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Hey Nonprofit Professional, Are You A Hero Child?

Are you a nonprofit professional?

Do you have the Birth Order Blues?

What’s that?

Here’s a funny sort of coincidence: When I was in an elite tiny liberal arts college, I went around the room to all of my friends and I said, “Were you the first child in your family?” And everyone said YES. Were we all kind of overachievers? Hyper-intellectual? A bit over-responsible? Yes.

Birth order theory is the idea that when you are born in your family matters.

In shorthand, Oldest children are responsible “little adults.”
Youngest children are “comedians” and
middle children are “forgotten.”

In The Birth Order Blues, the authors say oldest and youngest children get along because whenever the oldest child gets too serious the youngest one is there to jolly them up. And then the oldest child can be there for the youngest and teach them responsibility. Or so they say. And middle children feel like they never get enough attention, resentful.

Recently Dan Pallotta wrote an article called “Nonprofit Pathology” for the Harvard Business Review where he blew my tiny mind.
Read it, go on, it won’t take long.

Okay, now we’re back.

Now, remember the article that you just read, where Dan Pallotta said,

“Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they’re more compassionate than others but because they’re codependent. Maybe the driving force is really inverted narcissism — an unhealthy and unexamined addiction to care-taking or to self-neglect.”

Then he says,

“I was the oldest son and the oldest grandson in an Italian family. That produced an unhealthy dose of the “hero child” syndrome, as psychologists describe it, where I felt more responsibility for the world’s problems at age nine than maybe a kid ought to. I remember sitting at the family dinner table on Sundays listening to my uncles and grandfather and dad talk about all the world’s woes and quietly adding each one to my list, thinking, “OK, I have to solve that one too.””

Wow! Talk about something I had no idea about! I was the oldest grandchild and oldest daughter in a large family too. That produced “hero child” syndrome in me, where I felt more responsibility for the world’s problems as well!

So, I didn’t know what a hero child was. I had to look it up. Here’s the definition, maybe you’ll recognize yourself, nonprofit professional?

“The Hero, who is usually the oldest child, is characteristically over-responsible and an over-achiever. The Hero allows the family to be reassured it is doing well, as it can always look to the achievements of the oldest son or daughter as a source of pride and esteem. While the Hero may excel in school, be a leader on the football team or a cheerleader, or obtain well-paying employment, inwardly he or she is suffering from painful feelings of inadequacy and guilt, as nothing he or she does is good enough to heal his family’s pain. The Hero’s compulsive drive to succeed may in turn lead to stress-related illness, and compulsive over-working (Oh, have I been writing about this lately? I think I have). The Hero’s qualities of appeasement, helpfulness and nurturing of his or her parents may cause others outside the family to remark upon the child’s good character, and obtains him or her much positive attention. But inwardly, the Hero feels isolated.” From: George Boyd at the Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies

I told people on twitter about this article and got back a lot of “WOW!” and “OMGs” so, I think this has struck a chord. So if you’re involved in nonprofits AND if your family was dysfunctional, join the club! There seem to be a lot of us.

If you don’t recognize yourself as the hero child, there are other kinds! Maybe you are a Scapegoat? A Lost Child? A Mascot? An Enabler?

From the same article by George Boyd at the Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies:

The Enabler protects and takes care of the problem spouse, whom Sharon Wegscheider refers to as the Dependent, so that the Dependent is never allowed to experience the negative consequences of his or her actions. While the Enabler feels angry and resentful about the extra burden that is placed upon him or her by the Dependent’s unhealthy, irresponsible and antisocial behavior, he or she may feel powerless to do anything about it. The Enabler feels he or she must act this way, because otherwise, the family might not survive. While the family is afforded survival by the Enabler’s responsibility, the Enabler may pay the cost of stress-related illness, and never have his or her own needs met, in effect, being a martyr for the family. The paradoxical thing about the Enabler’s behavior is that by preventing the Dependent’s crisis, he or she also prevents the painful, corrective experience that crisis brings, which may be the only thing that makes the Dependent stop the downward spiral of addiction.

The Scapegoat, who is often the second born, characteristically acts out in anger and defiance, often behaving in delinquent ways, but inwardly he or she feels hurt in that the family’s attention has gone to the Dependent or the Hero, and he or she has been ignored. The Scapegoat’s poor performance in school, experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sexuality, flaunting of the conventions of society, or involvement in adolescent gangs or criminal activity may lead him or her to be labeled the family’s problem, drawing attention away from the Dependent’s addiction. This behavior can also be seen as a cry for help. The hostile and irresponsible attitude of the Scapegoat may lead him or her into accidents, or acts of violence against others or self. The Scapegoat’s cleverness and manipulation may be used to engage in leadership of peer groups, or in the invention of schemes of dubious legality, or outright criminality, to earn a livelihood. Though the Scapegoat may develop social skills within his or her circle of peers, the relationships he or she experiences tend to be shallow and inauthentic.

The Lost Child role is characterized by shyness, solitariness, and isolation. Inwardly, he or she feels like an outsider in the family, ignored by parents and siblings, and feels lonely. The Lost Child seeks the privacy of his or her own company to be away from the family chaos, and may have a rich fantasy life, into which he or she withdraws. The Lost Child often has poor communication skills, difficulties with intimacy and in forming relationships. Lost Children may attempt to self-nurture by overeating, leading to problems with obesity, or to drown their sorrows in alcohol or drug use. The Lost Child often has few friendships, and commonly has difficulty finding a marriage partner. Instead, he or she may attempt to find comfort in his or her material possessions, or a pet. This pattern of escape may also lead him or her to avoid seeking professional help, and so may remain stuck in his or her social isolation.

The Mascot child is manifested by clowning and hyperactivity. The Mascot, often the youngest child, seeks to be the center of attention in the family, often entertaining the family and making everyone feel better through his or her comedy and zaniness. Inwardly, the Mascot experiences intense anxiety and fear, and may persist in immature patterns of behavior well into adulthood. Instead of dealing with problems, the Mascot may run away from them by changing the subject or clowning. The Mascot uses fun to evoke laughter in his or her circle of friends, but is often not taken seriously or is subjected to rejection and criticism. The Mascot also may fear turning within or looking honestly at his or her feelings or behavior, so he or she may be out of touch with his or her inner feelings. The frenetic social activity that the Mascot expresses is in fact often a defense against his or her intense inner anxiety and tension. If this inner anxiety and desperation is not addressed, it is not uncommon that a Mascot may slip deeper into mental illness and become chemically dependent.

Only children don’t escape the birth order blues either.

A special case is the only child. An only child in an alcoholic family may take on parts of all of these roles, playing them simultaneously or alternately, experiencing overwhelming pain and confusion as a result.

This is the most chilling part of the article for me.

Sharon Wegscheider notes that the longer a person plays a role, the more rigidly fixed he or she becomes in it. Eventually, family members “become addicted to their roles, seeing them as essential to their survival and playing them with the same compulsion, delusion and denial as the Dependent plays his [or her] role as drinker.” –From George Boyd at the Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies.

SO, WOW. Are you wearing a mask right now and you don’t even know it? Does this remind you of some of your siblings or some of the people you know at work?

For me, this explanation resonated on multiple levels. I felt like finally, okay, there’s a reason for why I work so hard all the time. And why different people in my family are the way they are.

So, okay, we’re save-the-world stereotypes. But there’s community in this. We all have the same mask. What if we took it off? How could we begin to take it off? What would we look like underneath? Who are we, when we’re not saving the world? Who do we have the potential to be? How can we lighten up and make the world better at the same time?

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

4 responses on “Hey Nonprofit Professional, Are You A Hero Child?

  1. Susan says:

    I was the Hero Child in an alcoholic home until I left home and tried on some more unfortunate versions of the other roles. Something in me wanted to avoid being swallowed up in martyrdom so I didn’t try to be a social worker or shrink as a profession. I feared my inability to set boundaries. Something I still work on today. But now I know that each role is only a part of myself- and that trauma often causes that fragmentation. Healing promotes an integrated and more loving and whole self. The way I can tell I am genuinely caring or wanting to help is that I feel calm and capable in my own skin first and that I am curious and interested. NOT frantic or frazzled or fearful. I need to know I can and will take care of my soul first. Work can be a false escape or endless attempt to build a ladder of achievements but that never works. It was a tenacious love for my own playful and artistic side that saved me from my Hero persona. Now I know there is so much more to life than trying to rescue people. I say save yourself and you will be more effective whatever you choose to do.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Thank you for sharing your story Susan.

      I am so grateful that you told other Hero children about your journey. And how you overcame the idea of work as a false escape through play and art.
      This is SO important. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem:

      The Journey

      One day you finally knew
      what you had to do, and began,
      though the voices around you
      kept shouting
      their bad advice —
      though the whole house
      began to tremble
      and you felt the old tug
      at your ankles.
      “Mend my life!”
      each voice cried.
      But you didn’t stop.
      You knew what you had to do,
      though the wind pried
      with its stiff fingers
      at the very foundations,
      though their melancholy
      was terrible.
      It was already late
      enough, and a wild night,
      and the road full of fallen
      branches and stones.
      But little by little,
      as you left their voices behind,
      the stars began to burn
      through the sheets of clouds,
      and there was a new voice
      which you slowly
      recognized as your own,
      that kept you company
      as you strode deeper and deeper
      into the world,
      determined to do
      the only thing you could do —
      determined to save
      the only life you could save.

      ~ Mary Oliver ~

  2. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    Thanks Amanda,

    I think i swung back and forth too! But now, Hero Child! And so! How to step out and take better care of ourselves? Be better to ourselves?

    I think a positive way to be involved in the nonprofit world is to work from home as often as possible, work a 6-7 hour work day instead of 8+, and then GO HOME and do something else.

    I also think that we have to check in with ourselves and ask ourselves, what would really make me happy? How can I treat myself better today?

    A book I read recently talks about listing all of the things that have made you happy or you think MIGHT make you happy, and then doing one of those things per day, to make you sort of wake up (out of caretaking mode) and do something nice for yourself.

    It’s a challenge, but I think I’m up for it! How about you?


  3. Amanda says:

    That is really interesting! I wonder if there are any studies out there to show how many nonprofit employees are first-born, or how many would define themselves as the “The Hero”. That would be interesting to read.

    It’s also kind of jarring to read about what the negative effects of keeping oneself in those defined roles can be – especially since working in this field can cement people in those roles through their whole careers. What are positive ways of keeping those roles in a healthy proportion?

    On a personal note, I’m the youngest, but I’d still say that out of my siblings, I filled that ‘role’. I think The Mascot and The Hero were switched aorund in our family!