Geraldine barely remembers a time when she wasn’t the responsible one. Her mother was terminally ill, forcing Geraldine to take on household chores and responsibilities from a young age. After her mother died, Geraldine’s father abandoned the kids, leaving Geraldine in charge of her siblings. To make things work, Geraldine created a structure in the household with rules around bedtime, cleanliness, and what to say whenever a social worker dropped by. At work, her boss referred to Geraldine, his hardest working employee, as a human computer because Geraldine never made mistakes.
Geraldine seems perfect; you might even call her a family hero.
Under the surface, of course, there were problems. In desperation, Geraldine fell behind at work and took illegal steps to cover her shortcomings. At home, Geraldine hoarded, and her endless anxiety about everyone following her rigid guidelines caused the people her life revolved around to distance themselves from her.
Let’s start learning. In all families, members take on stability-maintaining roles. Classic family roles include the family hero, placater, scapegoat, lost child, and mascot. In the healthy family system, roles shift and are enacted with flexibility. Conversely, roles can become rigid and toxic in a family that undergoes trauma.
On paper, the hero is the most productive and efficient of these family roles. A family hero is the responsible one, the person who makes sure that meals are on time and healthy and that the bills are paid. The hero is frequently a perfectionist who believes that the family will be fine if they can continue to act perfectly forever. They think things like “I must be in control or bad things will happen” and “If everyone just did things my way, we’d all be okay.” Underneath, though, the family hero is insecure, lonely, and exhausted.
Here are some tips to shift out of the family hero role:
Focus on being, not doing: Instead of deriving satisfaction from external sources like accomplishments or accolades, focus on your happiness in the moment. The mindset shift is “I’m enough if I’m happy and present; my energy doesn’t always have to be directed at a goal.”
Beautiful Oops: Try to appreciate mistakes from yourself and others and see them as learning opportunities. As you increase your ability to tolerate mistakes, develop the courage to not always learn from mistakes and be imperfect.
Promote a Team Environment: I mean, things have to get done (maybe not ALL the things a family hero wants, but some things do…). Share the burden. Collaborate with your family to identify what tasks are necessary and together create an equitably empowered plan to fulfill these needs.
Geraldine is a classic family hero. But let’s say she wanted to make a change. She could:
Spend ten minutes daily talking to her nephew and laughing at his jokes (Focus on being, not doing).
Acknowledge that the method she’s using at work is prone to errors and switch to a less faulty program, then tell her boss that she needs more help and support because she is imperfect and unable to do everything (Beautiful oops).
Arrive at family dinner with a big piece of paper and work collaboratively with her family on a household to-do list. Then, everyone could volunteer to take on their preferred tasks and equitably divvy up anything remaining (promote a team environment).
If Geraldine tried these steps, she likely would feel closer to others and more securely distanced from disaster. Maybe she’d even, bit by bit, feel calm.