HOW BEING THE “BLACK SHEEP” OF YOUR FAMILY AFFECTS YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
“I’m the only normal person in my dysfunctional family, why should I be the one to get help? They are the ones who need therapy!”
Literally, the most common thing I hear from clients.
The black sheep of the family is the outcast, seen as different, written off. At best, they’re playfully teased; at worst, they’re rejected. The more they’re ridiculed, the less likely they are to open up and share things about themselves. The less they share, the more of an outcast they become.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Childhood emotional neglect (intentional or accidental) can cause people to shut down from an early age. Children who get the message that their needs aren’t important often become adults who try to “do it all” themselves.
Think about how your caregivers responded if you expressed a need. What was the response if you expressed sadness, fear, enthusiasm, excitement, pride, disappointment, or anger?
How likely are you to express each of those feelings now, as an adult? Have you learned to be vulnerable? Or do you put up walls to protect yourself? Are you bashful about showing pride in yourself?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be independent – but when you feel like you have no other choice, it can cause feelings of depression or anxiety to build up.
ARE YOU THE BLACK SHEEP OF YOUR FAMILY?
It starts small. You hide seemingly minor things about yourself.
Your family doesn’t need to hear about (much less meet) the new person you’re dating. Plus, they just happen to be from a different culture. Definitely not bringing them to Sunday dinner.
You haven’t mentioned you aren’t going to temple/mosque/church anymore. They would make a huge deal about it, even though it’s low-key been years. *No, so far the world hasn’t ended because I go to brunch instead of praying.*
They don’t need to know that you’re looking for a different job and maybe don’t want to stay in the same industry. You’re just looking! There’s nothing to tell yet anyway.
“They wouldn’t understand.”
“I hear the way they talk about [person with a mildly specific trait they attribute all that person’s problems to], no way I’m coming clean.”
“I don’t need them, I have my own support network.”
“Believe me, if you saw the way they get at family gatherings, you’d understand.”
Before you know it, you’re hiding most of the real you from the people who, at one time in your life, you thought knew you best.
Ideally, we should be able to renegotiate our relationships with family as we become adults. (This doesn’t apply if there are abusive or dangerous factors involved. We’re not obligated to negotiate with people who have harmed us.) I know very few people who have been able to do this successfully.
What tends to happen instead, is one of two things:
- People stay enmeshed and kind of codependent on their family, even while still being treated as an outcast. In other words, they keep taking crap from them, waiting to be treated better. Or,
- They become increasingly withdrawn from their family, to the point where they start to dread holidays and family gatherings. They might rely on them in case of emergency, but that’s about it.
Neither of these sounds fun! But don’t worry – you can balance things out by trying the following:
Rely on Your Chosen Family
Chances are, you connect with these people because they know exactly how you feel, and probably have gone through something similar. Commiserating with someone who gets it can be incredibly validating. Which is important when your family treats you like you’re the weirdo. (Also, why are you practically disowned for not becoming a doctor, but your cousin is a golden child because they’re a corporate executive Monday through Friday even though they’re trash on the weekends?)
Set Some Ground Rules
It’s not all bad! Can you find some safe topics to talk about together? Decide what events are worth attending (like if your non-trash cousins will be there, it’ll be fun). Guess what: You don’t have to stay the whole time. You can decide how much time you spend together, what behaviours are dealbreakers, and when you’re ready to leave.
Let People Surprise You
If you’re tired of the same dynamic playing out, chances are your family feels the same way. Try speaking up about your experience and you might be surprised. You can always voice your concerns in an assertive, kind way, and see if your family is receptive. Just like you expect them to act a certain way, they are probably expecting you to be the same person you were 5, 10, or 20 years ago. If you take a chance and show how much you’ve grown, it creates an opportunity for them to step up to the plate. (OK it might backfire the first few times, but give it some time! If you can learn new skills, so can they.)
The more authentically, proudly, and openly yourself you can be, the less of an effect other people’s opinions will have on you. Part of the dynamic is that you are anticipating what your family will say. Let them say what they want, at least you’re busy living your best life. Speaking of which…
Listen to your Cheerleaders
We can all name 2 or 3 naysayers who will judge us for a certain choice or behaviour. Don’t list those names! Instead, list the many more people who will encourage you, support you, and maybe even join you. If a hater gossips in the forest but there’s no one there to hear them, do they even matter??
Yes, being the black sheep can be isolating. But it’s these experiences that ultimately lead people to be unapologetically themselves.