In his book, Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls, Robert Burney writes that “there are four basic roles that children adopt in order to survive growing up in emotionally dishonest, shame-based, dysfunctional family systems.” The children take these roles because they sense that the family’s dysfunction is so great, without their wearing the mantle of the chosen role, the whole might not be able to continue.
You may be familiar with these roles from your own family of origin–or your own children. The roles are the Mascot or Caretaker, the Lost Child, the Acting-Out-Child or Scapegoat [I wrote about this role under the name of the ‘Identified Patient’], and, finally, our very own Responsible Child, or Family Hero.
The Hero is often the oldest child, although in one of the more striking cases I’ve just seen in treatment, it’s actually the third, the first and second having been unable to handle this starring role. Heroes tend to be over-responsible and over-achieving. They might be the valedictorians, the prom queens, the starting quarterbacks, the heads of drama. They make it possible for their families to look at them and be re-assured about the family’s own well-being as a unit. (“If Sara graduated top of her eighth grade class, we’re obviously doing a lot right as parents, aren’t we?” goes the thought process.) These Heroes might even be parentified, taking care of one (or both) parents, in a complete role reversal. The continued performance and excellence of the Hero validates not just the Hero–but the entire family unit.
Not unsurprisingly, however, this linchpin role in the dysfunctional family comes with a high price. Usually the Hero feels guilty and inadequate, and is plagued by the sense, despite all his achievements, that there’s nothing he can really do to heal his family’s pain. Often the Hero will push herself so hard to achieve that she becomes prone to stress-related illnesses. [Most recently I had a Family Hero in my practice who seemed to feel so guilt-ridden that she wanted to just obliterate herself, to greatly over-simplify the explanation for her anorexia. She wanted to place no more demands on her family–to only provide, and how she managed to perform as she did academically at such a low weight is a mystery to me.]
It is not uncommon for the Hero to feel isolated and alone; later on they may have difficulty developing intimate relationships, since they have no experience being in touch with and expressing their true feelings. They seem cut off from their own emotions to the extent that the praise they receive for their achievements and successes becomes an end in itself. They feel no sense of self-satisfaction, and and thus must continue to excel and achieve in order to receive the praise that defines them to themselves as ‘good.’
I found this choice insight into the Hero on Robert Burney’s website: “The family hero, because of their ‘success’ in conforming to dysfunctional cultural definitions of what constitutes doing life “right,” is often the child in the family who as an adult has the hardest time even admitting that there is anything within themselves that needs to be healed.”
So it is the greatest success in the family, from an external perspective, who turns out to pay the highest internal price–and who struggles the mightiest to even put into words that they might need help.
Even Morticia Addams understood that a child like this, despite the bountiful gifts he may bestow upon his family, needs help.