Families, like any group composed of humans, can be perceived as whole, singular organisms - not just as collections of individuals. When observed from this angle, entirely new characteristics and dynamics reveal themselves, none of which can be located within any of the individuals. These emergent properties only arise when the system itself comes into existence. Human systems come into existence by virtue of the connections between the individuals; they weave themselves together more and more densely until eventually they form one thing.
Inside the family system, the connections between individuals form tubes through which energy and information flow. This is similar to the way that energy and information flow between the neurons of your brain. We often think that our thoughts and feelings originate only within our own selves, but when you observe yourself from a systems point of view, you will see that it is the system that is having thoughts and feelings and that different individuals will act as the mouthpieces for different thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, certain individuals in the system will refuse to experience, or “run,” certain energies through themselves, and they will push them down. What happens then is that this energy gets pushed down into the tubes and up into the persons of the other family members. This energy will then rise up in whomever is most susceptible to that energy, whomever has the hardest time repressing it. This person will express the energy as if it was his or her own, but it will in fact be amplified because it is actually the combined energy of two or more people.
There are two important emergent properties of human systems that pertain especially to families: polarities and roles.
Polarities show up in human systems when one half of reality splits itself off from its other half and then proceeds to go to war with it. For example, if Dad strongly holds the pole of peacefulness and rest, then who is going to balance out the universe and pick up the pole of structure, action, and responsibility? The person holding the “non-doing” pole is likely to think that he’s got it right, and that everything would be well if everyone could just be like him. But reality is whole, and it seeks to express that wholeness at all levels of itself, so someone is going to have to pick up the pole of “doing” and balance out the family. The person who picks up “doing” is likely to feel that she has got it right, and that all would be well if everyone could just be like her. Endless conflict ensues and nobody can ever win because in truth, both are needed.
You may not have been able to choose which poles you inhabited. If your parents or the siblings who came before you already claimed a few, then that meant there were only so many for you to choose from when you arrived. We are compelled to take these roles because we are part of reality and reality seeks to be whole. Something in us is deeply uncomfortable if an important part of Life is getting ignored or cut out, and we will become its champion so that the world can be set right.
Roles can look quite similar to poles, but they don’t necessarily need to have an opposite. A good example of a role is the “emotional conduit.” The person who gets this role is the one who cannot successfully push down the emotional energies that are flying around the system, like tension, anxiety, fear, or aggression, and will express the amplified version of it as if it was their own. Another example is the “scapegoat,” which goes well with the “emotional conduit.” If he or she is expressing the very thing others don’t want to feel, then not only do they not have to feel it, they can banish it by banishing the person. Other roles include the “peacemaker,” the “jester,” the "all good child" and its counterpart, the "all bad child," the “outcast,” and the classic “victim” and “perpetrator.”
We take up roles not so much to protect the wholeness of Life, but in reaction to the roles that have already been claimed in the system. If Dad has the role of “victim” and mom has the role of “perpetrator,” then Child #1 has a choice. Let’s say she takes up the role of “protector” and sets about becoming the champion her father’s cause. Then Child #2 comes along. "Victim," "perpetrator," and “protector” are already taken, so this guy opts for the role of “outcast” so that he doesn’t have to deal with those crazy people at all. Finally Child #3 arises. There are not many choices left. Let’s say that Child #3 is a sensitive, deeply feeling individual (like many youngest children are), and simply cannot restrain the tension, anger, and aggression that are flowing from the system up through her body. She takes up the role of “the sick and crazy one” who is constantly taken down by depression, frustration, and illness. The family, content to allow this youngest child run all the family's madness, will pour tremendous resources into helping her "get well."
Child #1 will likely grow up thinking of herself as a moral, principled, and capable advocate. She will have incorporated her role of “protector” so deeply into her personal identity that it shapes the entire unfolding of her life. Child #2 may grow up thinking of himself as incompetent, unwanted, and alienated; and Child #3 will probably come to believe that she is weak, afflicted, and cannot trust her own body or mind to carry her through life.
The poles and roles we inhabit within our families become embedded into our belief systems and our identity structures. We do this to ourselves for two reasons: love and fear. You may not remember this at all, but you came into the world with fierce, all-consuming love for the God and Goddess who created you. As soon as it possibly could, your brain trained its attention intensely upon them; and as a sensitive and completely open being, you learned to register their every physical, mental, and emotional state. As you studied them more and more deeply, you learned about their pain, their fear, and their conflicts. Motivated by love, you gradually inched your way towards whatever poles might balance out the system and whatever roles seemed most likely to help them.
But there was also fear. Your entire existence depended exclusively on their graciousness, and you could not have even conceived of going elsewhere to get your needs met. If things were good with them, you were in heaven. If things were not good, you were in a hell with no exit. We adults forget all too easily just how incredibly intense it is to be an infant: to experience overwhelming surges of emotion, sensation, and perception and to have no mechanisms whatsoever for navigating them or making sense of them. So you took up these poles and roles as quickly as you could in an effort to protect your very life.
It doesn’t take long before we would be completely unrecognizable without our poles and roles, and eventually we come to cling to them as the only way we can know who we are, how it feels to be us, and how to navigate the world and relationships with other people. But a funny thing happens in adulthood when we become aware of the niches we first inhabited within our families: we see that it’s really hard to get out of them.
The first reason for this is that our identity, our entire sense of self, has been built around who we had to be inside of that niche. The breakdown of identity feels like a descent into madness, so most of us would rather keep our identity intact, even a godawful identity, than face the gaping maw of personal annihilation. It is true that it is often incredibly disorienting to restructure your identity, which is why the process is most successful when it goes tiny step by tiny step.
The second reason that it can be so hard to shake these poles and roles is that some part of us still believes that the family itself will fall apart if we step out of our niche. The thing is, this is often true! Perhaps not entirely true, but family members can be seriously perplexed (if not outraged) that we are no longer behaving or reacting in our customary ways. A change in any part of the system will in fact change the system itself. There is no way around this, not even if you have been estranged from your family for decades. Many people feel as though it isn’t their right to cause such upheaval in the system, and they fear that doing so will cause its collapse and demise.
The third reason is more straightforward and easier to remedy: we just don’t know how to be any other way. So when I get to this point with a client, all I have to do is ask, “Well, how would you like to be?” This part is fun, inspiring, and deeply hopeful. And better yet, when the person knows that they aren’t going to descend into madness and that it is in fact their right to individuate from their family, they can actually start to inhabit that new niche with more and more ease.
This article draws heavily on my training at the Matrix Leadership Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The systems perspective and the dynamics of roles and poles was taught to me by Amina Knowlan and Raven Wells, creators of the model. You can find out more at www.matrixleadership.org. I have melted together the principles of Matrix with my training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming at NLP Marin. It's NLP that holds the equal potency of love and fear in our infantile relationship with Mom and Dad, as well as the dynamics of identity construction (and deconstruction). You can find these fine folks at www.nlpmarin.com.