What It Means To Be The 'Hero' In A Dysfunctional Family (& How To Manage As An Adult)

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siblings embrace out on a street

I wonder what Superman is really like when he is not a bumbling Clark Kent or leaping tall buildings in a single bound? I wonder if he’s lonely when he goes home to no one after an adventure?

I wonder if he wakes up at 4:30 In the morning, wondering what he could have done better, smarter, faster?

I wonder if he has days when he feels useless or lonely or unhappy when he is not performing?

What can be wrong with always excelling? What can be harmful in being the family hero, the person everyone goes to for the answers, for the fix?

This role be both exhilarating, anxiety-producing and depressing, and recovering from it as an adult isn't always simple. But it is possible. 

In order to better understand the family hero’s role, which can be a male or a female, we need to know how it is created. We need to better understand the dysfunctional family.

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What is a 'dysfunctional' family?

The term "dysfunctional" brings with it the connotation that something is not functioning. The “dysfunctional” family system is in fact a powerful functioning system supporting some type of crisis.

In the family system, the term “dysfunctional family ” means that the needs of the children are not met, so each child takes on a role that helps them deal with the anxiety produced by the instability of the family and gives them a sense of control.

Long-term family crises can happen for a variety of reasons such as, a parent is absent, working to keep food on the table and a roof overhead; a parent is ill and the focus of the family is on the illness and demanding attention would appear to be selfish.

Whatever the cause, there is a shift in family responsibilities and a child takes over the adult roles, acting “as if” they were in charge to the best of their abilities.

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When the kids try to step up

They work hard to control matters which are entirely out of their control. They fall into an abyss of what Timmen Cermak, M.D. referred to as “Toxic Shame” which means, ‘what I am’ or ‘who I am’ is not good enough as they take personal responsibility for the problems of the family. And so they excel … and excel … and excel.

If they were truly good enough, if God really loved them, if their parent really loved them, they believe, the family would be healed, the abuse would stop, the fear or sadness would go away. It does not.

The problem was not created by the family hero in the first place, but the feeling of never being good enough remains a part of their psychological makeup. Never good enough or strong enough or smart enough or rich enough or lovable enough.

Even though the hero looks good, looks smart, looks strong, and excels at everything outside, they were not good enough to make their parents happy, to stop the addict parent from using drugs or alcohol, to stop a parent from dying or leaving or make them well again. Why were their parent(s) so nervous, upset or angry? Why could they not fix it?

They are children competing in an adult world, amongst adult problems without the mental and emotional ability to compete and even though they excel and look very good, they are never good enough to stop the pain, the anxiety of the family! The playing field is indeed stacked against them and though they excel externally, internally they can never be good enough.

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The long-term effects on the family hero

Because the family is already emotionally overwhelmed and cannot tolerate more unhappiness, more dissension, the hero learns to hide their feelings even from themselves. They learn whatever they need to do to stay safe in an environment that cannot ensure a sense of safety.

There is something else important that they learn.

They learn to live, to survive, to thrive with crisis surrounding them. When there is no crisis they are on high alert for the crisis to come.

You may have noticed that some of the struggles of family life happen in every family and there is usually someone who excels and enjoys it. The difference is that they are not stuck in that role.

There is no need for a constant challenge to prove to the world and themselves that they are necessary and alive. A healthy person is flexible; they give and receive; they do some things well and some things not so well.

Liking themselves, they have no need to prove themselves. The hero, like many great actors, only flourishes while they are onstage and sink into depression when the applause dies down. They are human doings and not human beings.

They are addicted to fixing, stuck in the role that gives them a sense of control, sense of safety, of being necessary to the family and they carry that role in their own family, their workplace, and their community. Often what they “do” is positive. The problem is that without a crisis to fix they are lost.

Sadly, they have no history of being in touch with their feeling or knowing how to have their needs met. Not being in touch with their own anger and disappointment, eventually, they discharge it through radical causes.

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Family hero — or prisoner of circumstance?

Because the hero is polarized, softness and gentleness are misconstrued as weaknesses. They gravitate towards managing and controlling which may work well in the short run, for instance, when becoming an entrepreneur or managing a new business.

However, what they build inevitably crashes because they will not or cannot delegate anything; they must know every iota, they are withholding information and must be the authority.

This role does not allow for creativity, an influx of ideas from others or growth. The hero surrounds themselves with people who are needy, “yes” people who will affirm them and be dependent on their largess.

They blame others for any failure. They are addicted to winning or other ultimately destructive obsessions such as gambling, drug and alcohol dependence, obsession with the accumulation of money or whatever gives them a sense of power. The hero is co-dependent.

Hard to imagine since they are the ones everyone needs. Actually, they are dependent on being needed, stuck in a role that helped them survive as children — but has now become a prison.

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How to 'save' the family hero

Now that we have identified the problem, what is the solution?

Unfortunately, it usually takes a great defeat or loss for the hero to look for an alternative to their modus operandi. Those who they have “saved” have become too healthy to need them anymore so the hero feels unnecessary and those who have lived off of their success may have gone for fatter fields.

This is when the hero enters what is called “the dark night of the soul,” where the only thing left is to cry out for help. The hard shell which has been their childhood protection has been shattered.

They are now ready to put the focus on themselves, to listen and to learn about their own problems and their own feelings.

Like the little chick cracking through the eggshell, it has been hard to break through. Without their hero role image, they no longer know who they are.

The hero is finally aware of the truth that they are in control of nothing except their opportunity to get help. This is the crossroad.

Do they try once again to recreate the faulty role they know or do they let someone else help them? It is a hard decision when they have been unable to trust anyone but themselves. However, it is the golden opportunity for the hero to be reborn, to get to know their real self!

Focusing inward and taking responsibility for their own personal life will help the hero not only survive but to thrive.

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Adjusting the hero's perspective

Why can’t the dysfunctional family member fix themselves? Why must they choose someone objective, outside of the family system?

Breaking our defense mechanisms, (a fancy name for our survival walls), means understanding ourselves from a different perspective. If I were to keep seeing myself from my own viewpoint I would find the answers I have always found.

The need we all have for harmony and balance is to understand viewpoints greater than our own. It will take time and willingness and perseverance to shatter old belief systems. The hero must entertain new thoughts about the expectations of themselves and their expectations of the world.

There is of a great discrepancy between what we know intellectually and what we believed in the heart of that little disappointed child who could not fix their family or make everyone happy. It is vital to understand the anger, which they were taught not to have, or the shame that few others will understand.

It is important to learn the gift of receiving is as important as the gift of giving. It is a hard lesson to learn that if you don’t take care of yourself, the hero may at some point shut down, and completely block all their emotions.

A person cannot pick and choose the feelings they want to have. We either have feelings or block them. When feelings are buried, they are buried alive where they can be triggered like a time bomb, manifesting in rage.

The hero, once in touch with themselves will be in touch with and find healthy ways to vent feelings. No longer needing to prove to themselves and others that they are better, smarter or in control, the hero can grasp the idea that the world contains infinite possibilities.

What people find in it is a confirmation of what they believe.

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Helping the family hero break free of old bonds

It is imperative to learn that we are in a relationship to every situation we encounter. There is no “dysfunctional family role” that is good or bad.

The object of the exercise of life is to grow past our limitations, to become fully alive by utilizing all that we encounter for our good and the good of others. Circumstances do not define us if we are willing to become active participants in our lives.

With help, the hero learns to utilize their great managerial skills and to share responsibilities with others. They have time to learn about enjoying their lives as they delegate to others and find freedom in not having to do everything themselves. The s/hero learns to be vulnerable, giving and receiving love and respect.

Most important, the hero learns to trust that life can sustain them and to forgive, be forgiven, to be grateful for the capacity to enjoy life without waiting for the other shoe to drop. When difficulties come, as they too are a part of growing, they do not have to face them alone but are supported and nurtured.

It is then that the hero is free, fully alive and can begin to appreciate the joy of living!

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Rev. Ellyn Kravette is a psychospiritual counselor who believes that the essence of spirituality means that each one of us is a part of something greater.

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