If you ever feel like the “odd man out” in your family, you know the feeling of being the black sheep. It’s not any kind of diagnosable condition. In fact there is not even an agreed-upon all-encompassing definition for it. But the black sheep always knows when it’s them. There’s an unmistakable discomfort, a palpable something that’s off.
In fact, if there had to be one definition for what a black sheep is, that’s probably it: a generalized feeling of not fitting in with the crowd. Which, if you think about it, may in fact be a superpower. If we can wrap our minds around it and step into that power. But, being the “one of these things that’s not like the other” can be alienating, painful, and lonely. Particularly for a child growing up in that environment. Being the black sheep can set the trajectory for a child’s whole life. Never outgrowing the feelings of inferiority, they carry these feelings throughout life, applying them to various situations whether it’s appropriate to do so or not.
But there is power in being the lightning rod of the family… the mirror, the truth teller. The black sheep is often the one that won’t play along with the family’s dysfunctions, ignore grandpa’s blatant racism, or keep the family skeletons locked in the closet. Like a mirror, they often reflect generations of familial hurt and a deep need for healing. And the black sheep is often willing to put a stop to those generations of pain. They’re willing to do the healing that no one else in the family has been willing or able to do. The black sheep is singled out because they are different, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Maybe it’s the best thing that could happen.
Marginalized Family Member
Another term for the black sheep of the family is “marginalized family member”. There are a few reasons a family might marginalize one of its own:
The Family Is Unaccepting
Unaccepting families tend to lean toward the racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, etc. It’s not just that they don’t accept their family member, they don’t accept anyone outside their immediate circle, and certainly no one with a perspective that’s different from theirs. There is often an element of bullying to this family dynamic.
The Family Is Inflexible
In the inflexible family there is no element of bullying like in the unaccepting family. The inflexible family doesn’t necessarily want to alienate their family member… they do want to understand them, they just don’t know how to accept different perspectives. A family like this produces black sheep not because they are inherently mean but because they lack mental flexibility.
The Family Is Dysfunctional
Sometimes the black sheep of the family is referred to as the scapegoat, and in the dysfunctional family dynamic, that’s absolutely true. The dysfunctional family will single out a member, usually the most functional one actually, for bullying.
When the dysfunctional family members have had a chance to bond over their shared “othering” of the black sheep, they all feel as though they belong… and that the one they have bullied is the one with all the problems.
The Black Sheep Is A Mirror
In family systems theory, and family therapy, the black sheep is referred to as the “identified patient”. This is the one family member in a dysfunctional family who speaks up about, or reflects in other ways, the family’s deepest conflicts and dysfunctions.
The family of course does not want their dirty laundry aired, secrets told, and shameful behavior broadcasted, so they ostracize and bully the black sheep. Being held accountable for these things feels like an attack, and since they aren’t ready to acknowledge their behavior, they try to flip it back onto the black sheep.
But the black sheep is a mirror, and with a little practice, they can make it so the family’s just flipping all that awfulness back into their own faces. The ultimate game of “stop hitting yourself”.
This is the place the black sheep must come to in order to heal… a place of embodying their power. Standing tall in their ability to showcase and reflect. Understanding that the fact that they see, feel, and experience life differently than their familial counterparts is not a cross to bear, but a flag to fly. And if the family can’t get on board with who they are, that’s really the family’s problem.
How To Care For Yourself As The Black Sheep
The most important thing for the black sheep to know is it’s them, not you. This position in the family or group has been foisted upon you. You don’t actually have to wear the hat if you don’t want to. You can just get up and walk out.
As humans we’re hardwired to need companionship. Even when our family hurts us, it’s hard to just “get up and walk out”. Where are we supposed to go? But if you’re aware now that you’re the black sheep of your family, it may be time to do something. It certainly is not any fun to feel like an outcast every time you’re together. It can do real psychological damage too.
So how can you take your power back from your family? How can you begin to heal, and care for yourself in the process?
As the marginalized family member, what would it take to make you feel more comfortable around your family? Put some serious thought into it. Are there any arrangements you could make that would help level the playing field in your mind?
Maybe it’s easiest for you if you only see your family on holidays, or if you communicate via group text instead of in real time. Perhaps certain topics are real triggers and you’d prefer to avoid them with your family altogether. Or you don’t wish to see a certain family member, ever.
There is nothing wrong, in fact there is everything right, about putting up some boundaries to protect you from your family. What do you require to feel safe around them? Identify it and make it known.
Stand Your Ground
If there are things that can be done in that realm, say them with conviction. You will not be in the same room with _______, or you only want to be in public spaces with your family, or whatever it is. State what you need and then don’t bend.
In fact, stand your ground in everything you say and do with your family. Call them out on what you see them doing, what’s happening, and how that dynamic is affecting you. Look them in the eyes as you do. Don’t flinch, wait for them to look away. Abusive family members need to be made accountable.
Go To Therapy
Constantly being made the outcast of one’s family has a way of leaving some damage behind. Perhaps you find yourself taking on the outcast role in other areas of your life. Or battling feelings of inferiority in your day to day dealings with people.
There is zero shame in talking to a professional about your past and how that’s affecting your attitudes and behaviors in the present. Many people see a therapist regularly, even when nothing is urgently affecting them. It’s often nice to have a sounding board, especially one with a specialized understanding of human behavior, no matter what’s happening in life. Therapy is one way that well-rounded people keep getting better and better.
Find A New Tribe
That need for human connection is real. If we can’t find it authentically with our family of origin, the logical next step is to build connections and familial bonds with others. Those who can love us the way we need to be loved.
If our family never showed up for us in the way we needed, that’s on them. What we need now is to know that their behavior is not a reflection of our worth, to understand our own value, and find people who see that value too.
The right people feel different to us on virtually every level, even a chemical and cellular level. When we are with people who see our value, it gives us those safe feelings we crave to our core. With our safety intact, we can begin the process of healing.
If you’re the black sheep, marginalized family member, scapegoat, or identified patient of your own family, the most important thing to be aware of is that it’s them, not you. But another crucial thing to know is that it likely left some residual feelings and behaviors that don’t necessarily serve the stronger and healthier person you’re becoming. This is why standing your ground and seeing a professional may be two of the most important things you can do as a recovering black sheep.
Don’t let them marginalize you, but don’t you go marginalizing yourself either! You’re worth celebrating, and the most important people in your world should 100% appreciate that.