Do You Feel Overshadowed By Your Family Tree?

Families are like branches on a tree. We grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.


If you come from a family that has been successful or has strong personalities within its dynamics, you may feel like you live in the shadows. It’s more common than most people realize.

When this happens, we often feel pushed to adopt the values of the patriarchs and matriarchs who have come before us. That can make us quell our own voices and it sets up the next generation to struggle and even possibly fail.

My only focus as a child was to please my parents. Serving them was the only thing I cared about. From cleaning my room, vacuuming the house, making breakfast for the family on weekends, preparing my parents’ bed at night, bringing home good marks, continuing my education beyond high school, and living at home with them until I married: all of this was done to satisfy my parents.

But this was no average family. We were the Saputo family, a name synonymous with the brand of a huge Canadian dairy enterprise. My identity was closely tied to – and overshadowed – by the pioneers who had built and maintained the business for two generations. Being a member of an ultra-affluent and prominent family, while it undoubtedly has its advantages, can also be an emotional minefield, especially for the more sensitive among us.

My large, exuberant, affluent Italian family casts an exceptionally long, wide shadow indeed. I buried myself deep within that shadow for many years, without even knowing  it. Growing up, I had no thoughts of expanding myself for my own sake or living my life to its fullest potential.

Eventually I learned that I was not alone in my feelings of insignificance for this painful dilemma is fairly common among members of the second and third generations of prominent families. From the outside it looks like we have it made, but inside we’re prisoners of our own thoughts and feelings. It’s extremely difficult to measure up to the patriarch and matriarch—the Empire Builders, the Creators of All That Is.

Sadly, many of us feel so daunted by the task that we don’t even try. Or, as in my case, we try so hard that we sacrifice ourselves in the process. In many cases, we fall victim to the proverbial curse of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” that plagues so many affluent families, losing what our ancestors have built and carrying a heavy burden of guilt.

As Dr. Suniya Luthar so simply puts it, “These youths come to believe there is one path to ultimate happiness—having money…They grow preoccupied with becoming highly marketable commodities, pursuing activities chiefly if they will look good on resumés. There is scant time for exploration of who they are as individuals or for nurturing unique interests.”

In her research, Dr. Luthar has linked the second cause—parental criticism, or even the mere perception of it—with elevated levels of depression and anxiety among affluent youths, particularly for girls. The feeling that we have to be perfect in order to be worthy of our parents’ acceptance was my personal affliction.

Truth be told, I didn’t need to read a bunch of studies to know that there are serious problems afflicting the younger generations of prominent families. Attend any private school function or any philanthropic event and you’ll be surrounded by second- and third-generation people of affluence who are grappling to understand their place in the world, as I did; struggling to define who they are and frantically seeking fulfillment all the while suffering from intense guilt because they can’t imagine why they feel so empty when they’ve been given so much.

Like so many of these people, I did not see my full value as a person. For decades, I felt insignificant, questioning who I am and why I’m here. By the time I was in my mid-40s, I desperately wanted to help myself out of this sad slump. Most of all, I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure that the same fate didn’t befall my three young daughters.

With those lofty goals as my inspiration, I set out on a journey of self-discovery, which has led me to helping others also leave the shadow of their looming family trees. By doing so, we show our parents what we can do, while still being open to learning from their wisdom and experience.

That is the key to building the next generation to lead the family business. Not by controlling and judging, even via those subtle cues you may not realize you are sending, but by recognizing that the next branch of the family tree can reach much further. They just need confidence and belief to do it, without being subconsciously held back.

If this sounds like you, then we should talk. I’ve been where you are. And I believe I can guide you to a spot in the sunlight.


  1. Charles Eckhart, PhD on March 28, 2023 at 4:09 am

    Danielle, what a thoughtful, self-reflective article using your own experience as a guide. I appreciate your description of your own sort of crisis of insight in your 40’s, not wanting to pass this to your daughters. I’ll read Dr Luthiar’s research, it sounds very important, though unsurprising. In my view, developing identity for all young adults is a challenge, and takes time, struggle, and periods of self doubt. For rising gen, with the spector of a prominent family name, and big parental and societal expectations (with some criticism thrown in), rising gen young adults face big hurdles. If they can overcome it, much opportunity for fulfillment and giving back can be found. I appreciate your articles contribution to the literature on rising gen.

    • Danielle on June 15, 2023 at 8:18 pm

      Thank you for your reflection Charles. Having the courage to keep moving forward is key. As you said “overcome it, much opportunity for fulfillment and giving back can be found.”

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