Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in your family? Maybe you don’t have anything in common with them, or you feel like you can’t relate to them. Maybe you’ve been rejected by your family. Maybe your family doesn’t accept you for who you are.
This is sometimes called being the “black sheep” of the family, which is a phrase you’ve probably heard before. It draws the image of a lone black sheep in a herd of typical white sheep – the one that’s different or an outlier in some way.
Some people use this phrase jokingly. For example, you might say you’re the black sheep because everyone in your family but you has red hair. But truly being outcast by your family is no joke. This type of familial rejection can damage your self esteem and lead to mental health effects.
So what does it mean to be the black sleep, and what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?
How do people become the black sheep of the family?
There are a wide range of reasons why someone might become the black sheep of their family, but it almost always has to do with some significant difference between them and the rest of their family members. In other words, they stand out in a way the family can’t accept.
Being the “black sheep” also comes on a spectrum. Some people might feel like they don’t quite fit in with their family but continue to have a generally positive relationship with them. Others might be completely rejected, ostracized, or even cut off by their families. Any level of familial rejection can lead to emotional effects.
It’s important to remember that being the black sheep of your family may not have anything to do with you and your behaviors. Being the black sheep does not mean anything is wrong with you.
Some of the most common reasons people feel like the black sheep of their family include:
- Differences in overall values
- Differences in religious belief
- Differences in political affiliation
- Physical differences (like race, hair color, or having tattoos)
- Differences in occupation (or having a job that is rejected by your family members)
- Choice in life partner being rejected by your family
- Familial abandonment and rejection due to your identity (such as being part of the LGBTQ+ community)
- Having a mental health condition or substance use disorder
- Differences in financial status
In addition, some people may be rejected by their families (and, in many ways, forced to be the “black sheep”) while others may choose to create distance with their families due to significant differences.
For example, someone who chooses to leave the family religion could be ostracized by their family members. Others could simply feel like they don’t quite “fit in” with their family because of value or lifestyle differences. You might see this with someone who left their small rural village to study at a university in a big city.
Living with mental health struggles could also lead to rejection from your family. This could be real rejection – your family telling you that you may not attend family events until you recover from substance use disorder. But it could also be perceived rejection – living with depression could cause you to have thoughts that no one understands you or you’re not worthy of anyone’s love.
It’s important to note that some people become the family scapegoat from the time they are young children, thus being “black sheeped” not due to any differences but simply due to family dynamics.
Scapegoating frequently happens in dysfunctional family systems, like families that are affected by addiction. In these families, all adults play a role in the dysfunction; one parent may struggle with addiction while the other might be codependent.
But in these dysfunctional families, one person is often used as the scapegoat, or blamed for all family problems. For example, a child could be blamed for “stressing the parents out” and causing them to use drugs and alcohol.
How being the black sheep can affect you
No matter why you are (or feel you are) the black sheep of your family, the effects can be incredibly painful.
The relationships you have with your family members, particularly your caretakers, dictate the attachment style you develop. An unhealthy attachment style (which can be caused by being rejected by important family members) can lead you to have poor mental health and troubled relationship patterns as an adult.
Being rejected by your family can also be a form of childhood trauma. Like any type of childhood trauma, it could lead to mental health challenges as an adult.
How to cope if you are the black sheep of your family
If you are the black sheep of your family, then you’ve probably felt the effects of it throughout your life. Although there may not be a way to mend the relationship you have with your family (especially if they’ve rejected you for who you are, not what you do), there are ways to cope with the effects.
First of all, no matter what has led you to become the black sheep, practice self-compassion. Being rejected by your family in this way can cause you to doubt yourself. You might start wondering if you’ve done something to deserve this treatment and have thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me?”
Some people may also feel guilty about the ways they’ve contributed to the damaged family relationship, such as hurting your family due to addiction. Even so, it’s important to practice self-compassion. Hating yourself will only make the situation worse.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher on self-compassion, says there are 3 essential components to self-compassion:
- Self-kindness: Even if you have made mistakes, treat yourself with kindness and gentleness. Talk to yourself as you would a dear friend. For example: “You have been rejected by your family, and you didn’t deserve that. You deserve to be loved and cared for.”
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification: Notice your thoughts and feelings without becoming attached to them. These thoughts and feelings do not define you, just as your role in your family does not define you.
- Shared Humanity: Realize these painful feelings are things that have been felt, and are being felt, in this very moment by so many other people across the globe. Sadly, there are so many people who are the black sheep of their families. This experience connects you to a shared human experience.
Make necessary amends
If your behaviors have ever contributed to the strained relationship you have with your family, you can try to make any possible amends.
Perhaps you emotionally or physically hurt a family member while you were in active addiction. Make sincere apologies. If you have done any work to recover from substance use disorder, let them know.
This isn’t about taking on all of the blame. There are so many parts to a damaged family relationship. This tip may not be relevant or useful to you if you have been rejected by your family due to no fault of your own. But, if your behaviors have led your family to create distance from you, then apologizing may help repair the harm.
Consider communicating how you feel
Some people may choose to communicate how they feel to their family members. It’s important to reflect and decide whether this will be a fruitful and safe conversation for you. You know your family best, and there are ways to heal from familial rejection without talking to the people who hurt you. Your physical and emotional safety should always come first.
If you do decide to have a conversation with your family, use effective communication skills. Let them know how you feel without making personal attacks. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re a horrible mother and you always made me feel like I didn’t belong,” you might say, “I feel really rejected and outcasted when you make negative remarks about my job.”
Let your family know clearly what changes you’d like to see in their behavior. For example: “I need you to stop making derogatory comments about my profession and respect that I work hard.”
Remember your strengths
Being the black sheep of the family can greatly affect your self-esteem. So it may help to consciously recall all of the strengths and qualities that make you who you are. Some of the things you love about yourself might be the very things that might make you different from your family, and that’s perfectly okay.
If you’re the black sheep because you’ve chosen not to follow your family’s religion, you might admire your own bravery and open-mindedness. You might love how you are true to yourself and your values, or that you’ve worked hard to build a unique identity.
Take time to intentionally reflect on these strengths, which make you who you are.
Connect to “chosen family”
If your biological family has made you their black sheep, then it may be helpful, and even necessary, to connect with other people who truly love you for you. We often call this a “chosen family,” people who you feel bonded to regardless of DNA and biology.
Having a strong social support network is essential for recovering from mental health struggles like depression or substance use. Connecting to your chosen family can remind you that you have a place in the world where you belong, regardless of how your biological family may treat you.
Mental health therapy can also help you cope with the effects of being the black sheep. A therapist can help you explore the family dynamics that have led to this point and determine whether or not these family relationships are worth trying to improve. You could also consider inviting your family to family therapy where you can discuss (and work to improve) these dynamics together.
If you’ve been the black sheep of your family, then you likely feel rejected and maybe even depressed. You may have used substances to cope with the emotional pain, which may have put further distance between you and your family.
Being the black sheep of the family can absolutely be a form of trauma. At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we offer a unique trauma recovery program using our proven Whole Person Care method. Whole Person Care means we see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through.
We go as deep as we need to address your medical, physical, psychological, emotional, relational, familial, nutritional, fitness and spiritual needs and help you emerge as your true and full self.
Schedule a callback with us, and we’ll call you back at a time that works for you.