Family Roles: In the Compulsive /… | Counseling | Therapy

Family Roles: In the Compulsive / Dependent System


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Family roles in the compulsive / dependent system image

Center for Growth / Compulsive - Dependent Therapy Family Roles

In a compulsive / dependent family system, it is common for the disease to become the central focus within the system. Often all of the family’s energy and focus goes into managing the impact of the compulsion (the compulsive family member relapsing, managing secrets, keeping everything else together while the person with the problematic behaviors person unravels). As described in the article on compulsive / dependent family systems, when a family system is in crisis, the family system tends to become unsafe, chaotic, and time consuming, while organizing around the compulsive / dependent family member. When this happens, over time the family responds to the chaotic system by taking on different roles as an attempt to fill in what is missing, whether it’s consistency, or safety.

The following is a description of the common roles family members in a compulsive, obsessive or dependent system tend to take on. The concept of these roles was originally created by the famous author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir. Virginia Satir is most known for her work in family therapy and her contributions to and the focus on systemic work. Virginia Satir’s work was then adapted by Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse to fit the compulsive family. Claudia Black is a well-known author and psychotherapist whose work is primarily in compulsions and codependency, and has made major contributions to compulsion work and recovery. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse is a nationally known author, and therapist working primarily with families and within the school system. This model and concept of a compulsion / dependence family system is used by many psychotherapists today in the area of compulsion / dependence work, trauma, and recovery. A few notes about these roles: the members do not consciously create these roles, they tend to adopt these roles, in a way they are already assigned to us naturally by the system, not us. It is possible to take on a mixture of roles, over time your role may change due to your own development, other members’ development, or change of the disease and how it impacts the family.

The Person with the Problematic Behaviors :

For starters, there’s the role of the person with the dependence / compulsion. The person uses his/her/their compulsion / dependence as a way to cope with everything: my emotions, the constant guilt and shame for my behavior that he/she/they struggles to address. The struggles with accepting accountability or responsibility for actions, and is in denial of his/her reality.

The Enabler

The enabler is the main protector of the person with compulsions / dependence; often protecting the person from the consequences for his/her negative behaviors. This tends to look like the enabler calling the person's job to call out sick, making excuses to others in or out of the system for their behaviors. It may not look like it, but the enabler wants the dependent / compulsive to change, and get better. However, it’s difficult for the enabler to advocate for this change if that means leaving the person with the dependent / compulsive person uncomfortable or in pain. The role of the enabler is a big one, it’s time consuming and exhausting, usually leaving no time for this person’s own self-care or personal life. The enable believes things like: “If I communicated differently”... Or, “If I reacted to things differently..” “He/she would quit and get better.” Enablers have a strong desire to fix the person, or be the caretaker. Unfortunately, this type of behavior keeps the person comfortable in his/her/their unhealthy pattern, leaving little desire or need for recovery.

The Mascot

The mascot is the court jester of the family. He/she brings humor to the family as an attempt to keep things light and take the focus away from the obvious issues at hand. Just like a court jester, the mascot will do whatever it takes to get a laugh, and this is where he/she finds their control, and cope with the stress and pain. The mascot is flexible, but also is constantly seeking attention. The Mascot is often seen as immature, struggles to focus, and is a poor decision maker.

The Hero

The hero is the family member hold’s the family’s pride and appearance in his/her hands. The hero is the over-achieving, successful family member, representing the family. This comes in many packages: this can be the teenage daughter who gets straight A’s and is the best player in every sport she plays, this could be the mother of the family holding down the ultra-successful job, keeping the house and family looking great. The hero is organized to the point of perfectionism, goal-oriented, and is a leader. The hero needs to be in control, is a poor listener, struggles to relax, and is viewed as inflexible, and doesn’t ask for help.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is one of the more honest and direct roles. The scapegoat is defiant and acts out for attention. This may be done by running away, stealing, or doing illegal behaviors; this is how the scapegoat copes with the his/her negative emotions. The scapegoat tends to be irresponsibility, underachieving, struggles to express anger appropriately. The scapegoat’s inappropriate behaviors can lead to social problems at a young age, including teen pregnancy, or even developing a dependence or compulsions of his/her own.


The mediator, or the “middle man” is the messenger, and the people-pleaser. He/she goes back and forth between family members trying to put out fires and decrease conflict within the system. The mediator has a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. The mediator is so fixated on the system being peaceful and without anger or hostility, that his/her own needs go unmet. The mediator takes on roles and responsibility for others because he/she believes to be responsibility for s, others behaviors. The mediator is empathic, caring, and quick to smile when needed. The mediator has difficult in receiving what he/she gives to others, has many unmet needs, is anxious and fearful of conflict.

Lost Child

The lost child is also known as the “forgotten one.” He/she/they has learned to blend in and “go with the flow” strictly for survival. The lost child does not ask for much, is independent, and often escapes from the family system by isolating and keeping to himself/herself/themself. The lost child often struggles to initiate, lack direction or sense of self, is ignored, and struggles to making decisions or identify options.

The overall goal in letting go of any of these roles is to stop doing the work for the dependent / compulsive person. No matter what you say or how you say it, or how well you do in life, it is up to the loved one to make the change and efforts towards recovery.

As you can see in the descriptions of these roles, while each role does carry a few strengths, these roles also come with severe limitations for growth, functioning, developing future healthy relationships, and more. By letting go of your dysfunctional role, you are giving yourself a chance for growth, and to live your life for you. If you were once the enabler, by no longer focusing on the person’s problematic choices you can now focus on your own growth and change. For those trying to give up your duties as the mediator, now that you’re not care-taking others’ emotions, you can now take care of your own emotions, and get your energy back, because it’s exhausting being your family’s therapist 24/7. The bottom line is, whatever you were doing for the identified person with the problematic behaviors in your dysfunctional family system, you are now giving yourself the opportunity to do these things for you.

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