We all have different roles that we play in our families. For most of us, those roles began in childhood, before any of us can even remember. Maybe you were the big sister who always kept an eye on the little ones and defended them on the playground. Maybe you were the younger brother who was always cracking jokes and making Mom smile after a hard day at work.
But as much as we may hear about the middle child syndrome and other aspects of family order and roles, there is a special role that many of us play in our families: The emotional place-holder. I learned this term recently while working with several healers who suggested that this is who I was in my family system. There is one in every family. And while on the outside they seem like the kid that gives you the least trouble, and is the most low-key and agreeable, they could actually be suffering deeply on the inside.
The emotional placeholder in the family is typically compensating for other siblings (or sometimes parents) who are going off the rails. They don’t want to rock the boat so they stay quiet about their own fears or disappointments. They are the parentified children who’s caretakers told them way too much and expected them to take care for them emotionally, rather than the reverse. The family placeholder almost always holds all the pain, sadness, regrets and fears of the family for them rather than with them.
Here are some signs that you may be the emotional place-holder in your family/romantic relationships:
When your loved one is upset, you’re very upset.
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when someone you love is unhappy. However, emotional place-holders take their empathy to the next level. I once had a client tell me, “If my husband has a bad day at work, I get very angry and sad for his sake. I lay awake at night and worry about his stress. I feel guilty that he has to work at this job and I blame myself for spending money. Sometimes I go back to the store the next day and return anything I bought recently.” Meanwhile, her husband was sitting there shaking his head, saying, “I just had a stressful day. I love my job! She doesn’t need to return anything! We are stable. She always does this. I try to hide when I am upset because of how it affects her.”
Which brings me to my next point…
You are hyper-tuned into everyone else’s emotions
You can’t hide your emotions from an emotional place-holder. That would be like a coin hiding from a metal detector in the sand. An emotional place-holder is just like the metal detector, zeroing in with expert precision on the hidden emotion and ringing the alarm. “Someone is upset! Someone is upset! Fix it, fix it!”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a loved one or a coworker or a person on the bus next to you. If an emotional place-holder sees someone else who is upset, all their spidey-senses start to tingle. It’s an amazing gift, but it can pose some issues. For example, I once had a client tell me, “I really struggle to be present in social settings. I get major anxiety when I am out in public. I am so busy thinking about what everyone else must be thinking or feeling that I can’t tune into my own body and feel my own feelings. It’s all this emotional noise and I just need some silence!”
You can’t let go.
One of the major things I notice with my son Sammy who I believe is our family’s place holder (bless him) is that he not only finds and collects other people’s emotional ‘stuff,’ but he also then holds on to those emotions very tightly. Unlike his brothers, he won’t cry or yell or vent when he is upset. He retreats into himself and hides those feelings away, because he doesn’t want to burden anyone else. It’s like he’s thinking, “My brother is upset right now and Mom is worried about him. I better not bother her with my feelings right now.”
Does that sound familiar? Many of us do this in our romantic relationships too. “My spouse is going through a hard time right now at work. I don’t want to bother her with my concerns about our relationship.” Of course, that doesn’t make those feelings go away. It just makes them more powerful and more insidious.
I also find that emotional place-holders tend to wind up with inflammatory issues, such as IBS, asthma, allergies, arthritis, even cancer. It’s as if the body is so weighed down by all the stuff that the emotional place-holder and giving (rather than releasing and receiving), that the body reacts.
What’s the solution? Well, first I think we need to celebrate emotional place-holders. What an amazing gift they are to this world. They are thinkers, feelers, nurturers, lovers. They crave peace and justice for everyone, and that’s a noble way of living. They tend to be the kind of people who volunteer in their free time, the kind of people who never lets a friend cry alone, the kind of people who always remember their elderly neighbor’s birthday or their spouse’s favorite flower.
However, they need to be sure that they channel that same love and attention into their own beings as well. When an emotional place-holder neglects themselves, they can easily slip into a victim/martyr persona. They feel taken advantage of and resentful. They become dis-empowered and bitter about their giving, rather than giving from a place of love and abundance.
I really think emotional place-holders need to meditate on a daily basis in order to get in touch with themselves and ‘clear out’ that pent up emotion from the day. They can also benefit from learning how to lovingly surrender and allowing other people to feel their own feelings without trying to get involved or ‘fix’ it for them. Ultimately, emotional place-holders should focus their energy on becoming not an emotional dumping ground but rather an emotional lighthouse. Shine that light of unconditional love to bring comfort and guidance to those around you, but realize that at the end of the day, they are steering your ships while you are a grounded, unchanging force that stays focused on giving light rather than collecting darkness.
What do you think? What role do you play in your family? Do you think you might be an emotional place-holder?