One of the hardest realizations many of us face while on our healing journey is that we are the Black Sheep of our family of origin, early community, religion, or peers.
Maybe you always felt like the odd one out. The scapegoat. The lone wolf. Maybe you are the only one who speaks out against the unhealthy or outdated norms of the family/organization. Or perhaps it's because you understood or responded to things differently than those around you. Maybe you look or sound different, focus on different values, lifestyle, politics, or belief systems.
Whether your feelings of being the Black Sheep are explicit or implicit, there is pain associated with being the odd one out in your family of origin. This is because of our biological need for our tribe. Yet when the needs of the tribe contradict the needs of the individual, one is faced with a brutal choice: go against the safety of the unit, or go against yourself.
Every family (organization, etc.) has unique dynamics, personalities, and conduct. Yet all are structures that seek cohesion and unity. These dynamic group systems can be helpful, supportive, comforting, and fun.
Or despite how they might appear on the outside, they can also hide emotional tyrants, even abusers in the folds of "family," silencing anyone who speaks out against the *norms* of the whole. Question the family's beliefs, traditions, or codes of conduct, and you risk being silenced, shamed, and ostracized, and live in fear of being outcasted and outlier-ed.
Healthy families and organizations that support individual needs/expressions can be deeply nourishing. But tribal consciousness is dangerous, and must be closely examined.
The late Clare W Graves, Professor of Emeritus of Psychology at Union College in New York defined psycho-spiritual maturity of a human being by eight dynamic levels of consciousness (lowest to highest):
Survival/Instinct Driven - driven by survival
Tribal Order - Tribes, gangs, teams, family order, sororities, fraternities, driven by the group
Power God - The soloist, the hero or heroin, conqueror, warlord
Order and Absolute - an authority structure that enforces codes of conduct - religions, marines, etc.
Striver-driver/Achiever - driven by success, strategy and materialism, image, status
Socially Conscious - driven by human connection, shared feelings, community
Integrated/Flex-Flow - drive is ecological, integration and alignment of systems and values, jumps between collective and individual
An Awakened Soul - sensitive to harmonics and mystical forces, holistic, collective, individual, cosmic
Tribal thinking is a LEVEL 2 consciousness, and the odd one out senses this lower level awareness/thinking. Instead of confronting the collective dysfunction of the family, often aligned members project onto the Black Sheep as an easy scapegoat serving as a “protective function” for the family’s larger dysfunctional patterning. "See! He's the problem! It's him, not us!"
As the tribe's codes of conduct are threatened, shame tactics or authoritarian modes of relating are brought into play: "You MUST do it this way, show up at this time, perform in this manner, etc... OR ELSE!" Or "You always ruin everything for everyone."
This may produce desired tribal results one or two times, but force is always met with counterforce. Relating in this way erodes trust, and compromises the health of the relationship. Not to mention perpetuates an unsafe environment for others to challenge the status quo (which must be allowed and encouraged for healthy systems/families).
It is from this tension that the Black Sheep is born, and the archetypal stories are lived and perpetuated.
If you find yourself nodding as you read, take heed. There's great psychological power and value in being the black sheep, or in supporting one if you're in the midst of raising one.
“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.
Most often, it is the black sheep who has the most to teach us about the dysfunction in our family tree/organization.
German psychotherapist best known for a therapeutic method known as Family Constellations and Systemic Constellations, Bert Hellinger, has this to say about the Black Sheep:
"The so-called black sheep of the family are, in fact, hunters born of paths of liberation into the family tree.
The members of a tree who do not conform to the norms or traditions of the family system, those who since childhood have constantly sought to revolutionize beliefs, going against the paths marked by family traditions, those criticized, judged and even rejected, these are usually called to free the tree of repetitive stories that frustrate entire generations.
The black sheep, those who do not adapt, those who cry rebelliously, play a basic role within each family system, they repair, pick up and create new and unfold branches in the family tree.
Thanks to these members, our trees renew their roots. Uncountable repressed desires, unfulfilled dreams, the frustrated talents of our ancestors are manifested in the rebelliousness of these black sheep seeking fulfillment. The genealogical tree, by inertia will want to continue to maintain the castrating and toxic course of its trunk, which makes the task of our sheep a difficult and conflicting work.
However, who would bring new flowers to our tree if it were not for them? Who would create new branches? Without them, the unfulfilled dreams of those who support the tree generations ago would die buried beneath their own roots.
Let no one cause you to doubt, take care of your rarity as the most precious flower of your tree.
You are the dream of all your ancestors."
I love this frame of the importance of the Black Sheep. Instead of being the great descenter, he/she is the bringer of new life to the family.
There is important work, then, for the Black Sheep to maintain his/her own value. Psychotherapist Annie Wright suggests the following five practices:
Cultivating self-awareness: Accept your differences and get to know yourself apart from others’ expectations.
Grieving: Mourn your losses, perhaps of your family or place-of-origin, and certainly of the experience of acceptance you likely didn’t have or don't get. This grieving work takes time.
Individuating: Face your fears of isolation and loneliness by moving away from your family (physically or psychologically) and finding your proverbial wolf pack instead.
Healthy relating: Learn or relearn how to have close, connected, healthy relationships that may or may not be blood related, and embrace interdependence versus independence or isolation.
Becoming self-esteemed: Stand in your truth and keep yourself psychologically and physically safe from those who would unconsciously or consciously harm, berate, shame, blame or otherwise make you feel unsafe in the world. Keeping yourself safe and whole and healthy as an extension of being self-esteemed.
If this is you, may reading this post bring you ease and remind you of your value. And if you instantly think of your Black Sheep family member, begin to ask yourself if he/she may have something larger to offer you/your family, as opposed to casting them off, or shaming them.
No matter your role in your family, no one should have to compromise their integrity in order to serve the larger whole.
To you, dear Black Sheep,
Who is the black sheep in your family of origin? Is it you? Why?
What about in your children? Why?
What's been difficult about being the Black Sheep? Or what is difficult about the Black Sheep of your family?
What did this article bring up for you?
What value might you/your family member's Black Sheep have to offer your family?
Is your family structure protecting any emotional tyrants or abusers? What needs to change?
Are authoritarian modes of relating in place in your family? How can you change this?
Has shaming been used in your family? How can you change this?
Can you communicate openly about this with your family, or do you need distance?
With whom do you feel seen, heard and accepted if not your family?
What is your value as the Black Sheep?