How old do you feel when you walk through the front door of your parents’ home on Thanksgiving? If you’re like many of my clients, the answer is something along the lines of: “really, really young.” This experience is remarkably common, and can be the result of long-standing family roles.
We all play different roles in our family systems. Some we like, some we don’t. Some feel outdated- the kind of roles we were placed in without our knowledge or awareness, often at an early age. The latter often make us feel young and small when we’re around our families of origin, regardless of how old we actually are.
It’s easy to feel trapped by our roles, and totally understandable to question if it’s even worth trying to shift away from them. The difficult news is updating our roles within our family systems- to a point we actually feel seen and experienced in different ways- is no easy task. I once had a therapist say to me that our families are the first place we want to bring back our new roles, but the most challenging place to implement them. This is for a variety of reasons. For example, our families have a learned, engrained way of functioning. It may not be what’s consciously desired, but it’s comfortable and habitual.
The good news is bringing these changes back to our family systems is possible, and can be profoundly worthwhile. It requires of us vulnerability, lots of honest and open communication, time, patience, and some inevitable risk (we must acknowledge we only have control over ourselves, and may have to accept others’ refusal to change if it comes to that).
I encourage those of you interested or in the midst of this process of outgrowing old roles to seek support, whether from a therapist, friend, or supportive loved one who may be able to partner with you in this endeavor. The holiday season can be especially triggering for these kinds of things, so the next time you find yourself frustrated by your role, know it’s normal and you aren’t alone.