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What Are the Archetypes In a Dysfunctional Family?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW

Like all other systems, families also seek to achieve some sort of homeostasis. In healthy family dynamics, there is a system in place that gives all members permission to acknowledge their feelings and discuss them openly with other members of the system and the trust of knowing that these feelings will be respected. For those who exist in what may be considered a dysfunctional family, people may not feel safe displaying their authentic selves, which can lead to people adopting certain archetypes that the family system considers more acceptable.  In this blog article, we at Symmetry Counseling will go over all of these archetypes to give you more insight into what role you may have taken on. If you come from a dysfunctional family and need help letting go of these roles, contact us today to get paired up with a licensed therapist who specializes in family archetypes and receive the help you deserve.

Why Do We Take On These Dysfunctional Roles?

When feelings, communication, and trust are not a part of a family dynamic, we learn that sharing our emotions is not an acceptable thing to do, and therefore, we learn that if we don’t let ourselves feel certain things, we avoid pain. However, this can limit our abilities to emotionally regulate and take care of ourselves, so we create caricatures of ourselves that allow us to have some sense of control and emotional expression without the fear of being rejected by our family system.  

The Archetypes of Dysfunction

Here are some examples of the archetypes that exist when a family tries to find homeostasis in a dysfunctional system. 

  1. The Scapegoat – Often considered the “black sheep of the family,” the scapegoat is made to be the outcast. This is the person that all others within the dysfunctional system blame for all the problems within the family. These are often children in the family who are seen as defiant because they aren’t willing to accept the dysfunctional system and challenge the problematic behaviors that exist within the family. These children may experience harsher punishments than their siblings, which can have negative outcomes later in life socially.  
  2. The Hero – This person appears to be very high functioning and high achieving from an outside perspective. However, this is the archetype that usually perpetuates the idea that the dysfunctional system is fine because they work very hard to keep everything within the family running smoothly. Again, this role tends to fall on the children, and the child who is seen as “the hero” of the family is often “parentified” and cares for other siblings when parents are emotionally or physically unavailable (Applebury, 2021). 
  3. The Caregiver – Similar to the hero, the caretaker also works to enable the dysfunctional system in some way by ensuring to make sure everyone is always happy. Both children and adults can play this role, and their involvement also denies the family the ability to work through and resolve core issues of the family.  
  4. The Mascot – This person falls under this archetype and uses humor to distract from serious concerns within the family. This person may crack a joke during an awkward family situation or conflict. While humor is used to de-escalate situations within the family, it often comes from a place of anxiety and fear, and if the mascot is a child within a dysfunctional system they often will become people-pleasers later in life.  
  5. The Lost Child – If someone is the lost child of their family dynamic they often work diligently to blend into the background to avoid conflict as much as possible. This person, often a child within the dysfunctional family, feels ignored, isolated, and emotionally (sometimes even physically) neglected. Like the scapegoat, this individual tends to struggle later in life socially, and they also may have difficulty with self-advocacy and self-esteem.

Families are some of the most interesting and complex systems that we experience here at Symmetry Counseling, and the impacts that a dysfunctional system can have on an individual can be considerable. If you’re interested in discussing your family dynamic with someone and the part you play in it, or would like to connect with someone to walk with you on this journey, reach out to one of our Chicago therapists to get started today!

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