Have you ever wondered why you get anxious when thinking about family gatherings? 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.”
In order to survive in our families, each of us adjusts 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. 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, 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 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.
The Lost Child
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 themselves 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.
What Role Do You Play?
Do you recognize yourself or some of your family members in these roles? 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 family gatherings. In order to begin this process, we have to develop some useful self-regulation tools.
Actions to Take
A great mindfulness exercise offered by Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher called RAIN is useful when working with intense and difficult emotion.
RAIN stands for:
Recognize and just notice what is taking place
Accept/Allow life to be exactly as it is
Investigate your inner experience with kindness (without self-judgement)
Not Personalize or Non-Identification since your family dynamic is only one small part of who you are and the way we have been conditioned to react can be reimagined with consistent effort.
Other helpful tips to approach family gatherings during family gatherings are:
Routine Self-care — Don’t forego your daily routines of self-care. Have that cup of coffee slowly in the morning. Go for your morning run. Take your five minutes to meditate. It’s your anchor in the madness, don’t give it up during the time you need that stability the most.
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. Notice before things escalate and excuse yourself. If you know five hours is too much, show up for an amount of time that is tolerable for you. Have a plan beforehand to make a graceful exit.
Unconditional Love and Acceptance are Our Right — If our family members are incapable of giving this to us we have the right to give it to 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.
As a therapist and staunch advocate for mental health, I feel everyone can benefit from seeking a therapist who can supply guidance and support. Someone who provides an environment where you can heal old wounds through a positive, reparative relationship with another. While I provide such services, you can also find a good therapist in the area on www.psychologytoday.com.