Out of the Frying Pan -- Into the Fire:
Dysfunctional Families and Group Energy
by Anodea Judith
The human force behind the New Age Movement is made of people who, for
better or worse, are survivors of the previous generation's child-rearing
philosophies. This is nothing new: every generation has had its legacy
of cultural mores to plough through, outgrow and transform. Within the
family, a semi-isolated and barely conscious evolutionary unit, this happens
slowly and painfully.
However, the evolutionary thrust of the New Age movement seems to be
removing itself from the traps of family dynamics through group activity,
such as men's groups, women's groups, environmental groups, parent's groups,
magical groups, newsletter groups, 12-step groups of every kind. Through
the support of our peers we venture into the unknown, challenge the assumptions
of our inherited legacy, and try to create and embody a more productive
There is a certain "fallout" from this transition. While the effects
of a long-standing tradition of dysfunction are being removed from the
family situation, they are being insinuated into our group situations.
Let us examine the way that we, as individuals, sabotage the work we are
doing by recreating our dysfunctional family patterns in our present group
Dynamics from our family of origin will be played out in subsequent
family situations. Many groups are designed specifically to offset this
process, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics. Because of this focus and
because of "generational bonding" (common values), such groups are expected
to be immune to these dysfunctional patterns and provide a safe place for
us to go through our personal transitions. Thus we often fail to see these
patterns when they do occur. Working with other survivors of dysfunctional
families, our own neurotic patterns fit like hand in glove with those of
our co-workers. We may be aware of our authority issues when dealing with
a parent figure, but we are blind to them when it comes to friends of our
own generation and shared belief systems.
First, what do we mean by "dysfunctional family"?
A dysfunctional family is a group energy system which either fails to perform
its intended function or is dependent upon --harmful or counter-productive
methods in -order to function. It's a system that doesn't work very well
or one that hurts the people in it Counter-productive actions are repeated
again and again until they become an intrinsic part of the system because
the overall functioning of the system becomes more important than the means.
A family's purpose can be seen as the living, sharing, nourishing and
development of life. When this purpose is no longer fulfilled, as when
making a living or caring for children becomes immersed in addictions,
lies, violence, or personal manipulation, yet still continues, that system
has become dysfunctional. If Dad's drinking or abusing Mom allows him to
continue working at his meaningless job, on which the family is dependent,
then this behaviour becomes accepted as part of the family system. Because
the child is born into it, the family's method of functioning is seen as
"normal." This form of dysfunctionality is shrouded in non-communication,
alienation, fear, denial and anger which, while shared by all, is not permissible
These feelings get channelled into standardised behaviour patterns designed
to keep the ailing system functioning as smoothly as it can under the circumstances.
The patterns become second nature, part of our basic survival mechanisms
which we carry through into all our subsequent situations.
Non-communication and secrecy
Because dysfunctional families believe they are dependent upon their patterns
to survive, it becomes the unwritten rule not to talk about feelings. It
only brings up pain, which the family feels is unsolvable. When dysfunction
occurs in a subsequent group there is the same tendency to avoid speaking
about it and the same feeling of futility about being able to change anything.
This may make us want to drop out of the group, blame everyone else, and
do almost anything but communicate.
Anger and fear
As a result of the lack of communication, the child is left with a constant
level of anger and fear, which becomes normal and is later exacerbated
by any situation which threatens to mimic the original.
When you have a group of people who carry left over anger, that anger
gets triggered easily, making the group a potentially volatile medium.
The anger may or may not be justified in the present circumstance, but
likely as not the vehemence of the anger is greater than the situation
deserves because it is in part a carryover from childhood. The force or
frequency of the anger may obscure its rightful cause and the end result
is frustration for all concerned.
The dysfunctional family operates within a model of scarcity -- that there
is a limited amount of love, time, money, food, clothing, safety, etc.
The members of the family learn that all of these things must be earned
through competition. Rather than developing means of working together,
family members pit themselves against each other. Competitiveness exacerbates
all of the problems listed here and is easy to spot in group situations.
As we strive towards collectivity, competition polarity undermines our
more benevolent ideologies. Group members may feel like they don't get
enough time or appreciation (usually true) or feel they have to compete
with each other to get a word in edgewise, to perform as well as others
or to jockey for a power position.
Unequal power structures
Most dysfunctional families of the previous generation operated within
the Patriarchal Power Model: the father had the most power, the mother
was dependent upon him, and the children dependent upon her. Her powerlessness
with regard to her husband was compensated for through her power over her
children. The children were powerless against their parents and sought
to make pecking orders among themselves and their peers. Because we learned
to operate within unequal power structures we are often incapable of perceiving
anything other. We either believe these dynamics are in play when they
are not, or we strive to create them by our own actions so that we may
remain in familiar realms. One-down or one-up power positions may be familiar
-- equality may not be. In the familiar our roles are defined; in new territory,
we have to feel our way, and feeling our way is what we once learned not
Because no one was allowed their own power for fear they might rock the
fragile boat, what developed was the shadow of power -- dependence. Each
member of the system became dependent upon people and behaviours they didn't
feel good about This manifests later in people being terrified to let go
of destructive patterns, behaviour which may seem baffling to an outsider.
Guilt and shame
All the previous qualities, especially the latter one, result in individuals
within the system feeling an indefinable sense of guilt and shame. Powerless,
dependent, fearful and angry, the emotions are funnelled into the subconscious
through secrecy. The end feeling is one of malaise, low self-esteem and
lack of trust, with an underlayer of shame.
Lack of trust
is the end result and continuing state of the dysfunctional family survivor.
It both causes and increases all of the above.
Roles within the family
In addition to these characteristics, members of dysfunctional family systems
resort to taking on roles within the family that allow the system to be
tolerable. These roles are played right through adulthood and are especially
prominent in group situations.
The Good Child
tries to transcend the malaise of the environment by behaving like an angel.
The Good Child takes on adult responsibility at a young age, strives to
excel at everything, takes on other people's problems and generally compensates
for feelings of inferiority with a drive to accomplish and prove themselves.
When this takes the form of parenting younger children, the child becomes
"parentified" and plays out the "higher-powered" parent role in later relationships.
In group situations, the Good Child takes on too much responsibility, disallowing
the empowerment of others. They run things, but without much joy or satisfaction.
The Good Child can get self-righteous or persecutory if they are feeling
The Problem Child
is the circuit breaker for the wiring of the family dynamics. The Problem
Child (in therapy, often the "identified patient") does poorly in school,
gets into trouble, turns to drugs, gets pregnant or otherwise causes problems
that take focus away from the family problems. The child does not do this
consciously, but is driven by her own intolerable sensitivity. In group
situations the Problem Member role may dance among a few people. They are
often in crisis, which distracts the group from moving forward. There is
more permission to leave in a group than there is in a family, and the
Problem Child may do just that Then the group may then find that problems
suddenly pop up in another member. This is also true for:
If the Problem Child does not leave, they may serve another function in
the system: the Scapegoat. The Scapegoat (not always synonymous with the
Problem Child) is the one who gets the blame for the dysfunctional system.
("Johnny causes such problems, I can't get anything done.") The group itself
is rarely able to perceive that their whole way of functioning is ailing
and instead puts all their anger into scapegoating, which, of course, increases
The Scapegoat may be the newest group member, the group leader, the
editor of a newsletter, or the one who generally has the most problems
with the group process. Like the Problem Child, they may choose to leave;
but another person will quickly become the Scapegoat in their place.
keeps himself and the family distracted by playing the entertainer. The
Clown denies that there is any problem, gets attention for himself through
bringing some joviality into a grim situation, and keeps the emotional
pain at a tolerable level. Later in life the Clown is still distracting
group process, often getting strokes for it because they do alleviate a
dreary situation, yet they prevent true work from being accomplished. They're
the ones we can't live with, and can't live without.
Sometimes the same as the Good Child, the Fixer is constantly trying to
smooth things out. They become a Co-dependent -- one who is fixated on
solving others' problems in a way that ignores their own and allows the
others to continue in self-destructive behaviour. No group would be complete
without them, they are often seen as the group's saviour, yet their fixing
is more like an aspirin than a cure.
is the Hidden One, the child who tries to make himself as inconspicuous
as possible, is withdrawn, never asks for anything for himself, is neither
seen nor heard, and is often confused with the Good Child, except he is
not competitive. This type of person is less likely to join groups, but
if they do, they are quiet and unobtrusive, or they may do their disappearing
act after they have volunteered for something.
Considering the family as a whole
The patterns that occur are as many and varied as the people we are. The
mistake comes from focusing too much on the individual roles, and failing
to see the dynamics of the system as a whole. We can focus on the plight
of the poor Scapegoat, or the burden on the Fixer, but we tend to focus
on an individual, through the lens of our own roles, instead of learning
to think as a system.
In a family or group system, everything affects everything else. Scapegoat
or Clown, Leader or Ghost, the whole system is affected by each action
and presence (or absence). Those who obviously have power are no more important
than those who appear to have less power, and all have equal ability to
topple the system. To think systemically we need to step back, look at
what the group is trying to accomplish, what roles are necessary to accomplish
this goal, and how those roles compare with the current ones being played
What is your group's purpose? Can you get it down to a few words? Does
everyone in the group agree on the purpose? Is your purpose multiple? (If
so, each purpose may dictate different roles.) Or is the group trying to
achieve a secondary purpose that is unstated, such as a group whose purpose
is working magic while also trying to act as a support group? Does it work
or does it put the group at cross-purposes? Is your personal reason for
being in the group in keeping with its collective purpose?
Starhawk, in Truth or Dare, describes four main types of groups;
intimate groups, whose purpose is "being,;" task groups, whose purpose
is "doing; support groups, whose purpose is "changing;" and learning,,
groups whose purpose is "education. Purposes may overlap, but when they
get crossed, such as learning groups who try to make people change, there
may be some covert manipulation going on to which members have not all
What are the needs of the group as a whole compared to needs of the
individuals within the group? The group may have financial pressure which
creates a need to get things done quickly. efficiently and professionally
in order to continue its purpose. Individuals within the group may have
a need for intimacy or creativity which cannot be met within the group
without changing the group function. Members who share this need can get
together or start a subgroup rather than undermine the stated purpose.
What is your role in the group. both officially and non-officially?
Is this the role you want? Is it the same role you played as a child?
What are the roles of some of the other members? How did they get these
roles and how do they feel about it? (Ask, don't assume.)
How is power handled/distributed? Living in a society that has, by and
large, unhealthy power models, the handling of power within a group is
often the basis for conflict Our first experiences of power were in relationship
to our parents and teachers. If this was negative it will affect how we
behave when in a position of power ourselves or how we respond to those
who are in powerful or leadership positions. Ideally power and leadership
should not be synonymous, though it is often hard for people, no matter
what their role, to remember that leadership, because of its parental overtones,
is a touchy issue in groups.
Again, to quote Starhawk: "Two basic myths exist about leadership. The
first is that someone must always be in charge or nothing will get done.
The second is that leadership is always oppressive. Although both myths
contain kernels of truth, each is based on an essential confusion between
power-over and power-with."
There are many questions to ask about leadership within a group. Is
it necessary? If not, what models would work better? If so, are the leaders
responsible in their positions: do they reflect the needs of the group
and accomplish the purpose? Is their leadership recognised? Are they respected
or resented by the group?
The leaders usually receive the parental projections of the group members.
For those who were abused by their parents' authority much anger may be
projected against the leaders or founders of a group, undermining their
ability to do their job. This may also prevent leaders from emerging, which
can leave the group floundering without direction. Watch for competition
and lack of trust in such dynamics.
For those who act in the role of leaders, internalised family dynamics
may lead to an abuse of their power. Their only model may have been power-over.
This may be entirely unconscious, in which case effective communication
and feedback from the group needs to be offered and received. Internalised
shame may make the group leader need a lot of encouragement, while the
group may be resisting a projected power-over situation instead and undermine
the leader's confidence.
Are the same people always the leaders? Is this appropriate or can the
roles be rotated?
The other end of the spectrum from leaders, who have usually been in
the group a long time, are the newcomers. Newcomers run the greatest risk
of becoming the Scapegoat, because they are the least incorporated into
the system and the least knowledgeable about its unspoken rules and agreements.
Newcomers and leaders alike get the largest doses of tack of trust and
often have their competitive urges triggered by having to prove themselves.
If and when they do prove themselves, the role is then defined and the
next step is dependence upon that role.
Variation in dynamics in family and group situations is endless. Being
conscious of these dynamics goes a long way towards avoiding traps. Understanding
your own family dynamics is invaluable, as communicating current group
dynamics (as you perceive them) is essential.
The best way to avoid roles is, ironically, to assign them. A consultant
is a Fixer, but recognised, respected, and usually paid for their position.
The Ghost who watches everything and says little can be sought out and
given a role as a vibes-watcher. The Clown can be given special time for
entertainment and group diversion-time where they can get strokes for their
humour, and the group can be treated to an enjoyable break. The Problem
Child can be given the role of problem solver, thus taking the focus off
them and onto the group, wherein the dysfunction lies anyway. The competitive
Good Child can be given a reward for their good work by asking them to
help newcomers or people who are struggling in the group. The Scapegoat
can be put in an honoured position where they have no responsibility and
then the next time something goes wrong, it can't be their fault! (Though
in truth, the only real way to absolve the Scapegoat is for group members
to deal with their own shadows.)
Another common maelstrom of dysfunctionality arises along the compliment/criticism
continuum. Do you remember what it felt like when your parents jumped on
you for what you did wrong, yet failed to show an equal but opposite reaction
over your accomplishments? Unfortunately, I have seen this dynamic repeated
in almost every group, and the effects are the same: alienation, lack of
enthusiasm, and resentment. Having clear roles can help this process, because
we know what our job is, what it takes to do it well, and can receive appropriate
recognition when it is done well.
It is also important for the group to give itself strokes as an entity
when it has done something well. A feeling of pride in the system makes
co-operating with the system a joy instead of a burden.
To make this occur more often, keep your group's goals realistic so
that they can be achieved. In our group we tend to have long agendas for
meetings that drag us all down and leave us feeling inadequate if we don't
get through it all, burned out if we do. When we have shorter agendas we
finish our work and still have time for socialising. We get a feeling of
accomplishment and a sense of entitlement to the pleasure of visiting afterward.
Having "non-work" time is replenishing to group energy. Our coven schedules
socials once a month in addition to our magical workings. In the Church
of All Worlds, non-work time makes us remember why it is we work so hard
or put up with this crazy family. It gives us fuel for our work and our
vision and the love and bonding to get through the difficult parts when
The most important thing to work on is ourselves. When is our behaviour
a carryover from our family situation? What can we do about that when it
does happen? How can we communicate across that gap? How do we manipulate
the system to meet our personal needs?
And lastly, to remember that the group is a system and must be viewed
as a whole. How do we accomplish our tasks? Do we use the same methods
over and over even when they don't work? What did we do right when things
did work? For example, when our group examined what we had done well or
enjoyed most, we found that those were projects that had a defined leader
who was supported and accepted by the group. That was very enlightening
for us because we always tried to avoid having leaders. Since then we have
taken to assigning definite roles for various projects and we find things
go more smoothly.
And if, Gods forbid, someone in the group does foul things up, it is
always helpful to look at their behaviour in view of the group dynamics.
Were they given adequate instruction, tools, encouragement, communication,
time to accomplish their task? The group system should be suspect before
the individual is criticised. And if the problem cannot be found in the
group dynamics, ask the individual. They will probably tell you very quickly
where the system is flawed. And wouldn't it be nice if their criticism
was coupled with appreciation?
Bradshaw, John The Family: a revolutionary way of self-discovery
Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988.
Starhawk, Truth or Dare: encounters with power, authority, and mystery
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.