. But doing so is a great first step towards more inner freedom, to allowing you to deal with sometimes toxic feelings, and empowering you to grow personally and professionally.
Ilja van Roon
P.S.If you want to read more blogs like this, how about checking out this one about The Most Important Relationship You Will Ever Have or Your Reaction To Pain Is The Source Of Your Pain.
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