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Black sheep of the family is someone who is marginalised, scapegoated, misunderstood. They may be particularly sensitive, emotionally intense, curious, and are wired differently. When the family has identified a person as the black sheep, all members project unwanted negative traits onto the scapegoat. Pointing fingers at the black sheep of the family is an unconscious strategy for some family members to evade their own emotional materials.
The Meaning of Being a Black Sheep of The Family
The official term for the black sheep of the family in Systemic Family theory is the “Identified Patient” (IP). This term is used to describe the phenomenon of how a family with unhealthy relationship dynamics assigns one person in the family as the scapegoat. Theories on family systems have taught us that it is not uncommon for family members to carry particular ‘roles’. Apart from the black sheep scapegoat role, some other common roles include the baby, pet, and peacemaker. Through the mechanism of projection, pointing the finger at another family member as the cause for all woes is a common unconscious strategy used by some family members to evade their own emotional pain and sufferings. Being made the black sheep of the family forms a toxic family dynamic, which can result in complex trauma and a wide array of psychological impacts.
Signs that you were made to play the role of the ‘black sheep’
- Your parents treated you differently when compared to the way they treat your other siblings.
- You were criticised for the way you are, and being name-called as ‘the drama queen’, ‘the cry baby’, ‘weirdo’, ‘overly sensitive’ etc.
- Your mistakes were blown out of proportion and/or punished disproportionately.
- Your parents did not intervene or take notice when you were being bullied by others.
- You always have the feeling that you “didn’t fit in” with your family, and you did not develop strong connections with them.
- When you thrive, get stronger and more independent, you sense your family members’ intent on bringing you down or dismissing your achievements.
- You were being bullied by your siblings, or that they ‘jokingly’ mock you for your idiosyncrasy.
- Name-calling- you were always ‘the weird one’, the ‘wild card’, or ‘the trouble’.
- Your family didn’t know who you truly are beyond the superficial, and have shown little interest in doing so.
- You were constantly being criticised for your natural attributes; such as your artistic or sensitive temperament.
Highly Sensitive Persons as the Blacksheep of the Family
Being someone who is naturally emotionally intense or sensitive can bring about difficulties that have nothing to do with the trait itself, but come from being a minority in society, peer groups and family. If you are an intense person, having accumulated experiences of being misunderstood and marginalised, you may have learned to feel bad about who you are. Often, emotionally intense and highly sensitive people not only feel like they are the ‘problematic ones’ in society but also the black sheep in the family.
When you have been made to be the black sheep of the family, it does not mean that your family do not love you, or that they intentionally try to harm you. Rather, their need to label you often comes from their own vulnerabilities.
Although they may collectively orchestrate behaviours in order to keep you as the black sheep of the family, this is in a way their desperate effort to avoid facing up to their own inadequacies.
This is often the case with an innately sensitive and hyper-empathic child.
As the family members ‘discharge’ their emotional accountability or suppressed resentment, the black sheep of the family naturally become the ‘carrier’ of all the angst in the family.
It is difficult to get to really know your own true essence when your growth has been burdened by the label of the black sheep. This is because children naturally find their identity from what is reflected back to them by their parents. If they were made, repeatedly, the ‘guilty one’, or the ‘responsible one’, it can then consolidate into an identity that they later struggle to shift.
As an adult, you may intellectually understand that you are not the cause of problems in your family, but to really shift the internalised shame requires deeper emotional healing.
You must realise that the cause of chaos is your family’s repressed anger and disappointment, and it should never have been your responsibility as a child to resolve anything.
Once you are able to let go of it and reacquaint yourself with people who really see and cherish you for who you are, then you are on your way to living a vibrant and authentic life.
Reflect on the following:
If your family life from childhood leading up to today was being put on a stage, what kind of ‘fixed role’ have you been assigned by others? What roles do your siblings play?
Who in the family was ‘the responsible one’- the ‘shining star’, ‘the good one’?
Were you the black sheep, the ‘bad apple’?
How comfortable do you feel in this role?
Is this role being replicated in your adult relationships? (e.g. your partner also made it as though you are always the one in the wrong, or you are scapegoated at your workplace)
Black Sheep of the Family: How to Survive and Thrive
Whilst family reunion on special occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving can be a celebratory and joyous time for some, very few people have the ‘ideal families’. For many others, family’ is not a place for them to safely lean on, call on, or gain support from. It may even be laden with toxic dynamics or traumatic memories.
If you were the black sheep of the family, you might have gone through a lot of personal development work, therapy and healing to get to where you are, despite the shame, guilt and trauma you were made to carry.
After having spent years trying to break free from the chain of pain and guilt, you have successfully walked away and built a life outside of your family home– yet curiously, somehow, minutes into a reunion can have you regressed back into feeling and behaving like a vulnerable child or a raging teenager. This is not uncommon: Our family members push our buttons so powerfully because they installed the buttons in the first place!
When you are the black sheep of the family, you probably never felt belonged and have a sense that you never will be; Perhaps you have been disappointed enough that for you the notion of ‘family’ simply means you share a bloodline. In these cases, it is important to prepare yourself during occasions of reunion.
Here are some steps and tips that may help you prepare yourself when you have to be with your family again after years of being made the black sheep of the family:
Blacksheep Survive Tip 1. Mental Rehearsal
Intellectually, you know that you are not the family’s black sheep. You know this because you are no longer a helpless, fearful child but a grown adult with new resources and mental strengths. You have been around the world, made new friends, and have people who love and cherish you in your life now. Things are different, and you know you are not the person they have made you out to be. Yet intellectual understanding often does not suffice when your family members behave in the same old ways that trigger your wounds. In these instances, staying strong requires a visceral remembering of your truth, healthy values, and right to be accepted for who you are.
Try this mental rehearsal exercise:
Imagine yourself in a room with your family members, and now- take a bird-eye view of how you dress and present yourself, and think about your life as a whole.
What kind of decisions have you made in your life that differentiates you from your family of origin?
Think about all that you have achieved since you have left home; who does that make you?
What are your values and what do you value in life now, as an adult?
Think about those who appreciate and accept you fully for who you are in your current life— what do they love about you, despite your flaws and imperfection?
Now imagine yourself standing proud and strong with a renewed, adult sense of self, whilst being in the room with your family members. Acknowledging that though you may be ‘different’, you are not wrong or flawed in any way. You certainly do not deserve to be scapegoated, or forever made to be the black sheep of the family.
And as you have built a new life outside of the home, you are a mere visitor to this place. Nothing that goes on here would threaten your core identity and the love you have in life right now.
Black Sheep Survival Tip 2. Don’t Expect it to be Easy
From the day you left home, you have allowed yourself the time and space to change and grow into a new person, but your family members might not like that.
From the perspective of system theory, your healthy changes have upset the ‘homeostasis’ (albeit it is a toxic one) of the existing family dynamic. Ideally, your family members would celebrate your positive changes, learn to relate to you differently, and eventually settle into a new equilibrium, yet this can take a long time and often does not happen. Instead, they may – though often unconsciously- guilt-trip or criticise you so things can go back to the way they were. These toxic behaviors can be as subtle as a disappointed expression, or as forceful as a violation of your boundaries; You may end up feeling guilt-ridden, manipulated, and threatened.
For some individuals, the frustration can also come from a gap of intellectual, emotional or psycho-spiritual development between you and your family members. For instance, despite having the best intention, your relatives may hold onto their more traditional or conventional mindset, whilst you have matured with a wider horizon. They insist to frame you as the black sheep of the family, even you are no longer the same person they used to know. Though benign in nature, their behaviours or commentaries can be irritating, or worse, act as reminders of some of your painful early experiences.
An important part of surviving the reunion is acknowledging that it is not going to be easy. Sometimes it is useful to think of your return as a mere ‘task’, or a project, rather than a vacation. Perhaps imagine yourself playing a role as an actor or actress, whose job is to humour your audience; You can exchange pleasantry and not take the conversations too seriously. At the end of the day, you can de-role and be who you are again. Just because you have to ‘play’ the role of the black sheep of the family for a day does not mean that is your true identity.
Black Sheep Survival Tip 3. Mourning ‘What Might Have Been’
In addressing the complex feelings when it comes to your family who has once scapegoated and mistreated you, the concept of ‘mourning’ cannot be emphasized enough. It can be a difficult, even painful endeavor, but it will ultimately free you up.
Deep inside, we all have a yearning for the caregivers who love, attend to, and appreciate us for who we are. We hope for parents who protect us when we feel unsafe and free us up when we need to explore. We wish for parents who are responsive to our true needs rather than imposing their own agenda. Yearning for the ‘perfect parents’ is the most natural human desire that you carry from the day you are born.
In usual circumstances, one’s parents need not be ‘perfect, but ‘good enough’ for the child to grow up healthy and resilient.
Unfortunately, sometimes due to their own limitations or environmental constraints, many parents have failed to fulfill their children’s basic needs for love, healthy attachment, safety, and autonomy, leaving many adult children with a void in their hearts. Having to frame one of their children as the black sheep of the family likely result from the parents’ limited maturity or mental strength. Even if they had not intentionally tried to harm their child, harm resulted.
As we become adults and our parents get older, we come to the painful understanding that the past is in the past and the void will never be filled. Despite an intellectual understanding, a part of us, often our younger self, continues to seek the ‘perfect parents’. This part of us really wants our parents to eventually ‘get it’, to love us as we are, to listen to us. We keep trying, hoping they finally get them to see us for who we truly are. Sadly, if your parents are not ready or do not have the capacity to change, trying to get your needs met in this way almost always ends in disappointment and repeated hurt.
At some point, you will have to let go. Remember that the family you have not seen for a long time are not your friends or therapist. You may feel more vulnerable if you were to share your true feelings or internal struggles with them and not receive the attention or responses you want. Before you set off for home, make sure to put enough alternative emotional outlet in place- a friend, mentor, coach, therapist, journal, or canvas. Knowing where and who to go to for authentic and fulfilling sharing will reduce the temptation for you to keep knocking on the wrong door in the futile hope that one day your ideal parents will walk out and greet you.
Black Sheep Survival Tip 4: Set Boundaries
If you can already anticipate the occasions to be emotionally depleting for you, you may want to set some firm, actual boundaries in place. If they have mistreated you and insisted on treating you like the black sheep of the family even after you have expressed being upset by it, you do not owe them mutual respect.
Are there certain relatives that you simply cannot tolerate? Can you stay away from them?
Who, when, and what form of communication are you most likely to enjoy, and can you stick to those at the dinner table?
How much time and closeness is too much for you?
The key is to know your boundaries and limits prior to the events in order to prepare yourself and others around you. When needed, it is within your right to assert yourself, limit the time you spent with them, and manage their expectations accordingly.
After many years of carrying the burden as the family’s black sheep, you might finally be ready to break free.
If so, start by seeing yourself as a resourceful and independent adult. You can acknowledge your strengths and gifts and stand proud and strong in what you believe in.
As much as possible, ground yourself in the life you have built outside of the home rather than keep trying to seek your parents’ love, admiration or approval. Paradoxically, their respect may come once you have asserted yourself.
When you can see yourself for who you are and fully embrace that, you will experience a sense of calmness and compassion, which will keep you grounded even when you have to go home and face many old triggers from your parents, siblings, and relatives.
Here is a piece in which I discuss other toxic family dynamics, such as having a competitive parent, being emotionally neglected, being parentified, etc. If you resonate with this article, I think you might also gain something from it.
This article is written by Imi Lo
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.