“The black sheep often carries a sense of shame for being different or for not meeting their family’s expectations," said therapist Imi Lo.
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Black sheep. Problem child. One bad apple among an otherwise good barrel of kids.
It doesn’t matter how it’s described. When you grow up with the reputation of being the problematic one in the family ― whether it’s because of behavior or just being different from the bunch ― it can stick with you for life, therapists say.
“The black sheep in families often carries a sense of shame for being different or for not meeting their family’s expectations,” said Imi Lo, a therapist and owner of Eggshell Therapy. “This toxic shame can be debilitating and lead to self-criticism and self-sabotage.”
Before we delve into the sometimes long-lasting impact of being a family’s black sheep, let’s take a moment to break down how people end up in this role in the first place.
Black sheep are made, not born
A black sheep is a member of a family who deviates from family expectations. They may be different in their behavior, belief systems, attitudes, life choices, identity or appearance.
What’s common among black sheep is that they’re often criticized, invalidated, isolated, scapegoated or made to feel inferior because of those differences, said Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and creator of a popular YouTube channel on mental health.
This reputation may be cultivated by family members: a parent who only speaks negatively about one child in particular, or siblings who exclude a certain child from the bunch. But it can also be a sort of self-imposed identity ― or even a badge of honor, at least later on in life.
“Being a black sheep may represent a form of rebellious individuation,” Durvasula told HuffPost. “Children crave belonging, though, and if they feel like a black sheep, it’s likely to be an unsettling and uncomfortable state for a child. It’s not till later in life that they may embrace it.”
Black sheep and “problem children” aren’t exactly analogous. The term “black sheep” is often associated with problematic behavior and not fitting in, but in some cases, the black sheep’s rebellion or difference may be celebrated in the family, Durvasula said. For instance, in a family of so-so athletes, one child growing up to be an accomplished musician could be a point of family pride.
That’s a best-case scenario. Other people struggle to shake a negative black sheep experience even into adulthood, Lo said.
“Black sheep may feel disconnected from their family members, leading to a sense of isolation and lifelong loneliness,” she said. “They may struggle to form close relationships and fear rejection.”
“The scapegoat is the child that incurs the wrath and cruelty of other family members, in some cases being bullied, or being blamed for things that go wrong,” psychologist Ramani Durvasula said.
Years of identifying as the black sheep and experiencing inconsistent love and acceptance from one’s family often result in inner doubt, self-sabotage and anxiety in outside relationships, Lo said.
“This inconsistency can lead to difficulties in maintaining a stable emotional connection with anyone ― known as lacking in ‘object constancy,’” she said.
A person experiencing this may receive affection and support from a romantic partner in one moment, only to feel blamed and criticized the next, Lo said.
“They may struggle to trust that their loved ones will remain emotionally connected when there are disagreements or conflicts,” she said. “They may push someone away before they are abandoned, for instance.”
In the worst case, black sheep may develop negative coping mechanisms ― substance abuse or self-harm, for example ― to deal with the stress and emotional burden.
Black sheep are just one role in the ‘dysfunctional family system’
Where there’s a black sheep, there are usually siblings who take on other, complementary roles. These roles are part of what therapists call dysfunctional family systems. Some of the most common roles are:
The Golden Child or Hero: The golden child is the family member who is idealized, praised and often given special treatment, Lo said. “They are expected to meet the family’s expectations and represent its success and perfection.”
The Scapegoat (a.k.a. the Black Sheep): “The scapegoat is the child that incurs the wrath and cruelty of other family members, in some cases being bullied, or being blamed for things that go wrong or disproportionately punished or chastised,” Durvasula said.
The Mascot or Jester: Like a class clown, the family jester uses humor to deflect from the underlying tensions, said Susan Stork, a therapist and owner of Space Between Counseling. “Their laughter might echo through the halls, but it serves as a shield against the discomfort lurking beneath the surface,” she said.
The Lost Child (or Invisible Child): The lost child gracefully glides on the periphery, avoiding the spotlight. “They navigate the family dynamics by fading into the background, hoping not to upset the delicate balance,” Stork said. “The Lost Child often finds solace in solitude, a silent partner in the familial system.”
The Enabler Child (or Caretaker): The “rescuer” child is often parentified and may be expected to take on caregiving and other roles, either in the service of the parent or because the parent isn’t stepping up, Durvasula said. Sometimes the role is one and the same as the “golden child,” but not always. “This parentification might happen if a parent is living with addiction,” Durvasula said. “The child keeps the family system running, often to their own detriment ― missing days of school, not keeping up with homework, not having their own friends and activities.”
Experts say these roles often interact and play off each other. (For instance, you can be a black sheep who’s also the enabler child.) Archetypically, the black sheep and golden child tend to have a contentious relationship.
“The golden child is the favored sibling who is praised and idealized by parents, while the black sheep is marginalized and blamed for family issues,” Lo said. “The golden child is seen as the ‘good one,’ while the black sheep is labeled as the ‘problem child.’”
In dysfunctional family systems, the black sheep and the "golden child" often have a contentious relationship.
How to heal from a black-sheep childhood
If you recognize yourself as a black sheep, see below for how to work through your childhood trauma.
Work on healing your inner child.
Experts on healing from difficult childhoods often talk about inner child work. Basically, this means reaching back to your younger self and offering them kindness. But how do you do that, exactly?
“Think of it like an exercise,” Durvasula said. “You could envision yourself or even pull out a picture of yourself, and talk to the picture. Then, thank your child self for remaining strong despite being isolated or criticized, letting the child know they are safe now, that they are good, kind, and enough.”
Reflect on any strengths you derived from being a black sheep, Durvasula said.
“Was it an attempt at being true to yourself and finding your voice?” she said. “Did it allow you to distance from a problematic family system? Propel you into interests that you genuinely had even though your family did not support them?”
Lean into the positive traits of a black sheep.
Remember how we mentioned that black sheep aren’t always the misfit, that they can be the cool iconoclast in the family, the one who goes their own way? If you’ve related more to the negative imagery of the black sheep, try to embrace the positive side now, Stork said.
“The black sheep archetype could be seen as a symbol of differentiation, challenging established norms and roles within the family system.” she said.
Through therapy or on your own, try to identify and embrace your unique strengths and qualities that set you apart ― not as a source of discord, but as a valuable contribution to the family dynamic, Stork said.
“Through this process, you may find a deeper understanding of your own identity and a more harmonious relationship with your family, grounded in a sense of authenticity and acceptance,” she said.
“The black sheep archetype could be seen as a symbol of differentiation, challenging established norms and roles within the family system," therapist Susan Stork said.
Accept that there might be times when you feel your ‘black sheepness’ again.
Sometimes, black-sheep feelings are unexpectedly activated in adulthood: You feel like the odd one out at work, or like you don’t fit in at a party. In those cases, it’s good to have some tools at the ready to help you with any negative feelings that may bubble up, Durvasula said.
“Experiences in adulthood that mirror those in childhood can overwhelm us emotionally, cognitively and somatically,” she said. “Having some tools you can draw on when those feelings come up can help you feel more soothed at these times: Try to breathe, give yourself some positive self-talk and connect with your body.”
If you feel triggered, it can also be helpful to reflect on what is being brought up for you in those moments, Durvasula said.
“Do you feel like withdrawing, fighting back, rebelling more, putting yourself down or feeling ashamed?” she said. “At those times, it’s as though that child is back within you, but this time around, you can be curious about the feeling, and be kind to your child self.”
Remember, healing from any childhood trauma takes time.
Healing as an adult black sheep is a gradual process, Lo said.
“It’s important to be patient with yourself and recognize that it may take time to undo the emotional impact of being marginalized within your family,” she said.
Lo noted that healing can be nonlinear, with ups and downs, but with the right support and strategies, it’s entirely possible to find a path to emotional well-being and self-acceptance.
“Surviving and thriving as the black sheep of the family involves self-affirmation, mental preparation, and embracing your true identity,” she said. “Remember that you are a resourceful and independent adult with unique strengths and values.”
When it comes to spending time with your family, ground yourself in the life you’ve built outside of your family and set boundaries to protect your well-being during those visits.
“By following tips above, you can maintain your self-esteem and emotional stability, even in challenging family dynamics,” Lo said.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.