Codependent families are dysfunctional families, and there is no way I can sugarcoat this. Believe me, I tried to in the past because no one really enjoys waking up one day and realizing that their most secret suspicion – something is not right about their family – is a reality. Please know that there are no perfect families, as there are no perfect individuals, but there are definitely families that are less psychologically healthy than others, and that can cause a great deal of trauma and negative consequences for a person’s development and growth.
My family has codependency issues and this is a problem that goes from at least three generations back. And just because you can identify this problem in your own family it doesn’t mean you haven’t been affected or even display codependent tendencies on a regular basis. Once you’re born into it, it takes continued effort to heal unhealthy behavioral and relational patterns. It takes inner work and maturity to learn and accept that such tendencies have shaped who you are and how you see the world. Let’s dive deeper into the concept of codependency first though.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, codependency is a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition. This pathological condition can go from addiction (e.g. drugs) to personality disorders (e.g. borderline personality disorder) and personality traits (e.g. authoritarianism). When codependency is part of a family’s psychology, there are power struggles between its members and a good amount of control and manipulation.
In codependent families, it’s not unusual to find that each member assumes a certain role within the family dynamic. The role can change from time to time, depending on the family’s dynamic as a whole. Sometimes one family member may have more than one role. According to Wegscheider-Cruse, there are 5 different roles: the enabler, the hero, the lost child, the scapegoat, and the mascot. Although unhealthy, these roles have a survival value and they allow family members to experience less pain and stress on a daily basis. Within my family, for instance, I have played different roles to reduce the cognitive dissonance that results from living and growing up within a codependent family.
Unless some sort of therapy is initiated, people have usually no idea they are living and breathing from such roles. They may experience and sense that there is something wrong with the family dynamic, but might not be able to point out exactly what. People may even prefer to live in the delusion that everything is alright just to keep the status quo and what’s familiar. The cost of keeping these roles active is, nonetheless, very high since they are psychologically unhealthy and, if not healed, can be passed to the following generation.
The Enabler is usually the member who is emotionally closer to the person who struggles with addiction or personality imbalances. There is a clear relationship of dependence between the enabler and that person. As situations become more chaotic and less controllable over time, the enabler tends to compensate the addict/unhealthy person by trying to control and manipulate reality, because the enabler feels extremely responsible for the family and therefore must keep it together at all costs. Enablers are usually the members of a family who extend themselves beyond measure to fulfill different chores, responsibilities, and both the physical and emotional needs of the whole family. People who play this role are very keen on hiding their fear, hurt, anger, guilt, and pain by displaying self-blame, manipulation, and self-pity.
The Hero is usually the oldest child and the person who knows more about what is going on with the family. They know the family has issues and therefore they try to improve or make things better by becoming super achievers, providers, or surrogate spouses (when children are used to fulfilling a parent’s emotional needs). The Hero tends to look older than he/she is because they learned they had to act responsibly from a very young age in order to survive. Heroes are often keen on hiding their loneliness, hurt, confusion, unworthiness, and anger by making their best to be special, competent, and confident. They often develop an independent second life away from the family.
The Scapegoat is usually identified in the family as the problem child since they are keen on finding themselves in trouble both at home and in school. This is the family member in which the other family members place their anger and frustration. By focusing its attention on the problematic child, the family keeps the illusion that everything else is alright and healthy. Their role is to create a distraction from the root problem. Unlike the Hero, the Scapegoat seeks validation not within the family but in his peer group. Scapegoats are very keen on hiding their pain and rejection feelings by withdrawing from the family, engaging in risky behaviors, acting out, and displaying aggressive behaviors.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child tends to manifest withdrawing behaviors but instead of withdrawing to a peer group, they withdraw into themselves. They may protect themselves by retreating to their fantasy world. They often don’t act out, like the Scapegoat does, and they don’t seek achievements as the Hero. As such, they may go invisible and don’t get much attention from the family. The Lost Child’s role is to provide relief to the family by not giving others the chance to worry about them. Lost Children are very keen on hiding their loneliness, pain, and sense of inadequacy by being quiet, distant, and super independent.
The Mascot is usually charming and pleasant. They often make others laugh and their role is to provide light entertainment. The Mascot is often the family member who knows the least about the family’s root problem and they are rarely taken seriously. Underneath their distraction attempts lies a great amount of fragility. Mascots are keen on hiding their fear, insecurity, and loneliness by being hyperactive, cute, and doing funny things to grab people’s attention.
If some of these roles rang a bell, the first thing I recommend you to do is to discuss this with a close friend or book a session with a professional who can help you process this information. I know it’s a very sensitive and sometimes overwhelming topic. I have personally dealt with generational codependency and I know what it’s like. Healing can bring hurt in the first stages but it’s the only way to gain psychological freedom and break the cycle. If you would like to book a session with me, you can do it here.
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