Highly sensitive people tend to play certain “roles” for family members — like peacekeeper, rescuer, and “holder of the emotions.” Here’s how to switch to a healthier dynamic.
Did you have a role in your family growing up?
In many families, each family member takes on a certain way of operating. Instead of responding authentically to each situation that arises, the role we take on causes us to respond in habitual and narrow ways.
One of my roles in my family was Holder of the Emotions. When one of my parents was upset, I knew it, felt it in my body, and “held” their feelings as though they were my own.
I wasn’t aware that I was doing it, and no one had explicitly said to me, “Brooke, it’s your job to carry the emotional burdens of the family.”
Some combination of my innate empathy and perceptivity — as well as my parent’s poor boundaries and emotional skills — created the perfect storm for me to see a need and fill it. And this was especially true as a highly sensitive person (HSP).
When I was acting from my Holder of Emotions role (which was most of the time):
- I had my “feelers” out, scanning the environment for emotional needs
- I felt a personal responsibility when someone in my family was upset
- I felt others’ emotions so entirely that I often felt confused about who the emotion belonged to
- I sometimes lost touch with my own needs and feelings because my focus was so external
Many HSPs fall into the Holder of Emotions role, especially if they grew up with caregivers who weren’t able to provide consistency or emotional security.
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The Most Common Roles HSPs Play in Their Family
There are other roles that highly sensitive people are particularly susceptible to taking on, too, because of our conscientiousness, sensitivity to others’ emotions, and tendency to dislike conflict.
It’s important to identify — and understand — the roles you may have taken on, as often we continue these patterns into adulthood. And while you can work with a therapist to unlearn them, it’s also good if you recognize them.
Here are some other common roles HSPs take on in stressed-out families:
- The Rescuer/Fixer
- The Enabler
- The Peacekeeper
- The Pleaser
- The Star Student
- The “Easy” One
- The Scapegoat
Let’s break down each one. Notice if you see yourself in any of these roles:
- The Rescuer/Fixer: They tend to try and rescue others from their pain or circumstances. If someone is upset, their inner dialogue may look like, “How can I fix this?” This person may cross boundaries and take responsibility that isn’t theirs in the name of helping.
- The Enabler: This person often has a huge heart and hates seeing those they love in pain. They also struggle to set boundaries and often are afraid of conflict and anger. In the face of someone’s unhealthy behavior, they will usually ignore their own needs and inner voice in order to placate the other.
- The Peacekeeper: This person is oriented to keeping harmony and not rocking the boat. They’re often great at being flexible and going with the flow. Often, they ignore (or forget about) their own needs and convince themselves that a circumstance is “fine” in order to avoid their own (or someone else’s) anger or displeasure.
- The Pleaser: The person in the pleaser role is especially aware of being in the good graces of others. They often have a deep insecurity in their relationships, and others’ anger or disappointment can feel unsafe or like a total loss of love. To protect against their fears, they orient themselves to others and operate in a way that ensures (if they can help it) that everyone will stay happy with them.
- The Star Student: Also known as the Achiever or Golden Child, this person works hard and excels. They often have a proclivity for a sport, school, or other skill, and they gain love and approval through performing well. From the outside, the person in this role seems to have it good. But on the inside, they often feel insecure, believing that if they fall short of the high bar that’s been set, they’ll lose love and belonging.
- The “Easy” One: This person often flies under the radar. Similar to the Peacekeeper, The “Easy” One doesn’t need much and rarely complains. Their main desire is to get by without attracting attention. Sometimes this is an attempt to avoid negative attention, or they may feel like others in the family are taking up too much space. So by not having needs, they help maintain peace in the family.
- The Scapegoat: This person is often the focus of negative attention, seen as the “problem” or “the needy/difficult one.” Often, the person in the Scapegoat role is quite sensitive and embodies the unfelt emotions of the rest of the family.
What was it like to read those over? Do you see yourself in any of them? This is by no means an exhaustive list, so you may be aware of a role you wear that’s not listed.
Please note that these dynamics with roles are subtle in some families and only happen in stressful situations, while in other families, these patterns become ever-present.
I also want to note that we can take on more than one role, which creates some real complexity. For example, I also identified with the Star Student role, so I felt the need to get all A’s while also juggling everyone else’s energetic and emotional “junk” (as the Holder of Emotions). No wonder I was anxious!
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Why Are These Roles Problematic?
In many places of society (work, sports teams, etc.), roles are incredibly helpful in defining responsibilities and reaching goals. Then why are they problematic in our families and day-to-day lives?
In a nutshell, these types of roles don’t allow us to be fully human.
To be human is to have a whole range of emotions and behavioral responses. For example, there may be days when you feel equipped to be a good listener for a friend (which HSPs excel at), and other days when you need to prioritize quiet time and self-care. But someone in the Fixer role may feel like they have to put their own needs second in order to “fix” or rescue the other (even going past the simple listening that was needed).
As another example, there may be someone in your life who is engaging in harmful behavior or doesn’t feel emotionally safe. Deep down, you know it would be healthiest if you set boundaries or limited your engagement with them. If you’re identified with the Peacekeeper, Pleaser, or Enabler roles, however, you may struggle with taking that step because it doesn’t fit with the expectations of your role.
Other examples of how these roles rob of us our sense that we can be fully human include:
- As long as you’re the Star Student, there’s no room to be flawed or drop the ball.
- If you’re the “Easy” One, you end up being robbed of the opportunity to have needs and make them known. You may lose touch with your inner voice (an HSP trait) and truth.
- Being the Pleaser keeps you from prioritizing your Inner Guidance System, and the needs and opinions of others take precedence over your own.
- The Holder of Emotions often loses touch with their own emotional and intuitive experience, so filled as they are with the emotions and energies of others.
But — there’s good news! You can change the role(s) you play in your family. Here’s how.
How to Change the Role You Play in Your Family
As children, we often aren’t aware that we’ve taken on roles because:
- It feels normal to us.
- We often benefit in some way from the role (approval, a sense of safety, etc.).
- We may believe that this role is part of our purpose, or that others need us in this role in order to be okay.
As adults, though, we can start to challenge these assumptions. We can recognize that it’s not normal to live this way, that the ways we benefit aren’t worth the ways we suffer, and that living our purpose always involves our full humanity. (And having a sense of purpose is very important to HSPs!)
If this topic speaks to you and you’d like to delve deeper, here are a few places to start.
- Journal. Write about the roles you see/saw yourself in. What was going on in your environment that encouraged or necessitated this role(s)? How did it serve you? How has it taken something from you? Are there any roles you’re ready to adjust or step out of?
- Therapy. If you want to go deep into this topic and unravel the ways that you’re still operating as you did when you were young, therapy is the place to get that support.
- Read Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. This is an amazing book for understanding, and dismantling, the consequences of growing up in a dysfunctional family.
Looking for more? Get my Ultimate Toolkit to Embrace Who You Are and Make Gentle Change. These easy tools will help you stay connected to the healthiest version of you.
You might like:
- What It’s Like Growing Up as a Highly Sensitive Child in a Chaotic Home
- Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop
- How to (Actually) Find Your Purpose as a Highly Sensitive Person
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