Did you have a role in your family growing up?
In many families, each family member takes on a certain way of operating. Instead of responding authentically to each situation that arises, the role we take on causes us to respond in habitual and narrow ways.
One of my roles in my family was Holder of the Emotions. When one of my parents was upset, I knew it, felt it in my body, and “held” their feelings as though they were my own.
I wasn’t aware that I was doing it, and no one had explicitly said to me, “Brooke, it’s your job to carry the emotional burdens of the family.”
Some combination of my innate empathy and perceptivity as well as parents with poor boundaries and emotion skills created the perfect storm for me to see a need and fill it.
When I was acting from my Holder of Emotions role (which was most of the time):
Many Highly Sensitive People fall into the Holder of Emotions role, especially when they grew up with caregivers who weren't able to provide consistency or emotional security.
You can imagine that this role doesn't allow us to have healthy energetic boundaries because we have to drop those boundaries to stay so tuned in to others.
Other Common HSP Roles
Highly Sensitive People are susceptible to taking on other roles as well. It’s important to identify and understand the roles you may have taken on, as often we continue these patterns into adulthood.
Here are some other common roles people take on in stressed-out families:
Let’s break down each one. Notice if you see yourself in any of these roles:
What was it like to read those over? Do you see yourself in any of them? This is by no means an exhaustive list, so you may be aware of a role you wear that's not listed.
Please note that these dynamics with roles are subtle in some families and only happen in stressful situations, while in other families, these patterns become ever-present.
I also want to note that we can take on more than one role, which creates some real complexity. For example, I also identified with the Star Student role, so I felt the need to get all A's while also juggling everyone else's energetic and emotional "junk" (as the Holder of Emotions). No wonder I was anxious!
Why are These Roles Problematic?
In many places of society (work, sports teams, etc), roles are incredibly helpful in defining responsibilities and reaching goals. Then why are they problematic in our families and day to day lives?
In a nutshell, these types of roles don’t allow us to be fully human.
To be human is to have a whole range of emotions and behavioral responses.
For example, there may be days when you feel equipped to be a good listener for a friend and other days when you need to prioritize quiet and self care. But someone in the Fixer role may feel like they have to put their own needs second in order to fix or rescue the other (even going past the simple listening that was needed).
As another example, there may be someone in your life who is engaging in harmful behavior or doesn't feel emotionally safe. Deep down, you know it would be healthiest if you set boundaries or limited your engagement with them. If you're identified with the Peacekeeper, Pleaser, or Enabler roles however, you may struggle with taking that step because it doesn't fit with the expectations of your role.
Other examples of how these roles rob of us our sense that we can be human:
You Can Choose to Update Your Role
We often aren't aware that we've taken on roles as children because:
As adults though, we can start to challenge these assumptions. We can recognize that it's not normal to live this way, that the ways we benefit aren't worth the ways we suffer, and that living our purpose always involves our full humanity.
If this topic speaks to you and you’d like to delve deeper, here are a few places to start:
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen is a trauma-informed psychotherapist specializing in catapulting HSPs out of overwhelm and into a powerful calm. She founded Intuitive Warrior and the Therapeutic Center for Highly Sensitive People in Boulder, CO and has over a decade of expertise in trauma healing. Her Intuitive Warrior programs helps women and men discover the gifts that lie hidden in what they thought were the worst parts of themselves.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.