We’ve all been in situations where we feel a bit out of place–we might feel misunderstood, or maybe even unwanted. Usually these situations contain new faces: new coworkers, neighbors, mutual friends at parties. And many of us turn to the understanding of our families to diffuse feelings of being left out or rejected.
As such, it can be extremely difficult when the people making us feel “othered” and excluded are our own family members. Folks who identify as “the black sheep” of the family understand this experience.
This article covers what it means to be the black sheep of the family, and strategies to cope with the distress it can cause.
What does it mean to be the “black sheep” of the family?
A “black sheep” is a family member who is marginalized, treated differently, or excluded by the rest of the family. Black sheep, also known as marginalized family members, experience feelings of hurt, inadequacy, and loneliness.
Their different treatment may come from being misunderstood by the rest of the group, due to differing beliefs or life experiences. In fact, black sheep often have different values, characteristics, beliefs, interests, etc. than their families, which induces the family to treat them unkindly, exclude them, or just make them feel that they don’t belong.
When families single out a black sheep — or a few of them — it reflects that the family isn’t interested in understanding members who deviate from the family’s norms. The family might also simply lack the skills and experience to understand someone who differs. In those cases, black sheep may keep less distance from their families, while still feeling significant isolation.
Black sheep, also known as marginalized family members, are mostly characterized by the fact that they don’t “fit in,” leading to feelings of hurt and inadequacy, or isolation and frustration. The life of a family’s black sheep almost always contains loneliness.
Oftentimes, the holiday season highlights which members of a family “don’t belong.” Who wasn’t invited? Who was invited, but gets either ignored or singled out for their differences?
On the other hand, black sheep aren’t always explicitly excluded. Some choose voluntarily to get some distance, due to the lack of understanding from others in the group.
How does being the black sheep impact mental health?
The experience of being a black sheep in the family is very real and can be incredibly traumatic. The people you expect to know you, don’t. The people who should want to understand your perspective, don’t. This trauma often lasts a lifetime, even if contact with the family of origin has been cut.
For humans, power lies in numbers. As human beings, we are evolutionarily wired to seek community and companionship; those with tight-knit social circles have historically been more likely to survive. Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the United States, asserts in his book Togetherness: The Healing Power of Human Connection in an Otherwise Lonely World, that though solitude is important for us, community is one of the most important determinants of both physical and mental health.
By experiencing humiliation and exclusion directly from the family — which is supposed to be an unconditionally loving social support network — the black sheep feels rejected, which can be detrimental to both their mental health and physical health.
What kind of families have a black sheep?
The presence of a black sheep in a family has less to do with that individual, and more to do with the social context of the family. How does the family approach misunderstanding, difference, and conflict? There are many characteristics of families that produce black sheep, but the three most marginalizing traits are: unaccepting, inflexible, and dysfunctional families.
“Unaccepting” is a pretty straightforward characteristic of families that produce black sheep. These families refuse to accept members who differ from expectations, in any way. They want people who look like them, act like them, talk like them, and live life like them.
People in these families tend to be racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, etc. Not only do they not accept people outside of their immediate circle, but they also exclude their own family member (the black sheep) based on differences they refuse to accept. They do not want to take into account another perspective that might cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. Instead, they may bully the black sheep in order to feel their lack of acceptance is…acceptable.
Inflexible families may want to be accepting, but may have trouble bending their ideas, beliefs, or morals when faced with different viewpoints.
They may want to understand an individual, but may have trouble understanding new perspectives. Inflexible families tend to produce black sheep because they lack the mental flexibility to understand. Folks in these families may feel othered, even though it’s not their family’s intention — when people accept you without understanding you, that acceptance can feel cheapened.
Dysfunctional families also tend to have black sheep. The black sheep is viewed as a scapegoat to bully and receive all the rage, aggression, frustration, emotional pain, and general negative feelings of the other family members. In dysfunctional families, being the black sheep often connects to being functional.
When these families “other” a family member, it’s essentially projection mixed with bullying. Dysfunctional family members feel better once they’ve released their negative energy onto another person, unwarranted. Making someone feel even worse than they do brings satisfaction. The truth about the black sheep is distorted to paint them in a negative light, and the black sheep is often ganged up upon. Many black sheep voluntarily leave situations like this — who wants the acceptance of these people, anyway?
How can you make it easier to be the black sheep?
You may not be able to change your standing in the family, but you can make up for some of that pain. Just because you’re a black sheep, doesn’t mean you have to be a lone wolf.
Find a new family
This one seems dramatic, but hear us out. Chosen family is just as sacred as family of origin.
Despite how our family treats us, we still love them and it still hurts to try to separate from them. However, while you don’t get to choose who you are related to, you do get to choose your family – aka, the people who will unconditionally love and support you through the crazy rollercoaster of life.
Cultivate healthy relationships in your life, in order to create the social network of a surrogate family! In Vivek Murthy’s previously mentioned book, studies have shown that those who have a social network to fall back on are less negatively affected when excluded by others, including family members. Surround yourself with loving, kind people that will make the sting of being the black sheep hurt a little less. You can even find people who are familiar with that specific pain.
Speak up for yourself
Sometimes, we imagine the worst case scenarios when planning to discuss touchy subjects. However, if you are the black sheep and your family is treating you poorly, speaking up could really help you in the long-run. The success of self-advocacy will depend on the root of your family’s exclusion. If they’re just inflexible in their ways but want to understand you, your chances are good.
They probably won’t change after the first couple times you broach how their behavior hurts you. However, bullies often pick on people because they don’t believe that person will stick up for themselves. The same can be true in families. If you feel safe doing it, call them out when they say something rude or ignorant. They might surprise you, so trying could be worth it.
Set boundaries for yourself.
- How much time are you willing to spend around them?
- Which topics are you willing to discuss with them?
- What settings are you willing to see them in?
- To what events are you willing to go?
- Which family members are you absolutely not okay being around?
Asking yourself these questions is tough, but figuring out your comfort zone will help you be more prepared and less anxious. No more wondering “what if?” By setting these boundaries within yourself, you’ll know your cut-off points and be able to extract yourself from situations you know you don’t want to be in.
Take steps to heal from your trauma
Even if you’ve reduced contact with family, being the black sheep can be traumatic and have long-lasting negative effects. You may need to seek out therapy or peer support groups (like the on-demand ones at Supportiv!) who have similar experiences to yours, to start healing that trauma. It may seem daunting, but the sooner you start the healing process, the sooner you can work through the pain of exclusion.
Stay true to you
Last, but not least, don’t conform! It might feel tempting to give into your family’s bullying and try to blend in with them; but ultimately, they’ll probably keep treating you like the black sheep, and you’ll lose your sense of identity too. It is not worth changing for, no matter how tempting it might be. Stay true to who you are because you are unique and worth it!
Remember, being the black sheep of the family means that you are strong, unique, and brave! You’ve stuck to your guns and developed into a strong person despite a painful family dynamic.
Being the black sheep is difficult, and you are justified being hurt and distressed by how you’re being treated. Remember to seek help and support from professionals and peers when you need it. You deserve to be happy and to live your life authentically — and there will always be people out there who appreciate your authentic self.