How to Avoid the Trap of Family Roles

Of all the wonders of the holidays, one of the most magical occurrences is the way we can snap right back into our old roles when we are reunited with our families-of-origin.

I am a 51-year-old grandmother and yet the moment I am together with my mom and sisters, I resume the Baby Sister role: scattered, late, trying to catch up and prove myself.  My sense of humour becomes a touch snark-ier and my feelings are more readily hurt.

I don’t like myself that way and yet the “little sis” mantle is comfortably around my shoulders before I can even remember to resist slipping into character. I have spent years working to reshape my thinking and behaviour. How can I so easily abandon my restored values?

If you are headed to a family gathering over the holidays and find the prospect stressful, it could be because you are dreading the loss of self that occurs when our old family roles are no longer in alignment with current values. (Thank you, therapy. No charge, readers.) 

Here is what I have learned to do about that:

  1. Choose your part.

Through working with a counsellor, I learned that we get through difficult situations by relying on various aspects of our personalities. This becomes dysfunctional when we become dependent on them and they start to feel like masks we hide behind rather than temporary tools.

For example, by nature I am introspective, kindhearted and anxious. During my decades as a business owner, I hid these qualities because I felt they made me weak. I portrayed myself as analytical, tough and confident, and boy, did I play the role convincingly. I won awards, gathered accolades, and convinced myself that it was best to keep my weaknesses unknown.

Then, perhaps in a misguided effort to balance out the workload, I started a side project of writing and performing music. I would climb onstage and become a different version, again with fake confidence but also witty and charming in a way meant more to please the crowd than to show my true self.

Not surprisingly, these were the years when I began leaning heavily on alcohol.

Later I told my therapist, “I feel like I created all these fake versions of myself that ended up trapping me and now that I am sober, I need to kill them so I can be authentic.”

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When a therapist’s eyebrows fly up, you know you’ve just exposed a whole new problem. Over the next few sessions, she taught me about Internal Family Systems. I learned that these “fake versions of myself” were just overdeveloped muscles. I had stayed too long in what should have been temporary identities used to get through difficult situations. The goal going forward became staying grounded in my true self (what I call my Highest Self) and retaining those old abilities to use on occasion – intentionally and as necessary.

So before you walk into that family gathering, decide which version of yourself is the best one for the occasion. You have choices beyond your old family role. The circumstances might call for the Quiet Observer, the Social Butterfly, or the Super Helpful Dish-Doer. Do you need to utilize any of them? Keep your Highest Self in control, make mindful choices, and use the tools at your disposal when necessary.

2. Don’t believe everything you think. 

Some of the best wisdom comes from recovery meetings and sharing circles. At a SheRecovers retreat on Salt Spring Island, a woman said, “I don’t have to buy into every single thing my brain comes up with. Just because I thought it doesn’t make it true.”

This concept took me by surprise because I hadn’t realized I was doing exactly that – letting every thought become a belief.

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Byron Katie has some beautiful insights on this process, which she simply refers to as “The Work”. “The Work” begins with asking oneself, “Is that true?”

My family hates me. (Is that true?)

I don’t fit in. (Is that true?)

They don’t understand me. (Is that true?)

No one ever listens to me in this family! (Is that true?)

The process goes on from there – here is an overview: http://thework.com/en/do-work

3. Keep some people in your pocket.

One of the very best things about online recovery support is its portability. No matter what is going on around me, I can slip into a quiet corner and post a private message to my group. Help! The bride and groom are handing out bottles of rum as thank you gifts for the wedding guests. Should I run? (Yes, that actually happened.) Feedback included tactful ways to navigate the moment (Say thanks and leave it on a side table for someone else to take away) and encouragement for getting through the rest of the event (Keep your water glass filled and have fun), plus shout outs the next day (You did it! Good for you. Hangover-free mornings never get old!)IMG_4715.PNG

Being able to post to a support group in real time is grounding and motivating. Just scrolling through others’ posts can be uplifting, and offering encouragement to someone else reinforces both parties.

If your family gathering is feeling super sticky and uncomfortable, hide out for a moment and check in with your support group (or post a comment here and you will get a response – feel free to stay anonymous). Explain what is happening and ask for feedback, or just let it be known that you are feeling triggered and need reminding of why staying sober is better and also all the reasons why you shouldn’t throw pie.

Wishing you all the best as we close out 2018.

Stay sober, keep growing in your recovery, and don’t throw pie.

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21 comments

  1. I am actually having our family Christmas this weekend. This will be my first since decided to become sober. I’m super anxious. This was a good read and good reminder that I don’t HAVE to be unauthentic anymore. I will be just fine being me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jean I still read your blog six years into recovery. I haven’t touched a drop and I have been told by a doctor that only a small percentage of the population can totally abstain like I have. It is all thanks to Unpickled that I was able to do it. I love my sobriety and I know that I have developed the strength to keep going regardless. The temptation to have a drink is not there as I see it as a big dark hole that I know I would struggle to ever climb out of. I gave up when I had reached my rock bottom and the memories are very vivid. The hidden bottles, the slurred speech and the isolation I felt would return the moment I started again.

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    • Hello! I remember you so well, we used to exchange a ton of comments. I’m so glad you’ve continued with your recovery. We would be crazy to give up the freedom and brain space that comes from staying sober! Thank you so much for saying hello, I’ve missed you!

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  3. I’ve just found your blog and love it. Thanks! I’m on day 23 AF and loving it/finding it really hard all at the same time. I’m interested to know how you found the support group you mentioned messaging at the rum fuelled event you attended? I feel like I could use a little extra support but am not quite sure where to look.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Me too. Tbh, I’ve now unfollowed the Facebook groups. I found that they were causing me to feel obsessive about my sobriety. I also found the frequent, repeated relapses and cries for help very hard to be immersed in all the time.

        I feel much more sane having detached a little bit. Not knocking them at all. They were really helpful in the early days (now on day 114 today)

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        • I recommend staying in the group but taking it out of the newsfeed if you find it overwhelming. It’s nice to hang onto the connection tho so you can post when you need ideas or encouragement. Keep trying different things until you find the right combination that works for you!

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        • I totally get that. I had installed an App called sober grid thinking I’d find some people I can chat with and relate to, and I find myself being more turned off than anything. Like you said not knocking anyone. But we have to find what works for us and what feels good. for me so far that has been the bubble hour and this blog. I’m hearing stories that are close to my heart, It actually makes me feel good rather than bad. luckily I have many seasons and posts to go through! Congrats on 114 days!! that’s really something to be proud of, your doing so well. Im on day 74.

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  4. I’m excited to have a low key Christmas. That was the best decision I have ever made.
    Life is funny. No matter how prepared we are those old roles exist and families know just how to push those buttons!
    Stillness and peace (that’s what I repeat over and over some days).
    Merry Christmas Jean. Love you.
    Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks as always Jean. I really like the idea of not throwing pie. I see it as a metaphor: not engaging, not being pulled into well worn(out) roles that no longer serve us. I’m still working on that, but it very much is like building up a muscle, the more you practice the stronger and more defined it becomes.

    I am so looking forward to my second set of holidays fully sober. Everytime I say that, it amazes me how far I have come. I think back to how miserable I felt two years ago, and how it took everything in me to hold on tight. My (death)grip slipped during New Years celebration 2017 (yes my family was present, and yes 100% fell back into my family role), but I picked myself up, forgave myself and kept going. And here I am, 746 days later, still working on it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis…but still working and growing.

    Wishing you all the best, and sending strength and loving vibes.

    Onward!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous and well written article my friend. Had the family gathering last night that pushes my buttons every time. You’re insight was helpful this morning as I struggle to get untangled from it. Asking myself “is it true”. Merry Christmas ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am the eldest and boy did I play a role! It all started the minute I walked into my mom and dad’s house.
    I felt I had to keep all the conversations going, YES, it was my job! Laugh the loudest, always smile, be the silliest, stay the longest, and on and on. When I would leave, I would often say to my husband, “Who was that person??!!” Since getting sober, I am 378 days sober, the first few times together I would “resume the personality” because that’s who my family always saw, and expected, or so I thought. It was exhausting. Until I didn’t do it anymore, I started going as me. I know who I am, and I felt 1000% authentic. It was so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Timely advice ! I am just heading out to a family function and they are always challenging. I too am the youngest and my older siblings are entrenched in roles to the point that they still buy me alcohol for gifts-even though I’m on Day 904 of a clearly and publicly stated sobriety. They still think I’m going to ” come to my senses” as the general consensus is and have a drink. So, I know which me I have to bring tonight and I know that I just have to leave them alone in their roles. I’ve got my “Bubble” on and my phone in my pocket!
    Have a wonderful Christmas Jean ! Thanks for all the work you do for us here and on the Bubble Hour.
    🌻

    Liked by 1 person

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