NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Trauma of the "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family

In a prior article, The Role of the Family Scapegoat in Dysfunctional Families, I wrote about the rigid roles in dysfunctional families and how one child is often labeled the "scapegoat" in the family.  In this article, I'm focusing on another role that is often found in dysfunctional families, which is the "hero."

The Trauma of the "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family

It's easy to see how difficult it is for the child who is in the scapegoat role.  It might be more difficult to see the emotional consequences of being the hero.

In a dysfunctional family where the parents are emotionally unavailable, it's not unusual for one of the children, often the oldest child, to take on the parental role.

At a young age, these children learn to fill in the gaps where their parents are not fulfilling their adult roles.

Children who are heroes in their family are usually:
  • mature beyond their years
  • very serious and have difficulty having fun
  • goal oriented
  • driven to do the "right thing"
  • striving all the time at school and at home
  • craving attention and recognition, but often feel too ashamed to ask for it
  • very self critical
  • lacking self confidence
  • ashamed of themselves
  • afraid to say "no"
  • mistrustful their own judgment

The roles of scapegoat and hero are both traumatic, but they play out in different ways.

Whereas the child who is in the role of the scapegoat might feel that it's useless for him or her to try to do well, the child who is the hero will keep trying until things are "perfect."  Since there's no such thing as being "perfect," s/he keeps trying because things never seem good enough.

Let's look at a fictional vignette which is typical of what happens for the child in the hero role:

Sandy was the oldest of four children.  Both parents were very involved in their careers and often left it to Sandy to take care of her younger siblings.

The Trauma of the "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family

By the age of 10, she was often coming home from school to make dinner for her siblings while both parents stayed late at the office.

Sandy tended to be an anxious child who worried a lot about getting good grades at school, even though she usually got A's.  Whenever she would get an A- or a B+, she felt very ashamed and disappointed in herself.

With everything that Sandy did, whether it was getting good grades or making a meal at home, she hoped that her parents would pay attention to her.  Her mother occasionally praised Sandy haphazardly and told the other children that they should be more like Sandy, and her father was usually too distracted with his work to notice Sandy's accomplishments.

Although Sandy craved her parents' attention, she felt too ashamed to ask them for it.  On some level, she felt unworthy.

As an adult, Sandy got into relationships with highly narcissistic men who took advantage of her good nature.

She often found it difficult to say "no" to any request from her boyfriend or from friends.  Since she unconsciously chose people to be in her life that were similar to her parents, she rarely got the attention and praise that she craved.

After breaking up with a man who overlooked Sandy's kindness and generosity, she began therapy to try to find out why she felt so desperately unhappy and unappreciated even though she tried so hard to please the people in her life.

The Trauma of the "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family

Over time, Sandy discovered in therapy that, since childhood, she had been in the narrow role of being the hero in her family and in her adult relationships.

She saw how she was unable to allow herself to have fun and do other things that children did when she was a child because she was so focused on taking care of things at home and trying to be the "best" in every aspect of her life.

Gradually, she could see why she tended to be anxious most of the time.

She also learned that, as a result of her childhood, she was getting into codependent relationships with men who were self centered and emotionally distant, similar to her parents.

Her therapist told her about EMDR Therapy and, over time, Sandy was able to work through her childhood trauma (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The Trauma of the "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family

Once she was free of her psychological trauma, she became more self compassionate and calm.  She also made better choices with regard to her friendships and relationships with men.

Without help, psychological dynamics, like codependency, that develop in childhood usually continue into adulthood.

Someone who has been in a rigid role as a child in his or her family will usually continue in that role as an adult.  S/he will choose relationships as an adult where these dynamics will be perpetuated.

Unfortunately, people often wait until they have been hurt numerous times as an adult before they get help in therapy.

If they choose a trauma therapist who is knowledgeable about codependent dynamics and the types of experiential therapy that help clients to overcome these dynamics, they can work through these issues over time to have a happier life.

Getting Help in Therapy
My experience has been that experiential therapy, like EMDR and other types of mind-body oriented therapies, often work best to help clients to overcome psychological trauma.

If you recognize yourself in this article, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional with expertise in this area.

Once you have worked through your unresolved childhood trauma, you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and children.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.