In all families, there’s an element of members taking on roles. Sometimes it’s about hierarchy, sometimes it’s about being seen in a certain way and so people putting you into that role even if it’s not really who you are, sometimes it’s about necessity at one time that has never really been re-evaluated, and sometimes we assume these roles. Just like in a play where the parts get divvied up, it’s what happens in families but it becomes problematic when the roles are seen as the definitive expectation of what we ‘must’ do or are actually inaccurate, unfair and unreasonable– and they’re certainly very problematic when resentment starts to build.
The problem with being very reliant on roles is it ends up being about ticking boxes rather being who we truly are. Sometimes a role can serve one person’s overarching need and sometimes it’s primarily driven by our own motivations or a mix of both theirs and ours, but we become attached to our roles even when they don’t serve us and are actually a point of frustration and resentment.
If you are in a role it tells you about:
- The past – How you have engaged historically, an aspect of you and your past that might be unwittingly trying to be healed via playing this role. e.g. Needing to be needed might be about learning at a young age that the way to feel worthy was to be a helper.
- What you expect of you – The obligations you put on you (or that you feel exist) as well as any ideas around how you want to be seen and regarded by the TFM
- What you think others expect of you – What you typically default to doing when you’re around a particular person? For instance, I know very bright people who play the fool when they’re around their family.
- Where you feel caught between a rock and a hard place by a combination of fear and motivation – What you secretly really want or secretly really fear? e.g. fear of not being liked, wanting to show a parent that you’re the more reliable/successful one, wanting to be the one that people turn to most
- Where you find value even when it ultimately ends up hurting you – The flip-side (or downside) of needing to be needed is you invariably end up feeling overloaded. The flip-side of being the problem solver is that you’re likely going to have stuff dumped on you or feel overly-responsible.
- Habits you’ve unconsciously adopted in order to play your part and to ‘get’ rewards or avoid certain things – e.g. People pleasing to avoid confrontation, not voicing concerns so that you’re not seen as being like the family member who ’causes trouble’, passive aggression to hint at annoyance
- An overall established routine – A lot of role-driven relationships have a routine where you can almost predict what is going to happen or what is going to be expected of you. e.g. They have a problem, you get to work on the solution. Or, you both clash and you’re always the one that has to ‘be the bigger person’.
The reason why your role tells you this information is because a role is not you; it’s a costume or a mask, not who you are. When you’re comfortable in your role in the sense that even though it might theoretically put you in an uncomfortable zone, it feels as if it’s paying off, you are not as aware of the role or the downside of it, but when tensions rise, it’s because you on some level realise that you either don’t want to play that role any longer because it’s not working very well or because you know who you are and don’t want to have a role imposed upon you.
TFM situations feel tricky in part because we either know that we’re wanting to deviate from what that person has come to expect from us or because we know that we’re being put under pressure to comply with something that we know doesn’t work.
What you have to ask yourself is, Is my TFM situation about me not fulfilling what they see as the obligations of an established role or is it about me not being willing to comply with a role that they’re trying to slot me in to now?
It’s important to ask this because it makes it easier to discern whether you need to be cognisant of how you rightfully wanting to no longer play a role is bound to disrupt the balance and have a knock-on effect on the TFM where in blowback against the changes, they exhibit more tricky behaviour, or whether you need to acknowledge that this person is already in their mode as such and just aspects people to pick up their parts and do improv to make them feel comfortable. Sure, people who are not as self-aware and even looking for a level of validation might slip into these parts to keep the peace and to gain favour but someone who is more self-aware and certainly quite clear on what is and isn’t OK with them, will be resistant to having this imposed upon them.
Let’s look at this in a real-life context:
Sabrina has an established role of playing dutiful daughter who doesn’t question what her mother expects and even demands of her. At first she obliged her mother’s requests and her typical mode of being helpless because truth be told, she thought that her mother would appreciate her more and she would finally feel solid in her relationship with her but she also admits that it was partly out of feeling obligated and yes, fear of on an onslaught of negativity if she did acquiesce. This has gone on for years and as time has gone on, Sabrina is angry. She resents her mother’s intrusions on her life and going round there several times a week to be dumped on or even yelled at. This wasn’t what she signed up for – she wonders why she is still being criticised about just about anything and everything despite how much she does for her mother. But Sabrina in getting clear about the issues int he situation has realised that if she wants the situation to change, that she must recognise her role and redefine it with healthier boundaries. Her mother is undoubtedly out of line with what she’s doing but Sabrina recognises that she is setting herself up for pain by doing the same thing and expecting different results, as well as doing things for the wrong reasons. Sabrina’s mother is very resistant to her redefining her role and tries everything from guilt, to laying down obligations, to criticism, to threats but whereas before Sabrina saw herself as being responsible for making her mother feel better, she realises that she can’t keep doing what she’s doing, blaming her mother for it, and then wondering why she’s not feeling better.
Mark is different to Sabrina in that he tends to do his own thing. He is happy to do things for his family but has typically not allowed concepts of what he ‘should’ be doing to overtake him. Mark encounters Uncle Bob, who makes it clear that he expects Mark to do things that he’s not comfortable with, one such thing being investing in his latest business idea. Uncle Bob is used to getting his own way. Mark doesn’t mind helping out with certain things but it’s too much for Uncle Bob to expect him to invest without being willing to let him do due diligence. He feels railroaded. Uncle Bob goes on about loyalty, Mark’s father says that he’s putting him in an awkward situation. Mark finds the whole situation very awkward indeed but acknowledges that it will be far more awkward if he sinks money he doesn’t really have to spare or want to spare for that matter. He feels bad for his father who has his own established role with Uncle Bob but realises that him putting money in isn’t going to fix that.
Sabrina has The Good Girl/Dutiful Daughter role and even though Mark does not have an established role with his uncle, his father and his uncle expect him to play The Good Guy or Dutiful Son/Nephew role. Sabrina is still in a child role with her mother who then talks to and treats her as if she’s a child, which builds resentment and frustration, whereas Mark, while he loves his family, he approaches what he’s doing from an adult role, so much as he loves his father, he’s not about to be bossed and guilted into investing. In Mark’s situation, you can also see how roles within the extended family can filter down to you.
Roles, established or suddenly imposed upon you, will lead to resentment on both sides. What you need to do is get clear on what role, if any, you are playing whether it’s directly with this TFM or as part of a wider dynamic, so that you can come to understand where adjustments need to be made or where you might need to recognise blind spots.
JOURNALING: Using the bullet points above, write about whether you have an established role or which role it is that they’re expecting you to fulfil. You might find that writing it all out will help you to give a title to the role, just like in a screenplay where it might say, The Good Girl or The One Who ________. What is your role ‘supposed’ to be? What is the upside and what’s the downside of the role? Are there any supporting cast members who are inadvertently or even consciously contributing to why the TFM has certain expectations or why the situation is feeling tricky for you? What will the TFM have to acknowledge or start to do if you don’t fulfil your part? This will also make it clear about where you may have been overcompensating. e.g. Me talking about my life or even my issues more rather than only listening to his/hers might mean that she will start to take ownership of his/her own stuff and show up in our relationship and I will feel less drained and put-upon.