On Being The Black Sheep Of The Family: Signs, Effects, Coping Mechanisms

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A regular Sesame Street song included the lyrics “one of these things just doesn’t belong here.”

It was used to help children learn about things that are different.

You know, like a black sheep among a herd of white ones.

To be the “black sheep” of the family means that you’re not considered one of the herd, so to speak.

It’s a situation that can be incredibly alienating, and it can affect other relationships throughout one’s life.

What is a black sheep of the family?

Before we dive into how to cope with being the odd one out, let’s take a good look at what it means exactly to be the black sheep in your own herd.

There are two major definitions of a black sheep of the family:

Definition #1 is a person who deviates from the rest of the family’s ideas and expectations. For instance, an artist in a family of doctors, or a queer person in a family of religious conservatives. Ultimately, it’s a person whose values, interests, beliefs, personal characteristics, and even basic personality traits are at odds with their families.

Definition #2 is the scapegoat. When it comes to family dynamics, just about everyone will play a particular role. For instance, one parent may be the nurturer and the other is the disciplinarian. One sibling might be the mischievous joker of the family, while another is quite serious and studious.

In dysfunctional family dynamics, there are also roles that may be played. There’s usually a “golden child” who can do no wrong, and a scapegoat who gets all the blame and criticism. There are other dynamics like the baby of the family, the peacemaker, and the mascot.

Whenever something goes wrong, the family will inevitably blame the scapegoat for it. They become the emotional punching bag for everyone around them, while also being ostracized. It would be like everyone in a village giving one person their diseases, and then casting that person out because they’re diseased.

What are the signs that you are the black sheep in your family?

This will differ depending on whether you’re type 1 or type 2 as per the definitions mentioned above.

Signs that you’re the black sheep because of personal differences (i.e. type 1):

  • You’re constantly berated for not looking, dressing, or behaving like everyone else
  • Family members criticize or shame you in an attempt to control you
  • Family members talk about you behind your back (often within earshot)
  • You’re excluded from events and gatherings because they don’t want to be embarrassed by you
  • You’re not told about important things, whether they affect you or not
  • Your parents shame or mock you in front of relatives or strangers
  • Family members are condescending towards you and your opinions: since they’re different, you must be wrong
  • Things that you like or appreciated are mocked
  • You’re often told that you’re just “going through a phase” and will either grow out of your personality or come to your senses in time
  • You may try to behave differently in order to gain their approval by fitting in, only nothing you ever do is ever right, or enough
  • Nobody acknowledges any of your achievements
  • You learned a long time ago to keep personal details to yourself because you’ll be ridiculed
  • Everyone makes it clear to you that you’re not liked or wanted, either by telling you that straight out or treating you like you don’t exist

Signs that you’re the black sheep because you’re the family scapegoat (i.e. type 2):

  • When you do something wrong, their reactions are extreme and blown out of proportion
  • Your punishments for missteps are far harsher than your siblings receive for the same types of behavior (e.g. they get a talking to, you get grounded for a month)
  • You’re constantly criticized, even when you’re not doing anything wrong at all
  • Chances are you may call out poor behavior, which will earn you their anger
  • Your “imperfections” in their eyes were constantly belittled and mocked
  • Many scapegoats have chronic illnesses or neurodivergence, which their family uses as an excuse for everything that’s wrong in their world (e.g. referring to you as a burden or constant problem)
  • You may have to deal with completely random bouts of verbal and physical abuse, unlike other family members
  • If you told your family that you were being bullied or mistreated by others, they likely brushed it off as you being dramatic
  • You are/were regularly called names, and made fun of/mocked for various things you say or do
  • You’re used as the “cautionary tale” for younger family members: siblings and cousins are warned against turning out like you, and threatened with punishment or disownment if they do
  • Family members use you as an emotional punching bag to release their negative energy
  • You may feel pushed and pulled because they’ll come to you for help one moment and then tell you that you’re worthless or stupid the next
  • The more you succeed and thrive, the more they criticize you and cut you down
  • They really have no idea of who you are outside of their skewed perspective – they might not know your favorite color, music, books, films, and they might not even know what you do for a living

Ultimately, the family scapegoat exists solely at the family’s convenience. It’s like they don’t have a personality or life of their own – they’re just there to project and dump everyone’s negativity onto.

What are the effects of being the black sheep?

For both types, feelings of alienation are inevitable. Home never feels like a safe place, because it isn’t. Either you’re dealing with an inflexible, unaccepting family that makes you feel unwelcome in your own environment, or you’re constantly being abused simply for existing.

Effects on type 1:

Type 1 black sheep might be excluded from family functions because they refuse to conform. Furthermore, they may be punished for being themselves rather than making the effort to “fit in.”

For example, if they still live at home, they might lose internet privileges for not dressing respectably. Abusive parents might take away essential rights and privileges like removing a bedroom door or denying the black sheep food or new clothing if they don’t behave the way the family wants them to.

Black sheep who no longer live at home may find themselves blacklisted from holiday get-togethers, and may even be denied information about people they care about. They might inquire about how their grandmother is doing only to be told that she died a month before and they hadn’t been invited to the funeral. Or they may be told flat out that they’re not allowed to attend a cousin’s wedding because they’re in a same-sex relationship.

Every aspect of their family life reinforces the fact that they’re different, and different is bad. They don’t belong.

In the parents’ minds, maybe they were switched at birth, or perhaps the mother did something wrong during her pregnancy that resulted in such an abomination. After all, how could someone who thinks or acts the way that you do share their DNA? They just can’t understand how that happened, and they’re not about to stand for it either.

Usually this results in an ultimatum: either the black sheep has to learn how to conform, or they’re not allowed to be part of the family.

Type 2 repercussions:

With type 2, the person can develop all kinds of psychological and emotional pain responses.

For instance, they may have complex post-traumatic stress disorder from having lived in stressful situations for long periods of time. Or they might develop borderline or disassociative disorders from not being able to have their fundamental needs met.

Many people in this category end up suffering from some pretty serious self-esteem issues. They might develop eating disorders or become rampant overachievers in an attempt to gain recognition and respect. Often, they’ll feel that if they finally achieve perfection in their family’s eyes, they’ll finally be loved and respected.

But this can never happen.

They will forever be the family dumping ground, no matter what they do. The black sheep might attain countless accolades from their peers, even global recognition for their achievements. But their family members won’t give a damn, and might even mock them for what they’ve done. “Oh, you won a Nobel prize for that? Don’t they know what kind of a failure you really are? They must have given the prize to the wrong person.”

Additionally, when it comes to this type of scapegoating abuse, one can end up feeling incredibly betrayed by other family members.

For example, if there was a sibling or parent in the “peacemaker” role, they were (are?) likely aware of the abuse that’s happening, but they choose not to say or do anything about it so as to keep the peace. They might talk to you later on and let you know that they see what’s going on and they feel bad, but they won’t defend you – either in the moment, or with other people like therapists or authorities.

This can make things so much worse. There’s a person close to you who knows exactly what’s going on, but due to their own cowardice and desire for the illusion of harmony, they choose not to stand up for what’s right. That can be an even bigger betrayal than the abuse itself.

Furthermore, it can cause the abused person to develop severe trust issues. Not only were they mistreated by people they love, but those they thought they could turn to for help have proven that they won’t.

How can a person cope with being the black sheep?

This will depend entirely on the individual, as well as whether being the black sheep is due to their own leanings, or being scapegoated by others.

For type 1 black sheep:

If a person is the black sheep because their natures – along with aspects like religious, political, and social leanings – are different from everyone else’s, then there are a number of ways to negotiate those realms.

You can agree to find middle ground to keep the peace at family gatherings, with everyone agreeing to keep topics of contention off the table. Similarly, if you’re a rebel amongst conservative folks, you can pretend to assimilate as best you can while in their company.

Of course, you can also take the complete opposite approach, also known as “no f*cks given.” You can be full-on true to yourself and heavens help the people who try to give you crap about your authenticity. This isn’t going to do much in the way of maintaining familial harmony, but if they can’t love and accept you unconditionally, then you might as well stop trying to blend in.

As you can imagine, there’s a wide spectrum that can be negotiated here. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are pretending to be something you’re not for the sake of keeping the peace.

For type 2 black sheep:

The situation where you are being scapegoated tends to be far more challenging. That said, it once again comes down to what the individual is comfortable with accepting.

Those who are highly sensitive may feel immense pain at being scapegoated by their family members. In contrast, less sensitive people might quickly stop giving a damn whether they’re accepted or not.

The former person might become hypervigilant about any possible missteps and try to alter themselves to become the person their family wants them to be.

Meanwhile the latter will disassociate, disconnect, and barely have anything to do with those around them. They’ll likely leave home as soon as they can. Some might stay in occasional contact, but others will do the emotional equivalent of walking over a bridge and tossing a grenade behind them.

Here’s some advice that applies to both types of black sheep…

1. Decide what you’re willing to tolerate.

If you want to stay in contact with your family – or if you have little choice but to do so for various reasons – then it’s up to you to decide which of their behaviors you’re willing to tolerate. You may simply roll your eyes at some of the things they say, while putting your foot down about others.

As an example, your dysfunctional family might refuse to acknowledge that you have grown and changed as a person over time. They might insist on trying to replay the exact same roles you had when you were much younger. Some might get really aggressive and domineering about it, while others will make subtle digs.

Let’s say that you’ve gone through post-secondary education, have a great job, your own place, and a stable relationship. You go back to your parents’ place for a holiday dinner and they barely acknowledge any of your achievements. If they do, it’s only to make fun of them, e.g. your partner isn’t attractive enough, your job is demeaning, your home is too small, etc.

Then they’ll likely bring up a situation that caused you distress or embarrassment when you were younger and watch you like a hawk to see how you react. If you don’t get upset or uncomfortable, thus giving them the energy that they’re seeking, they’ll repeat it. Again and again until they get a reaction out of you.

If and when this happens, you can either choose to ignore it completely, or turn it around so they really appear like the a**hole. For instance, you can remind them in slow tones that said situation happened 15 or 20 years ago (or whatever time period has passed). Then suggest that if they’re so fixated on that like it’s a recent occurrence, maybe they should be evaluated for Alzheimer’s or dementia.

That should at the very least make them think twice about mocking you about it in the future. After all, if you can turn things around to make them feel uncomfortable, then that’s not something they want to experience.

2. Create as much distance as you can.

This can be difficult to do if you have to live with your family for one reason or another. Maybe you’re too young to live on your own yet, or you have disabilities that prevent you from being able to live independently. Alternatively, your parents might be disabled or elderly and you have to stay with them as a caregiver.

If you’re able to have physical distance from those who are causing you so much pain and grief, then do so. People can’t hurt you if they have little to no access to you. And since you’re already left out and ostracized from their world, there won’t be much of a change. You might just get the occasional mean text or abusive phone message to let you know what a disappointment you are.

Fortunately, the “delete” button is a great friend to have in times like this.

If you have to remain in contact with these people, then learn to cultivate the “gray rock” demeanor. Basically, you don’t allow them to affect you emotionally. You pretend to be made of gray stone: they can’t affect your emotions, and you certainly don’t show them that they have any kind of effect on you.

Whatever they say or do might as well be bouncing off a granite wall. Acknowledge things they say with short, completely neutral responses, and show zero emotion. Don’t ask questions, do not engage. They’ll either get bored with trying to get a rise out of you, or simply walk away because they don’t consider you worth interacting with. It’s win-win for you either way.

3. Don’t be afraid to set healthy boundaries, and defend them fiercely.

Once again, this is easier to do if you don’t live with your family members, but it can also be done if you’re still at home. Just be prepared to deal with a maelstrom of fallout from daring to assert boundaries for your own well-being and self-protection.

One thing you can do is make it very clear to them that you won’t tolerate abusive language towards you. If they don’t approve of your fashion sense, chosen career, etc. that’s fine, but if they call you names or insult you, then you’ll walk away and won’t interact with them. You can even leave the house and go stay with friends or at a hotel if they don’t curb their behavior.

If you don’t live at home and they pull this crap over the phone, respond that you’ve told them flat out that you won’t tolerate abuse from them, and hang up. Then don’t answer their calls for a day or two.

If they insult you the next time you talk to them, repeat that you will not tolerate abusive language towards you, and hang up again. This time, don’t answer the phone for a week. Keep repeating this as necessary until the lesson sinks in. Then repeat it when they inevitably do so again.

They will try to overstep your boundaries, so you might as well get used to that idea. This might include intentionally using your deadname if you’re transitioning gender, or making intentional digs about your partner, job, etc. just to see what they can get away with.

Allow them no leeway when this happens: actions have consequences, and if they want you in their lives at all, they’ll have to learn to play by your rules.

An additional note here: if you ever feel that you’re in real danger, or if their abuse escalates to a point where you can’t take it anymore, don’t hesitate to get authorities involved. Call the police if they get physically violent or if they threaten you with violence.

You can also reach out to authorities if your family members threaten to send you back to your home country and/or try to arrange a marriage for you that you don’t want. That falls under the auspice of “human trafficking,” and there are organizations that can help to protect you.

Familiarize yourself with protective services in your area and don’t be afraid to reach out for help when and if you need it. Being the black sheep of the family is difficult enough on its own, but excruciating when and if you’re threatened with suffering life-altering circumstances because you don’t fit an ideal of what your family wanted.

4. Recognize that you will never “belong” with these people.

And furthermore, recognize that this isn’t a bad thing. As uncomfortable as they make you feel for being different, pretending to be something you’re not for the sake of the illusion of fitting in would be far worse. Especially because – and we cannot stress this sufficiently – nothing you do will ever be good enough for them.

You know what? That’s okay.

Some of the most memorable people who have ever lived on this planet have been the black sheep of their families. Director Francis Ford Coppola was practically disowned by his family for being “too weird,” and Richard Branson was told by a former headmaster at school that he’d likely end up in prison. Furthermore, countless celebrities – musicians, actors, and more – defied their families’ expectations of them and healed from the abuse suffered at their hands to pursue their dreams.

Sometimes, being the odd one out is the greatest gift one could ever receive.

5. Let go of ideas of how things “should have been.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” is something I hear from so many people, especially with regard to their family dynamics. After all, their parents should have loved and accepted them as they are. Their siblings should have loved and defended them. And so on and so forth.

In truth, nothing “should” be any particular way because existence is completely random. Parents who are disappointed in their children because they “should have” fit in with the others are guilty of having unfair expectations of their offspring. In turn, those who mourn the fact that their childhoods “should have” been more loving or supportive are going by the expectation that those situations are the norm.

In reality, parents are people and people can be seven thousand shades of messed up.

When we’re children, we don’t have terribly wide perspectives on who our parents are. Many children don’t even realize that their parents have lives outside of childcare, cooking, and chauffeur services. It’s not until we’re much older that our perspectives shift and widen.

That mother who was unable to love you properly when you were a child may have had PTSD from her own childhood abuse. Or perhaps the father who tried to control you and force you to be like everyone else was crippled by anxiety, and only felt “safe” if everything (and everyone) around him fell into roles he could understand.

In simplest terms, try to make peace with the fact that there is an underlying reason behind everyone’s behaviors. Yeah, trauma sucks and being raised by people who don’t (or can’t) love and accept you is incredibly difficult. Their behaviors likely stem from their own trauma, however, and those who hurt them were likely traumatized as well.

Things could have been different if life had played out differently, but this is how things are. Work with what you have, change what you can, and accept what is.

6. Own it.

This can either be the simplest technique mentioned here, or the most difficult, depending on what kind of a person you are. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that you’ll never fit in, things can actually get a lot more comfortable.

All of a sudden, there’s either no pressure on you to be something that you’re not, or you simply don’t care that other people are dumping their bullsh*t onto you. Basically, everything that’s been weighing on you for so long simply sloughs off like water off a duck’s back.

Quite simply, when you wake up to the realization that you are who you are, you like who you are, and other people’s opinions just don’t matter, there’s an extraordinary sense of freedom. The chains of expectation and obligation just fall off you and you’re free to live your life however you choose to.

7. Revel in the benefits that being a black sheep can bring.

Although many of the effects we discussed here can be construed as negative, there are also some positive benefits to embracing life as the black sheep.

For one, you’re likely far more independent than those who are firmly enmeshed in family dynamics. When you have to do everything yourself, you learn to do everything on your own! This means that you’re an immensely capable person who knows more and can do more than pretty much anyone else you know.

Some families can get resentful when offspring or siblings ask for help with various issues. They can even lord those things over one another, saying that since they had to help with home repair, taxes, etc. they’re “owed” something in return. Guess what doesn’t happen when you sort things out for yourself?

These people can’t have any power over you if you don’t turn to them for help with anything. In fact, that lack of traction can turn the tables in your favor instead. Not only will they see that you don’t need them, but they might start to worry about what might happen if they need you at some point in the future.

Neglectful and abusive parents who were awful to their kids when they were younger can often get attentive and giving as they age. This isn’t any kind of sincere altruism, of course, but rather an act of self-preservation. Be wary of those who are suddenly kind and generous to you after years of cruelty or neglect. It’s likely that they’re just aware of the fact that they’re aging and will need to be cared for, so they’re trying to manipulate the situation to their benefit.

Dysfunctional and abusive families use exclusion as a means of manipulation: be obedient and behave the way they want you to and you might be lucky enough to be invited back. When you show them that you don’t actually care if you’re excluded, then they lose the upper hand. They lose the very tool they thought they had to bend you to their will.

You don’t need them, and they don’t like that much.

8. Surround yourself with good people.

It’s awful to constantly feel unwanted and belittled by those who were supposed to love you unconditionally.

Instead of having achievements acknowledged or personal traits appreciated, there’s nothing but criticism and cruelty 24/7.

And heavens help you if you deviate from trying to appease them on a constant basis. You can spend every waking moment trying to be the version of yourself that they won’t hate quite as much, but if you slip up, their fury will come crashing down on you.

The best thing to do in a situation like this is to stay as far away from those who mistreat you as possible. You’re under no obligation to remain in contact with your family simply because you share DNA or adoption bonds. If people treat you badly, you are completely within your rights to cut them out of your life. You can either go low-contact (LC) or no-contact (NC) depending on what you’re willing to tolerate.

Just make sure that you know on a fundamental level that these are not people whom you can turn to for any kind of emotional support. They won’t be there for you in a crisis, and showing them any kind of weakness will simply replenish the arsenal they’ll use against you.

Instead, make a point of finding your “tribe” and cultivating a community in which you’re loved and accepted as you are. Remember that a chosen family is no less valid than the one you were born or adopted into. In fact, chosen families are often far more loving and supportive than the one that raised you.

Additionally, people who have supportive social circles tend to not feel as anxious or depressed when they get excluded from various things. Your biological family didn’t invite you home for Christmas? Who cares! You’re having a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Yule buffet extravaganza with your chosen fam and won’t be giving those jerks a second thought.

9. Ask those you love to tell you how they feel about you.

This is a great technique for when you’re feeling crap about yourself because your so-called family is treating you poorly.

Reach out to your social circle and ask them to let you know what they like about you. If they don’t already know that you’re being treated badly, you can open up to them a bit. Or, if you’re not ready to go into detail, offer the generic reason that you’re feeling down and could use a boost.

When they respond, copy and paste their answers into a printable document. Then print those out on colorful papers, and cut out each response. Fold these up and pop them into a big decorative jar.

The next time the jerks in your life see fit to blame you for everything going wrong in their lives, or criticize you simply for being who you are, grab that container. Make yourself a tasty beverage and pull some of the responses out of the jar. You’ll be reminded of all the amazing people in your life who absolutely adore you and think the world of you.

Many people place great importance on their family members’ thoughts and opinions of them because of the idea of what “family” is supposed to mean. But when you’re in an abusive family, that ideal gets thrown out the window. When you read the lovely things your chosen family say about you, there may be the inclination to dismiss them because the family that raised you feels differently.

This is akin to the idea that you can do wonderful things 364 days a year and nobody will remember it, but if you make a mistake, nobody will ever forget it (nor will they let you forget it either).

Try to turn that around so you can look at the numbers objectively.

If you took 1000 health tests and 999 of them came back positive, would you believe the single negative test? Or the 999 positive ones? Similarly, if an experiment is successful 99% of the time, but failed once, would it be considered a success? Or a failure?

Look at the sheer number of people who are telling you that they love you. That you’re smart, kind, and loving, and they appreciate all you do for them. They’re proud of your accomplishments, they see your worth, and they place great value on having you in their lives. If 99% of the people in your life are singing your praises, please try to believe them.

Those who are putting you down aren’t worth your time.

10. Learn from this experience, stop the cycles, and embrace your unicorn self.

One of the worst aspects of familial dysfunction is the fact that it tends to be cyclical. In fact, you may have winced when and if you’ve said things to your own children that your parents may have said to you, simply because you grew up hearing them.

Alternatively, you might have seriously critical self-talk going on in which you berate yourself for not behaving a certain way, or altering who you are to gain favor from others.

F*ck that noise! Being aware of cycles means that you can stop them from repeating, and embracing (even celebrating!) your differences ensures that you won’t plod down the same broken old track that everyone else is walking.

Being the black sheep of the family is amazing for countless reasons. It means that you can think for yourself, and you’re strong enough to stay true to who you are despite pressure from all sides to be something you’re not. That says an extraordinary amount about your integrity. You’re an amazing expression of the universe: to thine own self be true.

Still not sure how to deal with being the black sheep in your family? Given the amount of harm being in this position for a prolonged period of time can have, it is highly recommended that you seek out professional therapy to help you heal.

It’s far better to seek the help and advice of a therapist than a close friend or partner. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can provide ample coping mechanisms so that you can come to terms with how your family treated (or continue to treat) you.

A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

For you to have sought out this information means this issue is effecting you in no small way, so don’t do yourself the disservice of putting off getting help or thinking that you can tackle the issue entirely via self-help, because it’s a really difficult road to walk alone.

So seek the help you deserve today. You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. Now it’s time to do what’s right for you.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.