I've been spending more time with my extended family on a weekly basis for a weekly family dinner ritual. It's afforded me some valuable family dynamic observation insights, as well as an opportunity to becoming intimately acquainted with the Jerry Seinfeld quote, "there's no such thing as fun for the whole family". I think anyone can become exhausted, annoyed, frustrated or down right over it when they spend extended amounts of time with family. I also think is largely because we often get stuck in our archetypal family roles, even when we may want to do anything but fall into old familial patterns.
With Thanksgiving around the corner many people will return to their families of origin and will have to navigate their way through often complex family dynamics and role-playing.
Most of the literature out there discusses dysfunctional or addictive family roles, as though those are the only time people play roles in families. Many have observed four to five major roles in dysfunctional family environments that supposedly develop primarily in families that have an addictive or pathological element, such as an addictive or abusive parent or family member.
I believe anyone that has a family (biological or otherwise) can recognize the six familial roles that people play even if there is no blatant dysfunctional element (consequently I've also never seen a family that isn't a little dysfunctional). I think that the supposed dysfunctional family roles are merely archetypal patterns that play out in any family and there are levels of functioning within those roles.
Below I outline the six major familial roles, as I conceptualize them. I give 3 names for each role beginning with the least pathological to the more negatively entrenched. Everything that deals with human beings exists on a continuum so I tried to reflect that in my descriptions.
See if you can observe the roles outlined below in your family this holiday season, and perhaps try to embody the positive side of your own archetypal role to prevent from going insane. As with any archetype, identifying and integrating the high side of the role will help to foster better communication which will be particularly helpful as your smashed together with people who know how to push your buttons the most.
Depending on the size of the family one person may play multiple roles or there may be a couple of people playing one role, alternately it's not uncommon for people to swap roles throughout the course of a lifetime. If you're an only child you may find that you play these roles out in yourself, or with cousins or friends, or maybe even share the roles with your parents.
The Dramatic, The Problem Child, The Addict
This is the person who often has an unconscious need to be the center of attention. They may have felt like they did not get enough of the kind of attention they desired as a child and on the high end of the spectrum may be quite emotionally entertaining. It's not uncommon for The Dramatic to hold family secrets and as such often internalizes the burden of holding those secrets into addictions of various kinds. This is the person that often has "drama" in their life and consequently other people in the family often find themselves responding to their dramas in ways characteristic of their archetypal role. On the high side this person can be interesting, caring, emotionally involved and intuitive. On the low side this person can be addictive, manipulative, crisis-prone and attention seeking. This is often the oldest child, or sometimes the youngest. Regardless of their position this person learned how to get attention through dramatic or bold displays and often has trouble with excess and attachment.They are typically closely bonded to The Helper and may feel adversarial and competitive with The Truth Teller and The Good Child.
The Truth Teller, The Scapegoat/Black Sheep, The Emotional Dumpster
This is the person who felt punished by The Dramatic's behavior. As a result they tend to feel like they "saw the truth" but we're not heard or valued for their insight or sensitivity. They tend to become the scapegoat for the families problems at an early age, sometimes being held responsible for other people's bad behavior frequently hearing things like, "why didn't you watch after your brother/sister?!"They feel responsible for other people and can either rebel and become trouble makers in their own right, feeling a desire to assert their autonomy through engaging in behavior the family may find undesirable; or they may conversely become emotionally burdened by the family's unwanted emotions. On the high side they are creative and unconventional and can provide realistic and invaluable insight into family dynamics. On the low side they can be emotionally vulnerable, depressed or reactive. They often feel like they are blamed for everything and can carry this into their work lives and have problems with authority and may be very sensitive to sleights and disrespect. They are sensitive to fairness and closely monitor how others in the family are treated and measure themselves against it. This is often the middle child role.
The Good Child, The Perfectionist, The Narcissist
The Good Child saw the complications that arose from The Dramatic and The Truth Teller and decides to counter their undesirable behavior by being perfect. They often see it as their responsibility to "have it all together". They are often achievement oriented and want to be the one who brings honor to their family through proving their worth. They can be hard-working but are often rigid in their expectations. They may choose to disassociate from other people in the family who are seen as "problematic" and can become hardened in their pursuit of making their lives work. On the high side they are hard-working, diligent, and successful on the low side they can be narcissistic, perfectionistic and insensitive to the problems in the family. Sometimes this role isn't adopted until later in life after this person has played one of the other roles. In any case it is desirable to receive positive attention and so they may hide insecurities or problems from parents and children. This is often the 3rd or 4th child in large families. This is also a role that can tend to shift between family members. There are sometimes two people who play this role together and may simultaneously compete and commiserate about problem family members.
The Low Maintenance Child, The Invisible Child, The Ghost
This is the person that witnessed the complicated family dynamics and chose to be step out of the way. They often watched older siblings create various issues that were viewed negatively by family members and wanted nothing to do with it. However, unlike the good child they don't strive as much for the spotlight, although they do tend to be well-behaved and dutiful, but rather make themselves invisible. They tend to be quite secretive about aspects of their lives, because they learned the more that they reveal the more open they are to judgement and scrutiny. They tend to eliminate themselves in the hopes of flying under the radar. They can be emotionally restrictive and may have problems with repression, particularly about angry feelings. They are often angry at not being seen, and at other family members for taking all of the attention. Sometimes their silence can be a method of garnering attention, which they simultaneously enjoy and disdain. On the high side they are reticent, seemingly stable and simple. On the low side they can be emotionally deadened, disconnected and apathetic. This is often the youngest child.
The Comedian, The Goof Off, The Slacker
The Comedian plays the role of the family jester. They often see the problems and strife in the family and feel the need to introduce levity. They tend to enjoy entertaining other family members as a way of distracting from the emotional intensity that may be present. In many cases they find that being the funny or entertaining one is the only way they can garner attention and as a result their humor can sometimes be biting or caustic, particularly about other family members. They may have problems taking things seriously, including their own personal development. It is not uncommon for them to have problems focusing or drifting away from responsibilities. Many times they can be supported by parental figures in ways that make other family members jealous because they have a way of worming out of obligations. Sometimes this role can co-mingle with the dramatic/addict. On the high side they can be funny, positive and ironic. On the low side they can be sarcastic, irresponsible or dismissive. This role can be occupied by many people in the family system.
The Helper, The Codependent, The Enabler
The Helper role develops out of a desire to assist the parents with managing problems. They often find themselves parentified at a young age and see it as their responsibility to help fix family problems. They may even take on more of a parental role than the parents themselves and take to reforming and managing siblings (or parents) as a way to manage anxiety. They may be quite sensitive to the problems of others and may take on more emotional or practical responsibility for others' issues than what is necessary. They may become so engrossed in solving the problems of others that they neglect their own lives and can become controlling and meddling. This person often develops a close relationship with both the the dramatist and the parents in the hopes of correcting or reforming what they see as missteps in parental guidance. As such they become the other parents and can be critical of the choices of all in the family. On the high side they are helpful, caring and supportive. On the low side they can be controlling, critical and enabling.