I’ve never met a family that didn’t have a black sheep. Ask them who it is, and they’ll identify it quickly. The same name. The same repeated offenses, real or imagined. One of these things is not like the others.
Many families even have intergenerational black sheep. There’s a child from every generation who is said to have the poor qualities of the generational black sheep who came before. It’s a curse handed down, and it sounds like, You’re just like — fill in the name of any relative with a bad reputation. Then, the offenses are compounded. The black sheep is meant to answer for their own choices and those of the previous generations.
Everyone will say that the black sheep is the problem in the family. They’re the marginalized family scapegoat. If the family’s dysfunctional, they’re the reason. In reality, the black sheep is the key to solving the dysfunction — just not in the way one might think.
How the Black Sheep is the Key
As a former therapist, I often met with families who had identified the problem. The black sheep was presented to me. If I could “fix” them, I could fix the family. My answer to this was rarely met with acceptance or approval.
The black sheep isn’t actually the problem. The black sheep is a symptom of a systemic problem within the family. This is the part where families would strongly object to this idea.
Family Systems Theory and the Black Sheep
Yet, Dr. Murray Bowen developed family systems theory to explain how individual behavior in families is directly impacted and explained by the system as a whole. The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition) described it best:
According to a family systems perspective, an individual’s functioning is determined not so much by intrapsychic factors as by a person’s place in the system(s) in which he or she finds himself or herself, subject to the pushes and pulls of the system, including competing emotional demands, role definitions and expectations, boundary and hierarchy issues, coalitions and collusions, loyalty conflicts, family and institutional culture and belief systems, double binds, projective identifications, and systemic anxiety. In addition, self-correcting and self-reinforcing feedback loops in a system can either facilitate or hinder pathology or health, breakdown or resilience. ~W. H. Watson
In other words, the individual’s behavior cannot be separated from the family system. The black sheep is simply highlighting systemic issues. In fact, the black sheep has the best position with which to break the generational cycle by refusing to participate in a flawed and dysfunctional system. Their rebellion and refusal to follow the written or unwritten family rules can be a driving force for change.
Breaking the Curse for Future Generations
Sometimes, the black sheep chooses to leave the family system in order to better thrive in a new system. But in rare cases, the black sheep brings system dysfunction to the surface and allows a family a chance to correct the flaws that lead to ostracizing and isolating a particular family member. Their struggles can create opportunities for change within a family — change that can echo through future generations.
Every family's black sheep knows that they don’t belong. They know it because they’ve likely been told it a time or two. But family members aren’t meant to be carbon copies of one another. A healthy family system allows for individual differences and accepts them. There is room for multiple ways of living and being. There’s no demand to conform to the other members’ lifestyles. They’re still loved even if they are different.
Black sheep serve a distinct purpose in families. They are a distraction. They protect the illusion of the perfect family. If the person is the problem, then the system is fine. But the system is broken, and nothing is fine.
“Do not cringe and make yourself small if you are called the black sheep, the maverick, the lone wolf. Those with slow seeing say that a nonconformist is a blight on society. But it has been proven over the centuries, that being different means standing at the edge, that one is practically guaranteed to make an original contribution, a useful and stunning contribution to her culture.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
Healthy Families vs. Unhealthy Families
Let’s be clear: It’s not the responsibility of the black sheep to repair family issues. But if we recognize a black sheep in our families, we can begin looking at the system that is creating a need for a scapegoat. We can examine our family’s culture to determine if it’s a healthy environment for all the members or if is toxic. It cannot be a healthy environment if it’s hostile to some of its members.
Healthy families contain the following characteristics:
- Healthy boundaries — both emotional and physical
- Fair and age-appropriate rules
- Healthy expectations
- Acceptance and forgiveness for mistakes
- Safety and security for all members
- Respecting opinions
- Respecting and meeting personal needs
Dysfunctional families, however, lack the healthy conditions that encourage individual growth and expression. All it takes to be labeled as the black sheep is to be different enough from the others that we stand out. We then become ostracized for breaking the imagined “perfect family” mold.
“We’ve all been in positions where we felt out of place or not accepted for whatever reason. For me, that’s been my life. I’ve always been that person that stood out. And what makes you an outcast is what makes you unique, and you should harness that. Being a black sheep gives you creative license to do sh*t differently.” ~Andre Hueston Mack
We might think of the black sheep as being the troublemaker of families, but that’s not always true. For instance, in my religious and conservative family, I became the black sheep when I stopped attending church and expressed liberal politics. The family’s scapegoat doesn’t have to be the argumentative person who brings chaos. They just have to be an outlier within the system. In a healthy family, there’s room for individual differences.
What To Do If You Have a Black Sheep
If a black sheep can be identified within a family, there are some steps to take to create a healthier family system. While a single person cannot repair a dysfunctional family, we can still choose to break free from our part in the dysfunction. We can do our best to foster a healthier environment.
Examine Family Boundaries and Expectations
We might think that everyone in a family is expected to follow the same rules, but this doesn’t account for individual differences or temperament. It also assumes that the parent or parents making the rules are without bias. Does the family have healthy boundaries where members are allowed individual space and identities as well as time spent together? Are the expectations the same for each family member, or do different siblings have different expectations based on their family position?
“If you want the unvarnished truth about a family, always ask the black sheep — who has nothing to lose by being honest.” ~Henry Cloud
Accept That the Black Sheep is a Symptom, Not the Problem
It’s important to examine the culture of our families to determine why we’re scapegoating a member. As we take a closer look at the family structure, it can become easier to dismantle our belief systems surrounding the black sheep. If we’re willing to accept that the system is the problem, we’ll begin to grow toward a solution.
If we’ve been a party to scapegoating, we can begin to correct that behavior. Instead of handing down intergenerational curses by proclaiming one member has the negative characteristics of a previous one, we can see their behavior as an individual choice rather than the result of predestination. By allowing room for the black sheep to be themselves without judgment, we improve the health of the system — one member at a time.
Part of accepting that the black sheep isn’t the actual family problem involves refusing to gossip about them to other members or repeating their past transgressions. Forgiveness is a decision we make for ourselves, not for the people who have hurt us. We can also remind ourselves that we all make mistakes, and no one wants to spend a lifetime answering for every one of them.
What To Do If You Are the Black Sheep
As a family black sheep, I can report that it’s an isolating, lonely experience. We all want to feel that sense of family belonging. There are a few things we can do if we are the family scapegoat.
Go to Therapy
Everyone needs therapy, not just the black sheep, but because black sheep are often marginalized and targeted within the system, they might need the additional support of a therapist. The family scapegoat often carries a great deal of grief for the family experience they wanted but didn’t have. Therapy can help us mourn that idealized family and also help us heal from childhood trauma. Additionally, a professional therapist can help us learn better coping, communication, and conflict-resolution skills.
Find a Family
It’s especially important for black sheep to find a sense of family elsewhere. It’s critical to create strong social support with people who allow us freedom and safety to be our truest selves. We might still want to attempt to heal our family, but it’s equally important to have support outside of it.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. The only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.” ~-Rob Siltanen
One of the most valuable things we can do as black sheep is to take responsibility for our participation in the toxic and dysfunctional family system. In therapy, I learned the ways that I had participated in escalating family conflict. While my knee-jerk reaction was to cut off all family members following a disagreement, I learned through extensive trauma therapy how to address my own triggers so that I could function in a healthy way with my family. While the toxic system is real, we’re all responsible for our participation in it.
Being the black sheep can harm our sense of self-worth. It’s essential that we realize that we are not the problem — we are only a symptom of a broader family issue. Learning this can be vital to reframing our past experiences and accepting that we are worthy and loveable even if we weren’t made to feel that way. Building self-esteem and self-worth can help us as we recover from our black sheep identity.
Most of the families I’ve encountered have dysfunction. Some just hide it better than others. Unfortunately, we normalize it to the point that we accept it as the natural way of being rather than a problem it’s in our power to change. While we can never single-handedly save an entire system, we can be a part of the change that makes it better.
Every black sheep knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. Every family with a black sheep knows what it’s like to point a finger and place the blame. But families are far more complicated than they seem on the surface.
If there’s a need for a scapegoat, there’s a problem. Families should be the safe place where we’re loved and accepted for exactly who we are. When that doesn’t happen, when conditions are placed on that love and acceptance, the system turns hostile — and not even the healthiest members can escape the fallout.
Originally published on Medium