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5 Ways to Cope When You're the Black Sheep of Your Family

Research investigates how marginalized family members remain resilient.

Source: VadosLoginov/Shutterstock

The holidays are a tough time of the year for many, potentially triggering both old and new family dramas. But when you’re the "black sheep," it can be particularly difficult to engage with family members. For those who must contend with this station in life, feeling left out and put down can intensify during this time.

How does the black sheep of the family cope with their predicament? This was the focus of a study conducted by Elizabeth Dorrance Hall of Utah State University.

Human beings are wired to connect and bond — and to belong. This means having positive experiences with others, whom we feel are caring and close, over time. When the fundamental need to belong is not filled, it can lead to a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and jealousy. For many, families are a wellspring of belongingness. But this isn’t the case for the black sheep, who are all too often cast away or disapproved of by their family members.

Hall describes being the black sheep of the family as a form of marginalization. People who are “on the margins,” live on the edge of a group or society. They suffer from rejection and have virtually no voice or influence on the group. Branded as deviant, they feel a strong need to make both a psychological and physical break from the group. This is difficult enough to contend with in the larger society, but when a person is deemed an outcast by their own family, Hall writes, it can lead to a disintegration of identity. What’s more, rejection engenders profound consequences, ranging from aggressiveness to diminished intellectual functioning, detachment, and emotional numbness.

Marginalized family members have a unique set of circumstances with which to cope, Hall writes. Though the process of marginalization happens over time, there are often “turning-point events,” like coming out, that mark faltering shifts in the relationships with other family members. Black sheep may also be experiencing a form of ambiguous loss, involving a physical presence, but psychological absence at family events. Moreover, marginalized family members have low status in their families, which translates into ongoing stress and the need for coping strategies. Taken together, and unsurprisingly, being the black sheep is a deeply painful experience.

In order to better understand how the black sheep of families remain resilient in spite of it all, here’s what Hall did. She recruited 30 marginalized family members who identified themselves as different, excluded, not accepted, or not as well-liked as other members of their family. Participants were limited to those between the ages of 25 to 35 years, so that their experiences with their families were recent and relevant. They also had to report having “chronic feelings of marginalization,” in which they felt ‘‘different, not included, or not approved of ... by multiple family members.” Participants were then interviewed, and their narratives were coded and examined.

What did Hall find? Participants’ interviews yielded five coping strategies:

1. Seeking support from “communication networks.”

Black sheep found social support from others via two major routes. First, they elected to invest in relationships with family members that they felt were genuine, loving, and inclusive. For some participants, siblings were the antagonizing source of their distress, but many found that siblings, as well as extended family members, provided much-needed support — especially when parents did not. One participant said that her brother was "very accepting, very open, very encouraging" when she came out, which was not the case with her other family members. This acceptance helped her feel less marginalized and comfortable with herself.

Participants also turned to “adopted or fictive kin,” that is, people in their social networks who were not family members. One participant felt she had formed a new family: "I have an adopted family now, and I have since I was 25. I have holidays with them, and we sort of share the things that families are supposed to do."

2. Creating and negotiating boundaries.

Boundaries proved to be a protective measure for participants. Reducing exposure to their families gave them the opportunity for a fresh start or to move forward. This occurred in two ways. One was to create physical distance from their families. One participant said of his move to New York City, "I want to really create my own environment where I feel like I don’t have to work to get somebody’s acceptance."

A second way that participants created and negotiated boundaries was to limit family members’ access to personal information. A participant remarked, "I don’t really call my family and talk very often. When I do, I keep things very surface level: "How’s school?" "Oh, school’s great. How’s everything going at home?" "Oh, it’s good." Again, this was a strategy in the service of self-protectiveness.

3. (Re)building while recognizing negative experiences.

Participants described “reframing” their personal circumstances by focusing on (re)building their lives, such as seeking higher education or independence. At the same time, they recognized that being the black sheep was profoundly painful.

Some participants were able to reframe their marginalization and find positive meaning in their experience as the black sheep. They spoke of how being the black sheep ultimately made them stronger and proud of being different. One participant reflected, "What motivated me really was that I was gay. And that I knew that if I came out, like, I might have ended up in the streets ... the best choice for me was to get an education.’’

4. Downplaying the lived experience of marginalization.

Participants downplayed the impact that marginalization had on them while trying to understand their experience as the black sheep at the same time. By doing so, they were attempting to change the meaning of their marginalization through their "talk." This resilience strategy is distinct from (re)building while recognizing negative experiences in that they essentially minimized their pain as opposed to confronting it. By diminishing the influence of their family relationships, participants could change the meaning of their marginalized experience. One participant remarked, "Basically I don’t have a family now. I only see them once a year, and that’s mostly so they don’t bother me for the rest of the year. I don’t talk to them ... My mother wants more of a relationship, but I don’t."

5. Living authentically despite disapproval.

Participants also spoke about living authentic lives and being true to themselves in the face of disapproval from their families. Hall observed an undertow of anger in participants’ responses, and in how this anger was then redirected towards achieving productive goals in which they defended themselves against their black sheep status. Participants also coped with their marginalization by being proud of their stigma. Relatedly, participants were well aware that expressing their beliefs, sexual identity, or religion threatened family relations, but it was worth the price to live an authentic life. As one participant stated, "I know exactly what I would need to do to be completely accepted by my family ... if I wanted that, I could do that, but I realize that that would never be enough."

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