Dysfunctional Roles


7- Dysfunctional Roles


Those who grow up in addicted, abusive or dysfunctional families assume unhealthy roles to help them survive childhood. Although these roles helped protect them as children, they become the traits that lead into unhealthy relationships and codependency in adulthood. To be sure, adopting different roles is common among people everywhere and is a necessary part of negotiating our way through life. But codependents inhabit these roles to such extremes that they lose their own identity and self worth in the process. This page describes the most common dysfunctional roles we adopt as codependents, roles that rob us of our authenticity as human beings and prevent us from having mutually satisfying relationships.


  • Determinants of codependent dysfunctional roles
  • Dysfunctional roles codependents play


Codependent dysfunctional roles - persecutor, victim, rescuer


Determinants of codependent dysfunctional roles

  • Most codependents believe themselves unworthy — “less than” — and feel they must depend on others for direction on how to live life. The unfortunate truth about us is that we never learned to grow up and act as responsible worthy adults. We conduct ourselves like children, as if still living with our abusive or dysfunctional family, believing we lack the power to choose our destiny or influence the quality of our lives. Deep inside we harbor the delusion that one day our parents will love us, will finally take care of us: if I behave my mother will love me, if I do as I am told my father will stop using drugs, if I am good enough I will not get beaten. These are the strategies we learned as children to protect ourselves in addicted or dysfunctional families. They worked and helped us survive an abusive family environment. Unfortunately, though, as grown-ups some of us still cling to these views of how to negotiate life, long after they have served their purpose. We think that our behavior has the power to change people, to make them treat us better or to do as we want. Our persistence in holding on to this illusion that our behavior has the power to change others takes many forms. We people please, we focus on helping others even when our help is both unsolicited and intrusive. We rush in to rescue others, imagining we can solve the problems of all. We spend our days at the beck and call of those around us. We lose a sense of ourselves, becoming who our relationships want us to be. We do things contrary to our genuine wishes, our needs and our wants in the vain hope that others will then treat us better, that they will love and care for us in return- a wish unfulfilled form our childhood days. It is said that codependency is the disease of relationships, but the real abnormality is the relationship we have with ourselves. The core faulty belief afflicting codependents is that we are not worthy, that we lack value as we are, and that we need other people’s love and care to validate our being or our lives. That’s the main problem.
  • The definition of codependency is wide and varied, but fundamentally it is a fear of being true and authentic towards ourselves. This fear very likely has its roots in childhood, when we were shamed and demeaned for being who we were or expressing ourselves. The result is that as adults we live in fear of what other people think of us, and we feel compelled to be who we think other people want us to be. The inevitable result is resentment and confusion in all our relationships. We change our identity to please others, but in the end it is never enough. We are not loved the way we hoped for and are left lonelier than ever. We ignore our own needs and wants in expending energy helping and rescuing others from their problems. But the outcome is never as we hoped, and we are left disappointed and regretting all the sacrifices we made. Whether consciously aware of it – or willing to acknowledge it — the roles we play are an attempt to exert some control over our life and our relationships. It worked for us as children, it kept us safe in an unsafe and insecure environment. Now as adults it has led to the development of codependency in us, rendering our life miserable and unfulfilled.
  • Most codependents view life from a victimhood stance. We live as if we were destined to be miserable, and that there’s nothing we can do to change or influence our unhappy fate. We live as if we are still children, in a state where “grown ups” are responsible for our care and the quality and happiness of our lives. Most of us never acknowledge the fact that we are adults responsible and in charge of leading our lives. All our relationships are based on the false assumption that the other person has the power to change the quality and calibre of our lives. As a result, we disregard our true identity and behave in ways that we think will please others. We undermine our true selves and in a way become the puppets of others. By putting people on pedestals, acting as if they are above us and better than us, we hand over our power in relationships and leave ourselves open to being disrespected and even abused. When the other person in the relationship inevitably takes advantage of this higher status we have accorded them to dominant, rule, disrespect or abuse us, we feel like victims at the mercy of a cruel destiny. Most of us may not be aware of the victimhood stance upon which we live our lives. We may not be aware of why or how we set ourselves up in our relationships. But believing ourselves as less deserving than others, we lead a miserable existence, acting passive aggressive and ridden with fear, guilt and shame. We neither know nor trust ourselves because our identity shifts with each encounter. Neither do we trust others — and why should we? Living as victims, we have been betrayed and abused by the others in our lives. It is only when we finally muster the courage to take a good look at ourselves and question our core beliefs that we have a chance to free ourselves from our victim stance and codependency. It is when we finally decide to take the actions needed to act as adults and exert our right to live as worthy and valuable human beings that we can let go of our default victimhood stance and codependency.
  • Determinants of playing codependent roles:


  • Come from feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.
  • Come from hurt and pain experienced in childhood, feelings which are denied.
  • Are about a loss of personal identity and power.
  • Lead to dishonesty and manipulations.
  • Give way to unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships.
  • Come from a sense of shame and cause shame.
  • Perpetuate guilt and confusion in both yourself and others.
  • Are passed down to the next generation of children.



Roles codependent play

Below are definitions of the roles we adopt as codependents, roles that rob us of our true identity and keep us in unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships. Suggestions are provided on how to take responsibility for ourselves as a way to forming equal and satisfying relationships. Note too that it is common that we exhibit traits of various roles, or switch back and forth between them.

 Dysfunctional Roles Codependents Play


1. Rescuer

Belief & Attitude: “ I feel safe and good about myself when I help others.”


Characteristics of a Rescuer:

  • Codependents who take on the role of rescuers tend to have been raised in families where their needs were not met. As children they turned to taking care of others to compensate for the love and care they were not receiving. Rescuers tend to be enablers. They are overly protective and spend their time offering help and rescuing others from their problems. Among common examples of the rescuer is the wife who provides alibis to her husband’s boss for his absence from work so that he won’t get fired. Another is the mother who does her son’s homework so that he won’t fail in school. Rescuers gain great satisfaction by identifying with their care-taking role. They are generally proud of what “helpers” and “fixers” they are. Often they are socially acclaimed, even rewarded, for what can be seen as “selfless acts” of caring. They believe in their goodness as chief caretakers and see themselves as worthy and Godly people. Yet underneath these altruistic actions rescuers expect that by taking care and rescuing others, the other person will one day reciprocate. The rescuer harbors this expectation despite much first-hand experience to the contrary, namely that the person being rescued either fails to acknowledge the assistance, takes being rescued as their right, or resents the rescuer for interfering. The truth is that needy people are seldom able to help another. How can they when they have difficulty helping themselves! Often the rescuer feels disappointed and gets depressed, falling easily into their victimhood. Their unappreciated efforts lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy about how life is unfair and how people always let you down – the default assumptions that keep them in their codependency.
  • Feeling used, at the mercy of, betrayed, and hopeless are trademark feelings of a rescuer. You may hear them say: “after all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get?”; or “no matter how much I do for you, it’s never enough”; or, “why do you treat me so bad when I have helped you so much?” The greatest fear of a rescuer is that they will end up alone. They believe that their worth in life depends entirely on how much they do for others.
  • Another serious consideration regarding this kind of behavior is its effect on the person being “helped”. It is a natural part of living and growing up that a person suffers the consequences of their actions. But by always running in to fix situations and getting others out of the trouble they’ve gotten themselves into, rescuers short circuit this healthy learning mechanism. The more they rescue, the less responsibility is taken by the ones they care-take. And then, the less responsibility their charges take, the more they need rescuing. So a vicious cycle is formed in the relationship, which renders both parties’ lives unhealthy and dysfunctional.
  • Being someone who helps others – in healthy ways – is of course part of being loving, generous and kind. It is possible to be helpful and supportive without being a rescuer. There is a distinct difference between being genuinely helpful and rescuing. People who authentically want to help others do so without any expectations of receiving something in return. They empower others to take responsibility and to help themselves, as opposed to disempowering them by taking responsibility for their affairs. Genuine people, who like to help others, believe that everyone has the right to make mistakes and learn through sometimes hard consequences. If they help, they do so upon the basis that everyone deserves to make their own mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. Selfless helpers do not offer aid for ulterior motives. They do not secretly hope to gain recognition, appreciation, and love or to build their self-esteem as a result of their action.
  • Some of the prominent traits of a person who has adopted the Rescuer role are:


  • Uses rescuing and enabling to connect to others or to feel important.
  • Needs to be in control of others to avoid their own feelings and problems.
  • Has a holier than thou / superior attitude because of being helpful.
  • Has a sense of entitlement as the result of being “good and helpful”.
  • Has a false sense of superiority over others.
  • Feels guilty or shame when not helping.


Recovery tools for a rescuer towards self-authenticity and healthier relationships:


1. Make your life a priority and take responsibility for your own wellbeing and happiness first.

2. Check your motivation before jumping in to help others. Make sure the underlying motive is not to make yourself feel good and raise your self-esteem.

3. Give up the need to feel superior because you are the good guy who always helps others.

4. Stop behaving as if you know what is best for others. Remind yourself this is more to do with your own self esteem and control issues than wanting to be helpful.

5. Find and apply recovery tools that help you deal with your own problems, shortcomings and negative emotions instead of focusing on what is wrong with others.

6. Set limits about solving other people’s problems and put all of your energy into solving your own first.

7. Learn to recognize the triggers that lead you to take on the rescuer role.

8. Do not allow other people’s manipulations, whether based on love or guilt, to lead you into helping them unless this is something you really want to do.

9. Helping others based on codependent motives almost always leads to resentment on both sides. Do not sabotage your recovery by rationalizing and justifying your enabling behavior.

10. Stop feeling sorry for other people, giving them advice, money or support. Give others the respect they deserve and allow them to take responsibility for their own lives and its problems.

11. If others overwhelm you with their problems and are manipulating you to help them, have the courage to set boundaries and limits regarding what if anything you may decide to do for them.

12. Process your anger and resentment for having had a dysfunctional or abusive childhood and acknowledge the impact that experience has had on your behavior as an adult.

13. Learn to recognize when feelings from your childhood are prompting you to rescue others. Remind yourself that you are no longer a child, but rather that you are an adult who has rights and choices regarding whom to help or not.

14. Process your feelings, hurts and resentments for being raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family and acknowledge how they are impacting your behavior today as an adult. You have the power to choose whether to continue living your life as a rescuer.

15. Work your 12 Steps of Codependency on a daily basis. New behaviors take time and practice and the Steps provide the tools that foster self worth and healthy relationships.



2. Persecutor

Belief & Attitude: “ I feel safe and good about myself when I hurt or demean others.”


Characteristics of a Persecutor:

  • Persecutor is a role most often taken on by someone who suffered overt mental and/or physical abuse in childhood. They are often secretly seething inside because of the abuse done to them, while at the same time experiencing shame from the belief that they somehow provoked the abuse or deserved it. In dealing with the anger and deep-seated feelings of unworthiness, persecutors hide their pain behind a facade of indignant wrath and uncaring detachment towards others. Some persecutors grow up to become abusers themselves, doing to others what was done to them. By repeating this behavior learned in their childhood, they experience a false sense of power and strength. The person who in childhood has been under constant ridicule and repression from parents, and who in adulthood assumes the role of a persecutor, is bound to end up demeaning and abusing others. Persecutors tend to adopt an attitude that translates into: “The world is hard and mean, only perpetrators survive, so I will be one of them.” They protect themselves using authoritarian, manipulative and punishing methods in their relationships in order to feel in control of their lives. But ultimately this role they play ends up making them isolated and miserable people.
  • Persecutors tend to compensate for inner feelings of worthlessness by putting on grandiose airs. Grandiosity comes from shame; it’s a cover-up for deep feelings of inferiority. It is difficult for a persecutor to take responsibility for the way they hurt others. In their mind, others simply deserve what they get. The persecutor’s attitude is that life is a constant struggle for survival. From their point of view, they have to fight to protect themselves from the many threats in a hostile world. Most persecutors are unable to admit that they have adopted attitudes that are, objectively speaking, hostile and aggressive. Rather, they rationalize their hostility, justifying it as the only alternative to victimization. It can be very threatening for someone in the Persecutor role to come out of denial and acknowledge the impact that their childhood has had on their behavior as adults. The Persecutor would consider such an admission as a condemnation of themselves, something that would bring on feelings of shame and unworthiness. As a rule, Persecutors always need to have some situation or person in their life that they can blame so as to justify their staying anger. And staying angry enables them to deny acknowledging and experiencing the pain of being maltreated or abused as children.
  • Some of the prominent traits of a person who has adopted the Persecutor role are:


  • Unconsciously uses superiority, anger and confrontation to stay in denial about the pain of a dysfunctional or abusive childhood.
  • Needs to be in control and uses verbal or physical force to stay in power.
  • Unable to feel vulnerable and denies own pain and weaknesses.
  • Uses blame, criticisms, and attacks to deny own anger and stress.
  • Strong need to be right and not have their authority challenged.
  • Finds ways to prove others wrong as excuse to undermine or demean them.
  • Strong sense of entitlement — “you owe me” attitude — and willing to use verbal or physical force to get what they want.
  • Grandiose personality, believing others deserve being maltreated, abused or punished.
  • May have had a parent who modeled aggressive behavior and winning through force.
  • May have had a parent who spoiled them, setting up feelings of entitlement and superiority.


Recovery tools for a persecutor towards self-authenticity and healthier relationships:


1. Acknowledge your behavior towards others has been abusive or punishing.

2. Acknowledge your superior or self-righteous attitude stems from your lack of self worth and esteem.

3. Acknowledge that the consequences of your persecutor role fundamentally leave you hurt and isolated.

4. Learn to sit with vulnerable or uncomfortable feelings instead of exploding in anger when stressed or threatened.

5. Acknowledge how your persecutor role gives you a false sense of empowerment and ask yourself whether you want to continue living your life on this basis.

6. Find healthy and safe ways to release your anger – take up a sport to rid yourself of toxic energy.

7. Process your feelings, hurt and resentments for being raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family and acknowledge how they are impacting your behavior as an adult. You have the power to choose whether to continue living your life as a persecutor.

8. Work your 12 Steps of Codependency on a daily basis. New behaviors take time and practice, and the Steps provide the tools that promote self worth and healthy relationships. You don’t need to be a persecutor anymore; there are better ways to live life.



 3. Victims

Belief & Attitude: “ I feel safe and good about myself when I am submissive and do as I am told by others.”


Characteristics of a Victim:

  • People who have adopted the victim role generally believe they are intrinsically damaged and incapable of dealing with life. They project an attitude of being weak, fragile or lacking in intelligence. Their attitude can be summed up as, “I can’t do it by myself.” Their greatest fear is having to deal with life on their own, instead of relying on the help of others to take care of them. Those who have adopted the victim role are convinced they are inadequate, frail, powerless or defective people who need others to rescue them. They deny to themselves that they have the power and potential to solve their own problems. They tend to see themselves as inept at handling life’s ups and downs. Feeling done in by life and at its mercy, along with believing themselves mistreated, intrinsically defective or wrong, victims see themselves as broken and unfixable. As a result, they look to others to take care of them. The irony is most people who play the victim role end up resenting people who try to help them. The person fixing or rescuing them reminds the victim of their sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.
  • Eventually, people playing the victim role in life get tired of being treated less than. What happens then is that they begin to find ways to feel equal by some form of “getting even,” which usually means finding fault with the efforts of those trying to help them. A typical scenario may be that a rescuer has offered to help a victim, but the victim rejects whatever solution the rescuer offers as inadequate or unworkable. Remarks like “yes but that wont work because…” or “no your suggestion might help others, but you don’t really understand my problem.” The victim is determined to prove that their problem is unsolvable, thus stumping the Rescuer, leaving them to feel as impotent as they innately believe themselves to be.
  • Convinced of their intrinsic incompetence, people who have adopted the role of victims in life often resort to some type of addiction to feel adequate and good about themselves. Drugs, alcohol, food, gambling or shopping are some of the addictions victims resort to as the means of escape and to cope with life. But for these people to really find freedom from their victim attitude, they need to change their stance in life, and to rely on themselves as their own savior. They need to assume responsibility for their own wellbeing, and to cease expecting or demanding others to help or rescue them. If they are to escape the self-defeating attitude that renders their lives miserable and makes them feel incompetent, they must challenge the ingrained belief that they can’t take care of themselves. The destructive cycle of victimhood will stop only when people who have adopted such a stance in life start taking responsibility for their own feelings, thoughts and reactions. 
  • Some of the prominent traits of a person who has adopted the Victim role are:


  • Has low self-esteem and a sense of being unworthy or less than others.
  • Believes if they act good and are submissive, they will be taken care of and escape being abused.
  • Believes other people’s needs and wants have priority and take precedence over their own.
  • Has the attitude that life is miserable, something to be suffered and endured.
  • Unaware they have the power to choose to take responsibility for a better quality life.
  • Moves between self-pity and passive aggressive anger behavior. Blaming others for their state of mind and quality of life.
  • Doesn’t know how to take responsibility for own feelings, thoughts and actions.
  • Unable to stand up for self and avoids confrontations by acting nice.
  • Deals with threats by giving in, in order to feel safe, and unable to assert themselves when others act inappropriately.
  • Can be overly sensitive, wish-washy and unable to make and stick to decisions.
  • Is filled with anxiety, fear and shame – and operating life from these stances.
  • Feels stuck and unfulfilled in life but does not know how to get out of the victim role predicament.
  • May have had a lenient or overly protective parent who set up expectations of helplessness.
  • May have had parents who abandoned or rejected them in childhood.


Recovery tools for a victim towards self-authenticity and healthier relationships:


1. You are responsible for your own life, your wellbeing, and your happiness.


2. Don’t hold others responsible or blame them for the quality of your life. Your victim stance may work for a while, but it ultimately leads to abuse, resentment and inequality in your relationships.


3. Recognize that you are no longer a needy child, but an adult who is valued and powerful.


4. Establish your wants and needs and assert them on a daily basis to the best of your ability.


5. Understand that in any life situation you have choices and rights.


6. Don’t allow anyone to rescue you. Though it may be tempting to return to that old role for its comfort, it takes away your dignity and disempowers you ultimately.


7. Be honest with yourself and others; have the courage to state your truth clearly.


8. It is your responsibility and your choice regarding how you think, feel or act.


9. Learn the body sensations and reactions that signal you are about to fall into the victim role and helplessness. Your body alerts you when you are not being authentic or valuing yourself.


10. Challenge any belief or thoughts that say you are unworthy and can’t take care of yourself. Ask whether this is the voice of your childhood, rather than the capable and powerful adult that you are today.


11. Stop blaming yourself, others or God.


12. Establish boundaries and limits around unacceptable behaviors and practice maintaining them.


13. Practice activities that bring you joy and are self-nurturing, as these fuel your ability to take care of your own needs.


14. Surround yourself with new, positive friends and make daily affirmations of your power capabilities and independence.


15. Process your feelings, hurt and resentments for being raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family and acknowledge how they are impacting your behavior today as an adult. You have the power to choose whether to continue living your life as a victim.


16. Work your 12 Steps of Codependency on a daily basis. New behaviors take time and practice and the Steps provide the tools that promote self worth and healthy relationships.



  • For information on the roles we may adopt as family members living with an addict, please refer to: Family Roles
  • For information on recovery tools that help you heal and recover from codependency and the unhealthy roles we take on, please refer to: Healing from Codependency.
  • For information on the importance of boundaries for healthy and equal relationships, please refer to: Boundaries and Codependency.

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