Are you the black sheep of your family?
If so, that might be a blessing in disguise. While your family might look down on you, it also allows you to explore the path less trodden.
Learn how you can turn being the black sheep into an advantage and what dynamics to pay attention to.
What Does It Mean To Be the Black Sheep of the Family?
When you are the black sheep of the family, you are seen as an outcast by the other members of your family.
In some form, you are not living up to the expectations of the people around you. As a result, they look down on you or even lash out at you.
Let’s say your parents had high hopes for you becoming a doctor.
But instead of being the perfect son or daughter, you chose to become an adult movie star. Now, even though you are successful at what you do, you are met with contempt.
In terms of family roles, children are more commonly vilified than parents.
When your parents met, it was clear who they were. They were fully developed adults.
But with children, everything is up to the imagination. They are young and could become anything. This potential invites their parents to project their own unfulfilled life dreams onto them.
Another factor is the size of your family. A larger family unit with more than one kid is more likely to brand someone as the black sheep.
It becomes easier to make comparisons. “Look at your brother. He has a great job and just bought a house. Why can’t you be more like him?”
The expression “black sheep” goes back to wool production. Sheep are usually born with white coloring, but due to a recessive gene, can occasionally be born with black coloring.
As it cannot be dyed, the wool of these genetic outliers traditionally sold for less. That’s why the shepherds preferred the “normal” sheep over the black sheep.
Why Do We Need Black Sheep?
As humans, we have a tendency to project our own angst onto others. Instead of dealing with it ourselves — which would require some serious soul-searching — we find a scapegoat, someone different from us. It’s a cope out.
We are familiar with this dynamic on a societal level. On whatever end of the political spectrum, unhappy people will resort to blaming others. “These freeloading immigrants!” “These evil capitalists!”
But it also happens on a family level. In Family Systems Theory, this is called the “Identified Patient.” A dysfunctional family needs an outlet for its inner conflicts, someone to redirect its collective anxiety to. The black sheep of the family acts as that outlet.
It is easy to feel sorry for yourself when you are the black sheep of your family. You are being looked down upon by the people whose approval you crave the most.
However, there are two sides to this.
The black sheep doesn’t get chosen randomly. It has to present itself.
You got chosen because you were deviating from the norm. Whatever societal narrative your parents bought into — religion, the white picket fence life, the corporate career ladder — you have questioned that paradigm.
That is something to celebrate.
Most people won’t be able to do what you did. They will live their lives on autopilot, doing what is expected of them — go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, etc.
Anything to fit in — that is the maxim they live by.
And while this certainly reduces friction, it also results in a life that is devoid of any adventure.
People who chose such lives eventually come to regret their conformity — but only at the end of their lives.
When you have nothing more to lose, then it finally dawns on you that you made a mistake. You should have taken the risk. You should have offended your family and chosen your own path.
But now it’s too late.
Fortunately, this is not you. You are already deviating. And you are able to withstand the pressure of being the black sheep, otherwise, you would have folded long ago.
It is certainly the more difficult path, and you need to make sure that you mitigate the negative side effects. Don’t get bogged down in family conflicts. We’ll talk about the best strategies for that later.
But the upsides far outweigh the downsides. You are one of the few people who have the potential to become radically free.
Instead of moaning about your lot, embrace your waywardness. Keep walking towards your quirky goals.
Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.Jodie Foster
The 3 Black Sheep Dynamics
There are three distinct black sheep dynamics. Knowing about them will help you on your journey.
1. Reversing Roles
Within a family, the black sheep status can be transferred.
When we were growing up, for the first couple of years, my brother was the black sheep. He didn’t study. He didn’t keep his room meticulously tidy. He wasn’t constantly trying to please his elders.
I did all of these things and was rewarded. He was admonished.
These roles have reversed since then. He has taken over the family business and is very successful at what he does. I am off traveling the world for most of the year, don’t hold a normal job, and refuse to get married.
2. The Temporary Black Sheep
Some people live through a black sheep phase, but in the end become as conservative as their parents.
A friend of mine in high school went through this. Whatever he could do to irritate his stuck-up parents, he did. He smoked pot. He wore outrageous clothes. He would talk back to teachers.
But towards the end of high school, he completely changed his demeanor. He went from rebel without a cause to everybody’s darling.
What was most interesting about this transformation is that he was suddenly looking down on those that had “not grown up” as he had. Other black sheep were now the target of his ridicule.
That is a common dynamic in temporary black sheep. They want to frame their transformation as a form of personal growth when in truth it’s a surrender. In the end, they didn’t choose themselves but their parents’ values. Of course, nobody likes to admit that, hence the reinterpretation.
3. The “Reformed” Haters
Sometimes, black sheep can seemingly reform those that used to disdain them.
You see these with outrageous musicians. When they were young, their musical ambitions were ridiculed or even stifled by their family.
But they went through with it anyway, beat the odds, and became successful. Now the inner family critics are suddenly swelling with pride.
This is less due to reformation and more due to opportunism. Those family members enjoy participating in their children’s fame. “Look, that is my son / my daughter!”
But take that success away, and these same people would still be criticizing.
How To Deal With It
Here is how you can handle being the black sheep of the family and even profit from it.
1. Stay Away From Triggers
If you grew up the black sheep, you have a good idea of what people and what events will trigger you.
Stop exposing yourself to these triggers. If Uncle Danny always gives you a hard time at Christmas dinner over your life choices, simply don’t attend.
Sure, that won’t go over well. But that’s not your problem. You are the black sheep of the family. You can do whatever want.
2. Don’t Let Other People Guilt-Trip You
Everybody around you might act like you are a nuisance. But the truth is that you fulfill an important function within the family unit — you provide an outlet for everybody’s suppressed resentment.
That’s why, ironically, family members will try to guilt-trip you into doing stuff with them. They need you around. Without you, there would be a void that might lead to involuntary self-reflection. That they cannot have.
Withstand that dynamic. Learn to say “No.” If you must, lie through your teeth.
It is not your job to reinforce other people’s dysfunctional patterns.
3. Speak Up
When we allow others to impose their image of us onto ourselves, it’s like being stung. In a sense, they are doing violence to you.
To counteract this, you must learn to speak up.
It won’t change anything about the other person. But it will make you feel better. It removes that sting.
This is not easy to pull off if you have years or decades of “practice” getting stung. But two strategies will help.
First, rehearse what you will say beforehand. Have arguments with yourself aloud, acting out what the other person might attack you with and then giving your response.
Second, don’t make the mistake of letting little slights slide. That’s how they get you, by working little offhanded remarks into an otherwise seemingly non-confrontational conversation.
When that happens, call them out. Say, “Hey, stop. Repeat that. Let’s talk about that.”
Over time, it will teach them that these sneaky tactics don’t work on you.
4. Do Not Hope for Change
When you speak up, do so for yourself. Don’t expect your family to see sense.
The dysfunctional dynamics you are subject to have been in place for decades. Even if go to the trouble of explaining them to your family, it won’t change anything.
So, stop trying. Instead, focus on improving the one person you actually do have control over — yourself.
5. Do Not Try To Impress
Oftentimes, black sheep will leave the family unit to seek success elsewhere. Their thinking goes, “Once I prove myself in the real world, my family will finally come to love me.”
So, one day, they come back as winners, expecting to be greeted with great fanfare.
But five minutes into the family reunion, you are back to where you started.
Understand — your success in the meantime presents a threat. It upsets the family’s homeostasis.
Don’t take it personally. It is not about what you have done or have not done. It is about them. They need things to stay as they are.
6. Become Jerry Seinfeld
There will be instances when you are too tired to argue, or it is simply not worth it. But you can still try to detach yourself from the situation.
A great trick is to pretend you are an actor in a sitcom, surrounded by a bunch of crazies.
Just like Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t expect Kramer to say anything coherent, don’t expect your family to make sense. Smile to yourself, imagine a laugh track, and sit it out.
However, don’t use this as an excuse to avoid confrontations. You must learn to stand up to your family first before you can allow for occasional timeouts.
7. Don’t Blame Them
Don’t reflect the negative energy from your family back to them.
First, as painful as it might be to be framed as the black sheep, your family is not doing it on purpose. They are probably not aware of what is going on.
Second, in their own way, they are also suffering. For example, your parents might be stuck in a terrible marriage. That’s why they are resorting to scapegoat logic.
Third, the people you have been mistreated themselves. Their wounds are being passed on to you. It’s not great, but it’s understandable.
Fourth, people are hostile toward what they don’t understand. By being different, you are questioning their view of the world. Again, unfair, but understandable.
Fifth, we become what we think about. By focusing on the negativity around you, you will spoil your own life. It’s better to redirect your attention to positive projects.
Sixth, painting yourself as the victim won’t get you anywhere. Instead of blaming others, invest all your energy into building yourself a great life, outside of your family.
8. Become Autonomous
A lot of black sheep are dependent on their families. That is no one’s fault but their own.
You can be a weirdo. But you need to be an independent weirdo.
This includes financial independence, aka your ability to pay for your life.
It includes emotional independence, aka your ability to validate yourself.
It also includes intellectual independence, aka your ability to think for yourself.
As long as you rely on your dysfunctional family, you’ll be at their mercy. Only when you become self-sufficient will their attacks miss the mark.
If you are interested in the details of that journey, check out my article, “How To Be Independent.”
9. Find Other Sources
Get over your need to feel accepted by your family. That void will never be filled.
Instead, get your emotional affection from a more reliable source.
There are plenty of options out there – a therapist, a coach, a friend, a journal, a canvas. Choose what resonates with your personality.
One of the best options is to build your personal brand online.
Start a blog, a YouTube channel, or choose one of the social media platforms. Then produce a large amount of content around your beliefs and interests.
Resist the temptation to make yourself look cooler than you are. Show yourself as you are — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
By doing so, you will attract fellow black sheep that you click with. They will reach out to you once they recognize you as a kindred spirit.
I am usually averse to all things social media, but for this purpose, it is fantastic. Just be patient; it takes a while to build critical mass.
10. Talk to People
Another great way to find your people is to systematically talk to strangers.
I did this for years. Every time I left the house, I would have to start a conversation with someone I had never met before.
As you can imagine, many of these interactions went awkwardly. A few of them went well, but then I would realize that I and this person were not on the same wavelength.
But every once in a blue moon, I would meet a fellow black sheep, someone that I immediately clicked with. Some of my of most rewarding friendships and relationships have come from such encounters. It made all the thousands of interactions worth it.
Master this, and you will be able to create a new, better tribe ad hoc, and wherever you happen to be in the world. You will never again be stranded for affection.