Time To Reflect: Holiday Parties, Family Chaos and the Roles We Play.
Holiday season is upon us!
For many, this is a very busy and chaotic time. Not simply for the fact that there are endless holiday parties, shopping gift lists, and upcoming vacation plans; but rather because we are preparing to spend increasing amount of time with extended family members. Gulp!
The estranged brother, the overly dramatic cousin/prima, the inappropriate comments from abuela/grandma …we all have these or similar characters in our family, and in adulthood have become acutely aware of things that were once invisible to us in our childhood. The roles we play in our family are not by accident. As a marriage and family therapist, I look to see how each individual member impacts the family and how the family impacts the individual. There is a function to the chaos and whether we want to admit it or not, we play a role in the overall function.
We may not be fully aware or have any understanding of our role but the more we sit back and observe the dynamics, the more it will all make sense to you. In psychology, family and the relationships within them have always been the cornerstone of most theories, research and analysis. We understand that to a great degree, where we come from, who raised us, and how we were raised makes up who we are.
When I sit with a client, I am carefully listening to these stories and their lived experiences to gain a deeper understanding of who they are, and who they are in relation to their loved ones.
I don’t necessarily ask them up front, “What role did you play in the family,” because they are already telling me as they discuss the recent fight with mom, what their responsibilities are within the house and how they feel about their sister’s new boyfriend. All the information is there if you’re listening.
The roles that we often encounter in the world of therapy are labeled “the scapegoat,” “the hero,” “the enabler” amongst others. I don’t think of individuals in simple terms of labels but for basis of this blog, I want to bring to light that people are part of really complex systems where we unconsciously become assigned to these types of very limiting and often overwhelming “positions” within our families that we never volunteered for. We can see the characteristics of these roles and their purpose in the most obvious and most subtle interactions between family members.
I can go on to describe all of these “roles” for days but I want to discuss one particular position within the family that I have encountered often in my work with clients that you may never have heard of before because it is a label, I didn’t read it in any text book- I call them the “Mirror Holders”. This is the person in the family that I describe as the “torch bearer”. They are everyone’s advocate, or in more harsh terms, the mouth-piece for the ones that don’t want or choose to call out others’ behaviors. They see what is happening and know that it’s wrong. They want to rescue the family and are exhausted, frustrated, saddened, and angry at what is happening. They have hope that things can get better, hence why the are always trying to highlight the mistakes and flaws, and at the same time hopeless because they see no change. They are willing to discuss the problems of the family and are often looked at as the most “vocal” one in a family where silence and avoidance is the unspoken rule.
It is easy for me to identify a “Mirror Holder” when I see one because I am one. I will often ask the “Mirror Holder”, “Are you tired?” They look at me confused, “What do you mean?” they say. I respond, “Your arm must be exhausted from holding up the mirror this long.” I then explain to them what I mean. They almost immediately agree that 1. Yes, they are the “Mirror Holder” and 2. They are in fact exhausted. I empathize with their need to help their family members, and their good intentions. I might even point out how being the family advocate can result in others adhering even more rigidly to their roles of remaining silent.
These are other questions I might ask:
How does holding the mirror benefit you or others?
How does it negatively impact you and your relationships?
How long have you held the mirror and how much longer before you realize they can’t or won’t see what you are trying to get them to see?
What else could you be doing with your life and time if you were not holding the mirror?
Eventually, these questions will lead us into a deep reflection of how they have been living their life, and how they want to choose to move forward in their life once they decide to put down the mirror. As hard as it is to resign from a position we have become accustomed to, it is empowering and liberating to my clients to know they have other options. Part of the work of living more conscious lives is becoming aware of the roles we play in other people's lives and deciding if these roles serve us or not.
This holiday season can be very difficult for many people for many different reasons; especially for the “Mirror Holders.” Remember to sit back, take a deep breath and reflect. Remember, not many people are aware of their roles or how their behaviors influence others. Putting down the mirror, letting go of the need to “fix” others problems or having them see their “wrongs” is not your full-time or part-time job. What is our job? To set limits with yourself and others as clearly and as respectfully as you can.
Good luck and remember, if all else fails, call your therapist!
Happy Holidays from one “Mirror Holder” to another.