Rethinking Your Family Roles

Family Tree. VTda.infoFor most of us, we learn our family roles at a young age as we try to discover our place in the world, and they stick with us for the rest of our lives.

But whether good, bad, indifferent or confusing, we don’t have to inherit the roles established through youth or circumstance… we can choose to rethink the roles we want to play within our family.

And ‘family’ can refer to the people you choose to surround yourself with, not just your biological relatives, despite the oft-quoted adage that “you can choose your friends but not your family”. So what are these family roles we adopt, and why would we want to change them?

What are family roles?

I think of them as any physical, emotional or relational tie that we have to our family as a whole, or to individual members. They can be labels we take on, behaviours we repeat or feelings we associate with our family.

An example of some of the roles I’ve inherited are: black sheep, big sister, rule-breaker/boundary-stretcher, courageous (if a little crazy), rebellious daughter, golden granddaughter and international jet-setter. There are many more, and you would perhaps get a different list if you asked my family members to provide it instead, but these are roles that have affected my relationships with all of my family and that I accepted as part of my identity.

It is the last of these – international jet-setter – that has caused me to rethink my family roles recently in my 12th year of living overseas.

Understanding & Changing Them

I realised that part of me had assumed that ‘international’ also meant ‘distant’ and that because I only saw my family every couple of years, I couldn’t really play a major or daily role in their lives. I let that dictate the frequency of my contact with them via phone/Skype/email, and whilst I was interested in what they’d been doing, I didn’t really feel I had any ability to influence or support them.

With my siblings all growing up (turning 30, 17 & 15 this year!) and the reality that I was soon to become an auntie starting to sink in, I decided I wanted to rethink my family roles and play a more active part in their lives.

It also meant acknowledging some of the guilt I felt at choosing to live on the other side of the world to them all (even though it is what is best for me) – because punishing myself for that only increases the sense of distance between us.

So here are some steps you can take to start rethinking your family roles:

  1. What roles have you accepted/inherited within your family?
  2. What impacts have these had on your relationships, and what assumptions do they involve?
  3. How do you feel about these roles? (If the answer is resigned, then I encourage you to challenge the belief that the role cannot be changed)
  4. How would you want each to be if you could redesign them without limitations?
  5. What is one baby step you could take to start owning one of those new roles?

Choice of Family Roles

We might feel like our family roles are forced upon us, or that we are simply playing out patterns that have been ingrained for generations – but the key to rethinking our family roles is to remember that whilst we cannot change our family members individually, we can change our own behaviours and attitudes towards them. We can break free of inherited roles, and create new ones that are more fulfilling and honest.

Because our family roles are so strongly linked to our identity, this is about giving ourselves the real choice to be who we want to be.