Have you ever wondered why you get anxious when thinking about family gatherings during the
holidays? You’re not alone! Dr. Murray Bowen was the founder of Family Systems Theory and
posits that “...individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a
part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected
and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation from the system”.
And let’s face it, that is sometimes a scary thought as we like to consider ourselves evolved and
individuated (verb, to distinguish from others of the same kind) from the generational patterns
that often plague our families. However, we can rest in knowing that no family is perfect, we all
relate to one another at some level of dysfunction. In order to survive in our families, we adapt.
Each of us adapts by accepting a role in the family play.
There’s the family hero - the responsible child who’s 5 going on 40 years old. They take
on the parental role from a very young age, they are responsible and self sufficient. They make
the family look good on the outside and the parents look to this child to prove to themselves that
they are doing a good job parenting. As an adult, they become rigid, controlling and often
judgmental of themselves and others. Nothing is ever good enough. They achieve what looks
like success to the outside world but do so in an effort to gain approval and self worth
externally. Often times it takes this family member the longest time to see that there might be
some deep emotional wounds and inner self critical voices that need to be healed and accepted
as good enough.
Then we have the scapegoat, the “bad” kid, the one who acts out what the family
ignores. They provide a welcome distraction from the family’s real issues. They often get into
trouble at school and otherwise in an effort to get their need of getting attention met - even if it’s
negative attention. They are considered sensitive and internalize the family issues to the point
of self destruction. They often become cynical, distrustful adults who harbor a lot of self hatred
and seek recovery in an effort to understand their destructive patterns.
Next we have the mascot or the caretaker. This family member takes responsibility for
the family’s emotional well being. They can become the clown in an effort to divert attention
from the anger and pain in the family or the social director. They are valued for their kind heart
and ability to listen. Their whole identity becomes wrapped up in helping others, often times
putting themselves last on the list of those to receive care. They become adults with caseloads
of friends that need their help in some way and have a hard time receiving instead of giving love
and care. These are the people pleasers who often end up in abusive relationships.
Another role in the family is the lost child. The one who tries to fade into the
background. They lose themselves in books and fantasy or escape through tv and withdraw
from reality in some way. They often become adults who are commitment phobics, suffer from
low self worth and socially isolate in an effort to protect themselves from being hurt. These are
our actors or writers, who’ve sought a creative way to emotionally express their pain indirectly.
Do you recognize yourself or some of your family members in these roles? If you want
to watch a movie that brings these roles and insights to life, The Family Stone is a great case
study. We can have characteristics of several and go through phases of each at various times
in our upbringing according to what the best adaptation is for survival in the family at a particular
time. What’s important here is that we develop some awareness and an investigative sense of
curiosity about our self-development over time in relation to our childhood and how that shows
up in our adult relationships unnecessarily. This way we can begin to sift through what patterns
no longer serve the adaptive survival tactics we held on to as a result of our Family of Origin
Once we develop this awareness we can begin to choose to show up differently in our
families and rebuke the old roles that come up around the holiday family gatherings. We revert
to these old patterns when we are under stress and we have to actively commit to breaking
those neural connections. We can speak our Truth without fear of suffering because we are
adults who have adapted new and hopefully more functional ways of getting our needs met. In
order to begin this process we have to develop some useful tips, tricks and self-regulation tools
along with a present moment awareness so that we don’t dissociate and end up acting out that
dysfunctional rebellious teenager role we played in our youth.
A great mindfulness exercise offered by Tara Brach, a buddhist mediation teacher called
R. A.I.N. is useful when working with intense and difficult emotion. This practice gives us a clear
way to cut through the confusion and stress that comes with family gatherings. This acronym
helps to bring ourselves into the present moment without judgement. I’ll include a brief overview
here but recommend checking out Tara’s website for deeper exploration https://
It stands for:
Recognize - Recognize & just notice what is taking place
Accept/Allow life to be exactly as it is
Investigate your inner experience with kindness (sans self judgement)
Not Personalize or Non Identification - this is one small part of who you are and the
way we have been conditioned to react can be re imagined with consistent effort.
Other helpful tips to approach family gatherings this holiday are:
1. Routine Self Care - don’t forego your daily routines of self-fulfilling rituals. Have that cup of
coffee slowly in the morning. Go for your morning run. Take your 5 minutes to meditate. It’s
your anchor in the madness, don’t give it up during the time you need that stability the most.
2. Plan Ahead - when things get intense have an exit plan. You don’t have to stay and take
verbal abuse or be part of every argument you’re invited to. You have the right to make the
choice to walk away and get some fresh air. Planning ahead also means noticing before
things escalate and excusing yourself in an effort to show up to have a calm, collected
conversation. Planning ahead also means setting clear boundaries for yourself. If you know
5 hours is too much - show up for an amount of time that is tolerable for you. If 2 hours is
all you can do, have a plan beforehand to make a graceful exit.
3. Unconditional love and acceptance is our right. If our family members are incapable of giving
this to us we have the right to give it to ourselves by utilizing all of the above tools to
show that child part of ourselves the compassion we may have never or will never receive.
Once we are able to meet this need for ourselves, we can more easily give compassion to
others and meet them where they are with unconditional love and acceptance. We can agree
to disagree and still love each other. This is not typically a rule that families of dysfunction are
able to implement, but you can be the leader and model for your family new ways of being in
relationship with each other.
As a therapist and staunch advocate for mental health, I feel everyone can benefit from seeking
a therapist who can supply guidance and support through the holidays and ongoing. Someone
who provides an environment where you are able to heal old wounds through a positive,
reparative relationship with another. I provide such services and know several resources for all
budget types. Please feel free to contact me for guidance and resources at
firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find a good therapist in the area on