Although families will always try to deny it, sometimes there are black sheep in the flock.
If you feel like a stranger in your own house, experienced sibling rivalry or never identified with your parents on a personal level, then you may, in fact, be the black sheep in your family.
Much more than a humble phrase, the ‘black sheep’ is very real. Particularly when you consider that, among any gaggle of relatives, human nature often dictates that individuals slot into archetypal roles – even if they do so unconsciously.
“If you think of the family as a system,” says Barbara Honey, a counselor for Relate, “you can be cast in all kinds of different roles. You might be the baby of the family, the rescuer of the family, or you may well be the black sheep, which essentially means you’re the baddie of the family.”
Are you the black sheep?
You may always be the family fall guy. If something breaks everybody assumes it is you. There are arguments for which you are routinely blamed. People tell you you’re being overdramatic or emotional when their own behaviour hurts your feelings.
Your family put you down
When getting together at Christmas or for your birthday, are your family members quicker to dish out smiles and thoughtful gifts, or eye rolls and heavy sighs? “The attitudes of other family members are very telling,” claims Honey. “People can be warm and kind and loving and so on, or they can be cold and critical and constantly putting you down.”
Going further, the ways a black sheep is talked about, particularly by their parents, while they’re in the same room, can shed light on their standing. “It can be a red flag,” confirms Honey, “especially if they’re saying things like, ‘I told you he is up to no good’, ‘He’s an absolute waste of space’, or, you know, ‘He’s done it again’. Essentially, if family members can’t even do you the favor of waiting till you’re out of earshot before bitching about you, you could well be in trouble.
Your beliefs are wildly different to your families
Whether you’re a Trump supporter among a band of ardent Obama lovers, or find that your newly found Buddhist faith really screws with the family’s Scientology vibe, fundamental differences in views can cause lasting – if not permanent – ructions.
“It’s all about difference,” says Honey, “and to what extent can difference be tolerated in a family. You don’t have them written down in a book, but every family has rules – from whether you invite people in the house, to how you manage meal times. If you diverge from these rules, and do something like become a member of a particular religion, join a cult or become a goth, if that’s not acceptable in your family, then yes, you can become the black sheep.”
You’re the smart one
Another instance of chalk colliding quite dramatically with cheese, intelligence-based division can also come a large degree of snark. (‘You’ve got all those degrees, but you still can’t work the television’ muttered 10,000 uncles, today alone.)
“People have very strong reactions to these things because they feel so threatened. So the first person to go to university, or the opposite of that – everyone goes to university and somebody wants to be a farmer – it’s about being cast as the ‘other’. It doesn’t matter what the difference is, the point is that ‘different’ is threatening.”
Family gatherings are worse than hell
You arrive, and immediately check your watch. You begrudgingly do the rounds, saying hi to everyone you’re related to – and who you’d never share a room with, let alone a bottle of Pinot Noir, if you didn’t happen to share DNA – and rattle through the pleasantries.
Put in more clinical terms, according to Honey such feelings of malaise often derive from fear. “The individual won’t necessarily feel welcome, they won’t feel valued, they might be ignored and they might be criticized,” she says. “All of these negative things can make a family gathering extremely uncomfortable for someone – particularly if they feel like the black sheep.”
You’re the family rebel
One might wonder whether ‘rebel’ is merely a synonym for black sheep, however there’s a clear distinction between the two. Rebellion suggests action – someone intentionally rejecting rules or expectations – and that can extend beyond a family unit to their social life, music or clothing choices; not to mention lairy haircuts, piercings or tattoos.
That said, your family might cast you as the rebel, for little more reason than they don’t understand you. Which brings us back to our old friend difference. Rose: “It’s about the attitudes of the people who are concerned they’ve got a member of the family that’s different. Of course, what might be going on for them is that they might be feeling rejected by the individual – they might be feeling hurt that the family’s mutual way of life isn’t shared.”
You don’t introduce your partner to your family
Your family doesn’t understand you, so why on earth would you actively choose to subject someone else to such treatment? Worse, you fear that your relatives are actually on to something, and there is something peculiar and black sheep-ish about you. If you bring a date into that environment, they’ll soon learn of the ‘real’ you, and promptly bail. It’s bleak, but a reality for some.
“They can’t see a way of addressing what they see as a misunderstanding,” says Rose, “and so they’re more likely to withdraw or be more defensive.” The irony comes, as Rose notes, when “they then act more like the black sheep, which leads to a sort of vicious cycle.”
There’s no quick-fix to this problem.
It took a lifetime to build and it could take more than a lifetime to tear down. Is it worth the trouble? Or should you just move on and accept your fate as the fmily-shame living happy in the knowledge you know the truth?
Being the black sheep of the family is undeniably hard.
Black sheep are treated differently, excluded, or disapproved of by the rest of the family.
People are considered black sheep for a wide variety of reasons, including leaving the family religion, not following prescribed gender roles, having different values or beliefs than the rest of the family, or loving/marrying an “undesirable” partner.
Recent research identified five ways black sheep stay resilient despite their stressful position in the family. Resilience is all about adapting, moving forward, and coping with marginalization without ignoring or forgetting about one’s negative family experiences. The five strategies described below come from interviews with black sheep from across the United States.
1. Seek support from your communication networks.
Resilient black sheep invest in the relationships in their lives that are genuine and loving. They focus on those who include them, which tend to be select siblings, extended family members, and friends. They also seek support from who they refer to as “adoptive kin” or their “chosen” families. These are people who fulfill family roles and functions, but are not necessarily related to them. To be resilient, lean on your alternative networks for support.
2. Rebuild while recognizing your negative experiences.
Focusing on the positive impact of the challenges they have faced can be a powerful way to stay resilient despite being a marginalized family member. Be proud of your differences. Focus on the ways you are stronger today because of what you have been through. For example, some black sheep shared that they sought higher education to support themselves, just in case their families disowned them or refused to support them later in life. This is a positive outcome from a negative situation. Try to reframe your marginalization as positive even while acknowledging that it is painful.
3. Create and negotiate boundaries with family members.
Creating physical distance from family by moving away or limiting face time tends to protect black sheep from future interactions that are marginalizing. Other black sheep simply restrict what they talk about with their family. They have surface-level conversations that avoid sensitive topics. You can draw physical and psychological boundaries around yourself for protection.
4. Downplay the experience of being marginalized.
Some black sheep insist that their marginalization does not bother them. They do this through reducing the influence their family relationships have on their lives: for example, claiming that their mom can’t guilt-trip them anymore. For these black sheep, family opinions become less valuable over time. You can change the meaning of your marginalization by changing the way you think about it.
5. Live authentically, despite your family’s disapproval.
These black sheep decided that being true to who they are was more important than fitting into a mold determined by their parents. Despite knowing the consequences of being different and going against their family’s wishes, these black sheep were proud, and valued their identities over their family’s acceptance of them. This resilience strategy seemed to be the most fueled by anger and frustration about the inflexibility in values held by family. Be true to who you are, even if it means being disapproved of by your family.