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 life plan. 

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 activities. 

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 to express. 

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 to do. 


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 unappreciated. 

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: 

The Scapegoat 

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 problems. 

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. 

The Clown 

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. 

The Fixer 

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. 

The Ghost 

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 out. 

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 agreed. 

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 they arise. 

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? 

Recommended reading:

Bradshaw, John  The Family: a revolutionary way of self-discovery Pompano Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988.

Starhawk, Truth or Dare: encounters with power, authority, and mystery San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

Also by Anodea Judith - Stepping Through to Recovery: A Pagan approach to the Twelve Step programs
You can visit Anodea Judith's website, Sacred Centers.

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    Copyright 1989, Anodea Judith. Reprinted, with the author's permission, from Green Egg, vol.22, no.87, Samhain, 1989, pp. 6-8.