Why Being The Family Hero Hurts

Monday’s post The Family Hero – It’s Not All Good generated many comments and even a couple of email questions.  Although Thursday is usually a positive day here, I thought I’d change things up a bit and add a bit more information about Family Heroes.

A quick recap:  Children who grow up in a home with an emotionally absent parent often adopt specific roles to cope with the tension and stress.  Every one of us uses all these roles at different times, but for some children, the roles harden and become their way of ‘being’ in the world.

One child, (often the oldest but not necessarily) will become the responsible child, working responsible sitters and all round superstars.  They’re often the ‘keeners’ at school, President of the school council, leaders in whatever they do.  They project an image of achievement, competence, and responsibility.

Heroes are typified by an old Charlie Brown comic:

Lucy asks: “How many times does 12 go into 6?”

Charlie replies: “It doesn’t.”

Lucy exclaims: “It will if you push!”

To accomplish all they do, heroes are usually serious, focused and driven.  They are most definitely goal oriented.  They are extra mature; usually following rules and regulations.  They want to know the ‘right’ way to do things.  They only know to work and work and then work harder.

All of these seem like good things, but I ask you to remember that children from these environments don’t know they have a choice in their response to life. Every request requires a ‘yes’, even if the hero isn’t interested or is harmed in some way.

This is the drive of the hero – a loner who seldom realizes their skills and abilities.  They can’t trust their judgment (because they were making adult decisions from a child’s perspective), so they rely on the opinions of others to tell them how they’re doing.  They crave recognition but are embarrassed by it, because they know they don’t deserve it.

Herein lies another problem for Heroes: inside, they see themselves for what they didn’t do. For the things they couldn’t fix or control. Their failures. Or the things they wouldn’t try because of their fear of failure.

Because they’ve always taken charge, they know how to lead the group, but they don’t know how to be one of the group.

Heroes judge themselves without mercy.

They have difficulty having fun (after all, there is always something that needs to be done).

And they take themselves very seriously – they can’t be human, they’re too busy being responsible and right.  So the fun that others have, the easy laughter, the ability to kick back and relax is usually missing in heroes.  They are a sober lot.  Intense.

How do you reach this level of success in adulthood, when there are more variables, lower levels of control and greater competition?  That’s simple: by trying harder. By becoming more rigid, more focused and more disciplined.

So heroes often become workaholics who create another generation of families with an emotionally absent parent.

For a full rich life, Heroes need to take actions, which are terrifying for them:

  1.  Learn to say ‘No’.  I am getting better but I still have to sit on my hands in board meetings when the chair asks for help with a project.
  2. Learn to relax and stop.  It is okay to do nothing.  Not everything has to be a learning opportunity or a betterment project.  And fun for its own sake is a worthwhile activity.  Being silly is another good thing (Heroes don’t usually dress up at costume parties – it’s a waste of time; besides they might look foolish.)
  3. Learn that we are not responsible for others.  Not even our children.  We can’t control and fix anyone – we are limited in our influence.
  4. Hardest of all is to learn to embrace failure as a reality of living.

On the outside, the life of a hero looks good, but they pay a high emotional and mental price for their success.  Worst of all is the constant mental tirade telling them they can do more, do it faster, and do it better.

Are you the family hero?  Or do you know one? Do you have a better understanding of the pressure a hero puts him/herself under?   I’d love to hear your thoughts.


About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in adult children, healing, Louise Behiel, recovery, self help and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Why Being The Family Hero Hurts

  1. This is a wonderful description! I’m the oldest, but not a hero, even though I could have used some of those traits:) I do know some heros, and they fit so perfectly into what you have described. Very interesting character traits (I’m thinking as a writer here).Great post!

  2. While these descriptions are true for the people in our world, they do work wonderfully well for characters. Heroes can be hard to see – because the internal landscape conflicts so deeply with the external. I’m glad my description was clear enough that you could see some of these hard working folks in your circle.

  3. Emma Burcart says:

    Oh, wow, this was amazing! I see a lot of myself in the description of a hero. And what you said about following rules and making adult decisions from a child perspective. So true! I have been working on relazing and having fun, but am still dealing with the backlash of guilt when I don’t get anything “productive” done. Thanks for the next steps. I am so going to follow them!

  4. Louise, I am 110 percent the family hero. My actions seemed completely natural as a child, but as an adult, I ended up working myself sick. Today, I’m lucky to be married to a supportive husband who understands I’m still learning to be a better, more relaxed version of myself–aren’t we all? He gently reminds me that sometimes I need to let go and not push myself so hard. But old habits die hard.

    Saddest of all is the way I had to learn this lesson. A few years ago, I became extremely ill, and despite my illness, some family members still expected me to pick up the pieces of their mistakes, without offering me any help in return. I think, subconsciously, I always thought that if I worked hard enough, if I ever needed help, they would be there for me. I learned too late that they wouldn’t know how to give that support when the time came.

    Inside of every hero is a voice that says we have to work really, really hard because we believe we’re not good enough. It’s hard to reeducate the wounded child inside of us who’s worried the world will find out we’re a fraud. And even though I still have a long (looooong) way to go, I swear, one of these days I’ll learn how to have fun and forgive myself. Thanks for this post!

    • Janelle, I’m so glad you found this post helpful. All heroes carry that wounded child who tells us we have to do more and more and more. Nothing is ever enough. I so understand about your situation with your family. It’s taken me years and years and years to learn that many people feel entitled to my giving my life to them and that they don’t see any need for me to need anything from them ever. I know today this started with my mother who let me take charge, because she didn’t want to or she couldn’t. But it was a lesson I learned well. It decided who I fell in love with, married and lived with for 30 years. You’re so lucky that little child found you a good one, who’s supportive and kind and knows you’re working to put an end to the tyranny.

      take care – and feel free to send me an email if you ever need to vent.

  5. Yup, I know people like this. Interestingly enough, most are only children, who grew up taking care of a parent in poor health while the other worked all the time. And you’re soooo right in your comment above – this is great information to have at hand when developing our characters. Thanks again for the insight!

    • Only children are almost always heroes – there is a feeling they have to succeed because they are all their parents ‘have’.

      Glad you’re finding value in these posts, Jennette – especially for character building.

  6. This spoke to me so much, I almost cried. I’m always worried I’m not doing the right thing. I assume everyone knows more than I do and that I’m wrong. I’ve played my life very safe because I’m afraid of screwing up (which I still do an awful lot). And the whole looking foolish thing, yeah, exactly my thoughts. I took a step away from that when I dressed up for the Star Wars 3D premier. Was a ton of fun even though we got lots of points and stares. Thank you for such a lovely post.

    • Samanth, My heart breaks for you. Been there. still do that on occasion (more often than I’d like, to be sure. If we could only see ourselves as therest of the world sees us – confident, capable and calm, we would be so much closer to the truth. Keep plugging along, my friend. Feel free to send me an email if you get caught up in this hero stuff and would like to chat.

  7. Coleen Patrick says:

    I’m the oldest and definitely was always thought of as the reliable, responsible child. I didn’t mind being in charge until I realized that my parents put great value on my responsibility over my siblings–then I remember it feeling “heavy.”

    • Yes, that responsibility can become a burden, can’t it? My mother always encouraged/allowed/supported my being responsible – she knew I’d take charge and handle things for her, even though I was a child and she was an adult. I wonder if this feeling of heaviness is why many of us heroes become overweight? (Another common outcome of being the hero.)

  8. Another informative post, Louise, on a topic I’ve never heard covered before. I’ve definitely played the hero role before—though I hadn’t thought of it that way until now. All four of those challenges are items I’ve faced. Thanks for the wonderful insight!

    • I’m glad you stopped by, August, and happy you learned something. This model is a simple one, that most of us can readily understand ourselves and our loved ones – understanding is always a good thing.


  9. Ceilidh says:

    Louise, I didn’t know you were blogging. This is fantastic! Good to be reminded of our conversations from time to time – like this one, for instance!

    • Yes, I got into the blogosphere a couple of months ago. Glad this blog is a good reminder, Ceilidh. I love seeing how wonderful your life is and watching those ittle ones grow up. It’s quite amazing to see them over the backdrop of the past. well done, my dear.

  10. Patricia says:

    Well, I still think I fit this profile, but I definitely love to get dressed up and be the life of the party. Perhaps I’m a well adjusted hero. Yeah, that’s it. I like the sound of that. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

    I’m loving these posts, Louise. Getting some really good information to incorporate into my writing, not to mention my personal life.

    Note to self – learn to say no.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • WE’re never all of one role, Patricia, we’re usually a blend of them, but in the family home I outlined, we become more locked into one role or the other. As I go through the other roles, I’m sure you’ll see that.

      Glad you’re enjoying.

  11. Louise, I missed your last post so had to go back and read it before I tackled this one. Wow, the stuff you know is amazing. 🙂 I grew up in what I considered a fairly normal family but being the oldest girl, I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. And as a mother who invested a lot of herself into her job, I — in turn — shouldered my boys with lots of responsibility. The only saving grace is that both boys were shouldering the same hefty load. Not that that’s a good thing, but at least I don’t feel more guilty about one over the other. 🙂

    • the key question Sheila, is that in homes where rigid heroes come from, one parent if emotionally unavailable and the other is focused on parent number 1. so i’m sure your boys aren’t locked into this pattern. we all have some of all the roles, but the problem arises when children adopt one role or the other and aren’t able to switch when appropriate. lucky boys who had you for a mom.

  12. I love that you have a way Louise of making people feel safe so that they feel comfortable talking about this subject. That says so much about you as a person. And the fact that you care enough to write about this subject for everyone to learn from.

    Hmm. My sister has always said that we grew up with Mommy dearest. And as the oldest sibling, I became her alter ego. That meant her faults were displaced on me, because she was such a perfectionist. And you could never make her happy. Even now. So I was raised to be the responsible one as I was the oldest and was told to set the example. But that kinda goes with the territory of being the first born I think. But to her dismay, I was more like my father and I bucked the system. I busted out of the house early and got married. Although I have to say I am thankful everyday for the man I married. We grew up together and he is my best friend and supporter. And throughout the years I have been letting go one piece at a time of my emotional baggage. Oh, but I’m sure I still have some left. Do we ever let go of all of it? LOL! That’s a question for ya Louise! 🙂

    • Thanks Karen. I’m glad you feel safe enough to chat about your life. I’m honored. the good news for you, is that you didn’t take on the role, even when she tried to foist it on you. You were a perfect candidate and yet you didn’t absorb it – well done. this role is usually carried by oldest children, but it’s not always about birth order.

      and yes, extra responsibility is usually given to the eldest child.

      as far as letting go of it, I think each of us carries a few things that are so deep that we deal with them now, and then they raise their head down the road in a different guise. For example, I have had to learn to say ‘no’ and to refuse to volunteer. but with 2 granddaughters living next door, I’ve had to learn to say ‘no’ to them, sometimes too.

      so I continue to learn about not being the hero all the time.

  13. Dang it, Louise! You made me all misty-eyed again. I’m not the hero, but my sister fits this profile exactly. You made me look at her life in a completely new way ~ I would never have thought that she was suffering because inside her mind she’s always thinking it’s not enough. I can totally see that, though. Seriously, if you needed a poster child for the family hero, it would be her. She scares me a little. Okay, sometimes a lot.

    Will you have posts in the future of how the different roles can communicate with each other better? It would be great to have a conversation with her and not have her try to ‘fix’ me!

    • Tameri, I’m so glad you’ve achieved a new understanding of your sister. that’s wonderful.

      Your sister and i would probably be very much alike. We find it difficult to change because we have learned and studied and know so darn much (why do you think I started studying psychology?

      One of the things I’ve had to remember with the heroes in my life is that they are happy to do all that work – it reinforces things for them, so if I can back down, and let the other hero be in charge, be the organizer, be the knowledgeable one, then we’re both happier.

      It seems strange but allowing a hero to lead the way, because they usually do a good job, , gives them the respect they crave and the reassurance that they’re doing a good job.

      We heroes mistake helping you with loving you. (many of us believe that if you need us, you will love us). When we ‘help’, we are showing you that we love you. When you refuse, we feel our love has been rejected. That does NOT mean you should cave in to us, if it doesn’t suit you.

      this is becoming another blog so I’ll stop. but I love the idea of tips on communication and I’ll add that to the end of the series.

      be well.

  14. By these guidelines I was the hero, for as long as I can remember. Still working on the cure, getting there slowly. Great post, very insightful.

  15. Louise, this definitely fits me to a T. Wow. I’ve been working on overcoming my hero role for a number of years and have made some pretty wonderful strides. But, I recently found myself “taking a trip home,” as my counselor used to say. I reverted to old behaviors. I have been using my time off from blogging to try to re-center myself. This post helped me see it a little more clearly. Gosh, darn it, we heroes sure can be hard on ourselves! The struggle to overcome feelings of failure and that relaxing or being silly is something I don’t have time for is constant for me. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • We heroes are very hard on ourselves. worse than anyone else ever could be.

      I’m so glad you’re taking the time to get re-centered. that’s way more important than anything else – because we lose ourselves in the work so easily. I love the term “taking a trip home”. I’m going to use it with my clients, and myself. it explains exactly what we do when we return to the supposed ‘safety’ of the old ways.

      take care of you. You matter

  16. Kecia Adams says:

    Louise, thanks so much for your thoughtful insights. You have helped me tremendously with my main character development. You also described to a T a friend whose relentless seeking of the next big business deal had baffled me somewhat because by any reasonable standard he has “made it.” He can relax and enjoy. But knowing a little about his background, I see now he is a hero as you describe it, and is hurting from it, so there’s always something telling him it’s not good enough. I look forward to more wise words!

    • Kecia, I’m glad these posts have been helpful in the development of your characters. and if you can better understand your friend, that’s a bonus. For heroes, nothing is ever enough. and so he has to chase the next big deal.

  17. gingercalem says:

    So insightful and powerful, Louise. Like you mentioned above in a reply, you might not fit into a role 100%, but much of what you write here is me. I’ve always joked that I was never a kid. If there was a single reason to return to high school for me it would be so that I could enjoy some of the fun parts of being a teenager. Instead I fed into and nurtured all the angst. OY! And then you wrote:

    Heroes judge themselves without mercy.

    Oh my goodness–YES!

    Fortunately, I’m very happy and joyful, albeit, still ‘intense’. 😉 I also enjoy laughing and having fun, but I’m rarely ‘silly’. Haha!

    Fantastic post. Really looking forward to seeing where my Gemini-self seeps into the other roles.

    • Ginger, I was the silent ghost in high school, head down and staying out of sight as much as possible. Given I’m so gabby, it was really hard And yes, intensity is my middle name, so I get that. I still work on silliness. Doubt i’ll ever get right down to it, but I have learned to relax and play on the floor with my grandkids and build tents under my table and so on – but grandkids bring that out in me. they’re way more fun than my children were.

      I’m sure you’ll see yourself in other posts – that’s pretty typical.

      have a good weekend.

  18. DL Snow says:

    Another amazing post, Louise. Thank you for continuing to share your wealth of knowledge.

  19. David Jones says:

    That’s interesting. There are two in my family, and I am sandwiched in between both of them.

  20. dogear6 says:

    I really struggle with being too intense and not relaxing / laughing enough. Latley I’ve realized that I’m over doing it when my husband becomes obnoxiously silly. If I laugh at him, he’ll drop it. If I don’t, he’ll ramp it up until we have a blow-out fight.

    Here’s one of the pictures where he kept ramping it up. I lightened up my attitude and grabbed the camera. As it was, I got nearly 20 pictures before he cut it out.


  21. unusual to have 2 heroes unless there ar emore than 4 kids, but anything is possible.

  22. Thanks for another illuminating post, Louise. Your blog’s title: Journey of a Thousand Miles becomes more meaningful as time goes by and is as meaingful for your readers as it is for you.
    We have a lot to learn as writers, partners, parents, and friends.

  23. You just nailed one of my siblings here. 🙂

  24. JT says:

    Dont know how I came about this website, but I’ve always been the hero (youngest) and your words ring true with me..I dont think I could ever articulate so well what you written here in regards to the “family hero” but its something that has affected me so much.
    I wonder if you have any suggestions, books, resources, that would allow be to take a step back, reclaim my life and my direction that has been so devoted to my family, so that I can try to lead a life for myself, rather than for others.

    • Congratulations for recognizing you are living a role. I’d recommend any of those older books on the roles of adult children of alcoholics (even if your parents do not have this illness). Melody Beattie, Claudia Black and charles whitfield, as well as sharon weigscheider-Cruse. but start with their older books which lay out and define the problem so well and that will give you lots of information.

      the hard thing is to learn to be selfish. I was told that I could be as selfish as I wanted and I still wouldn’t reach 50% on the selfishness scale. I encourage you to be selfish and live with the guilt and discomfort.

      it’s a hard road to hoe, but it’s so worth it. I’ve done it and I still get caught now and then, but not very often. good luck and let me know how you’re doing.

  25. Diana says:

    Can one be a combination? I believe I started out as a family Hero, but was scapegoated for it. So here I am, diligent, hard working, I was a good student and athlete, but my achievements were of no importance. Often I was just asked why I try to prove something, there is no way I can prove any worth. Or I was accused of making other people dumb with the sentence “Oh, did you now prove you are smarter than the rest of us?” Or “Did you finally achieve it huh? You present yourself as someone better when you are not”. As time went by and I entered the teenager years, I was told family life would be better if I just left, their marriage will be better once I am gone, I am the problem. To this day I don’t get it. I did leave as soon as I turned 18 after 5 years of being threatened to be kicked out. I found my chance and ran with it…and then my parents (both heavy drinkers) started begging me to come back home. When my first child was born and we moved out of the country, I was for the last time accused of taking some kind of pleasure (their grandchild) away from them. So today, as and adult, I present like a heroic scapegoat or perhaps a scapegoated hero. I am so confused.

    • your situation is certainly not unique. you don’t mention if you have siblings, but it would seem not. in this situation, you’re doing everything possible to succeed and be the hero but remember, you’re dealing with alcoholics. NOTHING you do for them will ever be enough. so from their perspective you’re a problem and a failure because you haven’t helped their addiction. it’s weird but the addiction is in control. best thing you did was move away and take the little one with you.

      thanks for sharing. sounds like you’re healig and recovering

  26. chris60 says:

    This is fascinating reading. I think that people from dysfunctional families play shifting roles, none of which brings great relief to the wounded parts they try to hide. For years I was the family hero – surrogate parent for my depressed mother…caretaking, cooking, shopping, cleaning and telling everyone around me how to behave. When I tossed in the tea-towel, figuratively speaking, I discovered that no-one else want the role and I was labeled selfish and uncaring for daring to pull away and start placing my needs first. I have alternated between being the rebel, scapegoat, mascot, lost child, sick one and clown. Now I know that if we keep giving away parts of ourselves to make others happy we will end up stressed out and depressed.

    Listen to your body and pay heed to what you need at any moment and consider that you also matter within a system that will drain you dry unless you learn the difference between what you want and what others want from you. There are a heck of a lot of takers in the world who just love attaching to a giver. If that feels good, then go for it, but remember you do have the right to say No, and to shout that enough is enough, or to simply say that is your problem, sorry but i cannot help you out. Finding balance is difficult if you have been programmed to put other people before yourself, and live to make other people happy even if it means feeling miserable yourself. Many of us lack the courage to say no for fear of hurting someone else or damaging a relationship or appearing less than perfect. No one really likes Polly Perfect anyway, least of all the poor person playing that role. Relax and allow someone else to fill the void left by your refusal to keep slogging away for approval or recognition. Mind you, the family hero has some great benefits, and you need to ask if that is why you keep doing what you do. Are you still programmed to gain the approval of your parents by doing what they want and pleasing them rather than yourself? Funny how the family hero tends to reach a point of utter despair where they toss their hands in the air and start bemoaning all they do for everyone and how little they get in return. Are you a guilt-tripping martyr, masquerading as a good guy, but actually creating chaos and distress by your ultra high expectations for yourself and others? Relax and let other people share the load instead of feeling obliged to overwork and over-function, and then resenting the bludgers you attract along the way. The world will keep on turning, trust me.

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