6 Sad Reasons Why A Family Creates A Black Sheep

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I’m the black sheep of my family,”

said the young man who sat before me in my therapy office. I tried to imagine this adorable, sad young man being the “black sheep” of anything. I couldn’t.

Generally considered the outcast of the family, the black sheep is typically assumed to be an oddball. Furthermore, the rest of the family believes that the black sheep brought this upon himself.

It is true that sometimes the black sheep is indeed “odd” by anyone’s standards (sometimes the result of a hidden mental illness). Or she may be a sociopath who violates the family’s boundaries and care, so that the family has to exclude her to rightfully protect themselves.

But surprisingly, very seldom is either of these scenarios actually the case. Many, many black sheep are lovable folks with much to offer their families and the world. In fact, they are often the best and brightest. They may be the most creative of the family, or the one with the most powerful emotions.

In truth, the world is full of black sheep. Think hard. Does your family have one? This question is not as easy to answer as it may seem, for many black sheep are not physically excluded from the family. For most, it’s much more subtle. The exclusion is emotional. 

Three Signs That Your Family Has a Black Sheep: 

  1. One member often, over a long period of time, seems hurt or angry for no apparent reason.
  2. One person is often, and on a long-term basis, talked about negatively behind his back. “He’s so annoying,” “What a weirdo/disappointment/loser/fill in the blank.”
  3. One member is subtly not invited to certain family occasions or left out of the loop on family news. 

So if most black sheep aren’t actually weirdos who brought their exclusion upon themselves, what would cause a family to treat one of their own this way? The real cause does not lie within any individual family member. No. Instead it’s a product of family dynamics.

Here are the sources that I see most often.

The Six Top Family Dynamics Which Result in a Black Sheep:

  1. The child who has the least in common with the parents. This child sticks out because of his personality, temperament or interests. The parents are baffled by him and inadvertently treat him differently, which spreads to the siblings.
  2. The best and the brightest. This child threatens to outperform or outshine one or both of the parents. Either consciously or unconsciously, the parents sabotage her to hold her back. This way, they won’t lose her and they won’t have to feel badly about themselves in comparison to her.
  3. The child most prone to depression or anxiety. The child with intense or dark feelings or thoughts which the parents cannot understand may frighten them. At a loss about how to help, they may just keep him at a distance.
  4. Sibling rivalry. In this family, there is simply not enough attention or love to go around. One or both of the parents is limited in some way; by mental illness, personality disorder, or substance abuse for example. The siblings must jockey for whatever they can get.
  5. A parent who despises himself deep down. This parent can appear to be quite loving of her children, so she can be difficult to spot. But she is unable to tolerate certain aspects of herself, so she projects those traits onto a chosen child, and despises him instead. It is an unconscious coping mechanism that happens outside of the parent’s awareness.
  6. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): the child who is the most invisible. In this family, all of the children may get the subtle (or not-so-subtle) message that their feelings don’t matter. But one is better at hiding his own needs, feelings, and self than the others. This child literally disappears from the family’s radar screen and is ignored. He becomes persona non grata. He is the one who matters the least.

With any of the six causes above, the excluded or targeted child senses early on that he must be different, bad or inferior. In a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, he learns to play his role in the family. Often, he plays it very well.

What should you do if you recognize your family in these words? It is indeed difficult to turn around entrenched family dynamics like these.  But you can make a difference:

Choose to see your family through a more complex lens.

Ask yourself: Is this right? Is this the person that I want to be? Is this how I want to treat my sibling or child?

Share this article with chosen members of your family.

Look at your black sheep with fresh eyes and notice what you’ve never seen before.

Open your heart and your little section of the family circle.

Let your black sheep know that you reclaim him.

If you are a Black Sheep:

You are right to be baffled and confused. Nothing is as simple as it has always seemed. Know that you have value. And it is not your fault. Watch for a future post: Message to the Black Sheep of the World.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how and why it happens, and how it affects all of the children in the family see Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships 

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral


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Marty - June 28, 2024 Reply

I am the oldest of three and have been the scapegoat for everything since I was 10, which has created anxiety. I’m glad to have found this site to interact with other victims.

Odín - May 27, 2024 Reply

Dr. Jonice, i’m reading your book “Running On Empty” in search for answers and its greatly helping me understand myself. However, i feel its egotistical of me to see myself as the “black sheep” or misunderstood or something other than i just didn’t met my potential for wanting to go against the current in my family. I try to find neglect or fault in my parents and i can’t rightly do so, since they have been loving and supportive. I feel extreme guilt towards this and have very difficult anger management problems which is eroding my current relationship. I know there are traumatic experiences in my childhood, but not from being neglected by my parents. Or at least not in the way i think most people find neglect. I think there was abuse from my cousins when i was little, in the form of both physical abuse and verbal abuse; they were older than me and i distinctly remember how they saw me as a retard and a nerd because of my interests growing up. But, i feel i’m being unfair in my assesment since pinning every bad choice i’ve made since i’m 8 years old on them makes me feel like i’m being resentful or bitter. Im sorry i’m unpacking this on your comment section lol

Cynthia - April 29, 2024 Reply

I am so happy to find this site because for the first time I feel like I am not alone and maybe this isn’t my fault. I hope it’s okay, I’m going to just share my story. It’s not for help or sympathy, but to share with others like me so maybe they can relate and see there are more of us. (Also, omg please stop reading it if it makes you feel emotional because that’s not my intenton.) Writing this might help others and maybe will help me let some of my feelings out.

Honestly, I was a straight A student and apparently very smart. Somehow, at the same time, I am the black sheep of my family – mainly because I see/do things differently. I have always been told that I walk to the beat of a different drummer and that I am a dreamer (it was not told to me in a good way). I feel like I first noticed it when my mom choked me and kicked me down a flight of stairs (I was about 10 years old). She later apologized and I asked her why she did it, she simply replied that she really didn’t like me. There were more things, but this kind of covers the situation I lived in. Suffice it to say my childhood reduced my self esteem to the point that I dropped out of college in the 2nd year. (I had constant panic attacks and knew I didn’t really belong enough to get a degree in the field I wanted.) As a child, I once had an offer to play classical piano in a museum for the tour people. I didn’t persue that because my uncle would make me play with him and laugh at me and ridicule me when I made mistakes.

Fast forward to adulthood, I once had a very successful holistic health practice and after about 3 years in business, I rented a room to my sister after she became a chiropractor. Our entire family showed up after she moved in with gifts and to see her in her new office. They never said congrats to me or anything and never visited me when I started. In fact, they used to berate me for not doing things “normally” and when I sold the business they told me it was the dumbest thing I ever did. They often leave me out of the loop and only invite me (and now my family) to family functions when they “have to.”

I used to play in a band and on the nights I played, if family showed up – they would tell me how much they admired me, but I’m pretty sure they were drunk or something because that sentiment always immediately faded. (I did play in rock bands, but never drank or did drugs or anything stupid like that, especially when doing shows, so it’s not like they should’ve been embarrased by me or anything – at least I don’t think so.)

Today, I still work for myself and cringe every single time I read something in marketing about, “Talk to your friends and family about your business – they will support you!” Not in my world.. and when I see that kind of stuff, it just makes me feel sick to my stomach and worse about myself. I wish I could make more money, but I know my self esteem is so low it has been blocking me. (I sense this because I’ve had bosses in the past and colleagues later on tell me I have sadly low self esteem. I have been working on it for like 10 years with therapy, hypnotherapy, affirmations, journaling, attitude adjustments – so far it’s extremely slow progress.)

I feel the black sheep thing has extended to my kids. My sister can’t wait to tell me anything negative about them and she consistently talks mean about me behind my back (I know this because people often come back to me and ask about things that just aren’t true). Because of this, I kind of avoid them, now. I realized how bad they make me feel about myself. (It only took decades for me to figure that out. lol)

It’s not just my sister. Once after making a nice Sunday dinner for my family, my dad looked at my husband and told him he made a delicious dinner. Because he did that all the time, my husband finally told him I cooked it. He said, “that’s nice” and complimented him on “his” cooking again. At a Thanksgiving dinner we hosted, he told my sister in front of the entire extended family that she was his favorite. (I was horrified because my children were there and young at the time, and I didn’t want them to see such a demeaning thing like that.) The horrible thing is that my sister has even been in conversations with my husband about what a bad person I am, even though at one point he was cheating on me. She mentioned it was probably my fault.

I often feel alone and isolated and have come to accept that I don’t understand this life, social “norms” or other people. I don’t “get” what family is. The only real friends I ever had were in one of the bands I played in, he was the guitar player and he died a couple years ago due to an inherited illness. Being a black sheep has taken a toll on my self esteem and psyche and if I didn’t have kids (and furbabies), I would truly consider something drastic. At the same time, I still feel compassion and love for all my family members because I know we all have our own story.

So, now I have to meditate and struggle to move my mind to happier thoughts. If you are in a similar situation, please know/pray/meditate, do whatever it takes to pick yourself up. We will get through this. I haven’t done it yet, but I know what we overcome will make us stronger. I wish you all love, light and blessings.

Aashka - April 12, 2024 Reply

my father’s side of the family decided I was black sheep. this happened slowly over time as well. we already have a black sheep but for good reasons to be honest, but for me, I’m not sure. I’m completely ignored at family gatherings. nobody will talk to me. when they do, as I’m about to leave, it feels forced and fake. I’m really hurt by all this. it just got worse after my dad died. though one of my uncle’s really stepped up to help, but after that I’m still ignored. I think it might be because I was in an abusive relationship for a few years and that drama made them want to distance themselves away from me, instead of giving me advice and telling me I’m in a toxic relationship. I was abused in my childhood so I didn’t realize I was in an abusive relationship.

The Youngest Child - February 11, 2024 Reply

Extremely impactful stories here.
I’m so tired! I’ve been the black sheep for over 50 years. Narcissistic mother but my father was mentally ill. He was my twin and even though we had rough times, I knew he always cherished me.He was the only family member who told me he loved me. I’ve never heard it from anyone else. So I really don’t know what love feels like. I’m still grieving 22 years after his death. Yet nobody talks about him. His story is much like mine. The youngest with successful siblings and severe mental and physical health issues that are denied. I have been fighting my mental health and trauma since I was 12. Always seeking a better existence. In 2019 I sent my mother an email explaining that I want nothing to do with her. It’s very difficult but I had to. I asked her not to contact me in any way. Her narcissism tells her to send me an email on my birthday. Without using my name or saying anything about my birthday. I’ve continued to ask her to stop. I’m also the youngest of 9 successful cousins who have no use for me. I was extremely close with my brother and sister but not anymore. My sister married up (way up) and basically thinks she’s in charge of me. I have mental health issues and signed over money to her. So now she totally supports me. It’s so degrading. My brother is not even recognizable to me. He was so easy going. Now I’m terrified of him. I can’t seem to say anything right to either of them. I’ve also not been invited to large family events. They think I don’t know about them???
I’ve been in severe crisis since finding out I need surgery, not able to do it. Anxiety and panic are occurring daily. I have to take medication every morning now. In December I was attacked while in my vehicle. He caused severe physical damage to the vehicle and absolutely destroyed me. I’m scared of everything. When I try to talk to my sister, she tells me to get over it. Understand this is someone who financially supports mental health in a big way but does not have the emotional skills to deal with the impact of it on her family. I can’t tell her the horrible things her now dead husband said to me for over 30 years. I don’t know why he hated me. I gave up my life to run their household and take care of one of his kids with developmental disabilities. I never said no. I guess all this was a trade off for having a place to live and food. But never a paycheque. I have no savings. I’m so stuck.
I’m in crisis and realize that I need residential treatment. I told my sister and she’s angry? How do you know what you need, she says? Perhaps because the 40 something years of daily work hasn’t been successful. I’m so torn apart due to the financial dependence. I have severe spinal stenosis, can’t work a regular job. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed.
I’ve tried 3 times to end my life. I’m not feeling that at all which is why it is so shocking to have her be dismissive of me getting the right type of care. I’m speaking again to my psychiatrist tomorrow to have her get me in the right program but I absolutely know what kind of work I need to do. In the past I’ve taken myself to the hospital (the worst) and my family is embarrassed by it. Always trying to keep me out but not wanting to help me.
Thank you to everyone who wrote, I don’t feel so alone now. I just wish I had the finances to leave and live a calm life. I know that would be so beneficial for me.

Anna - December 25, 2023 Reply

I have 2 younger brothers (6 and 7 years younger), both married with children, and a cousin closer to their age, married, childless. 14 years ago I moved back home so we could all raise our kids together. they consistently exclude me from plans, or just tell me about them as an afterthought. they did not include me when they all bought a boat together. at Christmas they get her gifts, but never me. I sometimes regret having moved back home. I don’t expect this to ever change. I don’t know how to deal with the sadness that it causes me.

Sarah - December 9, 2023 Reply

I to am a black sheep. I never can understand why I have never been enough for my parents. I fear them still at 41 years old and being a mother myself. I don’t think I have ever heard my parents say they are proud of me or praise me for something. It’s really hurtful and has hurt more as an adult. I see how I treat my kids with so much love and say we love each other multiple times a day. My family wants to look perfect to everyone. They need to know there is no perfect family.

    Rick - January 28, 2024 Reply

    Same here. I never heard “I love you” or received a hug from either parent. But oh, the criticism I got my entire life, ending with disinheritance. Given my NPD mother, it wasn’t much of a surprise.
    On a lighter note – before I was barred from her miserable life and locked out of her house, I tried a little experiment – whenever we parted after I visited at her house, I would initiate my goodbye hug with either 1 or both arms, sometimes none. She exactly mirrored my actions, every time. It was simultaneously amusing and telling.
    I would have to guess that her actions at the end of our relationship made her insecure little self feel powerful. All it did was remove any doubt about her disorder.

Tiffany - November 24, 2023 Reply

I feel this so much. I’ve always felt this way with no way of my own. I have 4 half siblings and only talk to 1(well use to talk too). My whole life one of my half siblings and me were the closest ever and we are 7 years apart and I thought we would die together. The last 4 years or more however our relationship hasn’t been the same and I don’t know why? I don’t know what I have done. My kids are teenagers as well as hers and it’s thanksgiving today and as we sit here I have to answer questions to my kids that I don’t know the answer too. Mom why aren’t we at uncle Phillips for thanksgiving? Mom don’t we have family dinner to go to as well? This hurts my heart undeniably. I can’t help my dad cheated on their mom with my mom and had me! I didn’t break up a home and my kids DAMN SURE DIDNT!! So why? Why must we be treated this way as we sit here lonely on thanksgiving? I would have never ever thought my half sister that I always called her sister would do this to me. Just like they say sheep get fooled…

    Jonice - November 24, 2023 Reply

    Dear Tiffany, I’m so sorry this is happening to you. You are absolutely right, it is not your fault what your parent does to their parent. Sadly, they must be very hurt and showing solidarity with their father, and you are harmed in the process. I hope you will reach out and talk with a professional about this. And please know that time heals lots of wounds; for them as well as for you.

Cyndi - November 12, 2023 Reply

I resonate to all of the comments here, as well as this great article by Dr. Webb. The youngest of four children, I have always and still at age 65, treated as the youngest “child”. All my life I’ve being judged and belittled for my life decisions and left out of the family loop. Since my early adulthood, I estranged myself from them. This past July, I reluctantly attended my brother’s 75th birthday. All three siblings have major health problems and obese, trying again to play the victim role with me. I proudly kept my head up high, wearing a 70’s summer outfit that I created and sewed. I was tanned and a beautiful size 6 for 13 years, almost going down that rabbit hole of obesity and health issues as well. They, along with their children (except two), did not talk to me during this whole event! They even planned to get together the next day (Sunday) after church, yet never told me! I found out this plan from my daughter who also attended this event. Despite all the obvious stares from my family, I walked around with a smile on my face and conversed with guests of the party. The treatment I received from my family at this event, has reinforced my decision of just walking away for good. I’ve always went to my family major events, despite my reluctance given the abuse I received my whole life. Now I’m sure I do not want to continue to “play their games”. I have a few close friends and my adult children and their family (who know of the drama and have also experienced judgement). My small supportive family are quite enough for me. I am a light sheep for them (not black). Thank you all for your courage and determination – I consider you all more of a family than my blood siblings. Be well and shine!

Anne - November 1, 2023 Reply

Scapegoat story is similar.
They hang their deficiencies around the scapegoats neck, in essence blaming them for their own shortcomings. Once the scapegoat is gone they quickly need a new one.
Know you’re not crazy and leave them in your rear view mirror.
When just your presence, reminds them of their failures, that’s on them. Do not carry their burden.

Sheryl - October 25, 2023 Reply

Wow. Every single one of those is true. When I was in 3rd grade (I’m now 41), my mom left my 2 older sisters & I with our abusive father for a year so she could finish her degree (although in hindsight there was probably more to that). I was quite a bit younger and literally a runt because I didn’t get enough food. That year I did not grow, and I only remember school, sometimes staying at our grandparents on cots in their den, and visiting my mom once or twice – I do not remember any of my home life, which I didn’t even realize until going to therapy as an adult.

I always thought my middle sister was the “black sheep” because that’s what everyone said, especially my grandparents, who insisted she was neglected. However, I now realize that there was never anyone fighting for me, and as I grew up, my life path was quite separated from the rest of my family. Even though I am still close to my parents (who are still alive & together), I couldn’t be more alien from them. There are so many personality disorders peppered among them, and my mother (still is) codependent, which is almost like a personality disorder when it’s been present for so long. Meanwhile, I am a very analytical person, self-reflective type, although highly prone to depression & anxiety (just as mentioned in the article).

I have a full-blooded brother that was given up for adoption before I was born (my dad was still married to his first wife & my mother was only 19 while he was a Vietnam vet). As I have never met him in person and only been in text communication, I’ve come to realize that we are also different. I certainly don’t know him well him enough to really judge his personality, but there are little things that I can just tell that we are different. Sometimes I think it was the hardship & neglect that made me so different. But, I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing, even though it was an adversity that presented many challenges (and still does).

Rick - October 18, 2023 Reply

I had an alcoholic father (whom I loved and admired, but the drinking got out of control at the end). I had an abusive Narcissistic mother (not officially diagnosed, but matches the description shared by many other bloggers). I had one older scapegoated brother who split at 17 just to get away from the madness. His life has been in perpetual turmoil. I have another drug abusing former golden brother who died last year in a mental hospital. And another younger new replacement golden backstabbing brother, who was a lifelong parasite, but could do no wrong in mommy’s eyes. Yet I was the Identified Patient Black Sheep.
I was lucky enough to retire from police work, thanks to outsiders. I crunched some numbers based on data I got online, and I concluded that In all of the states combined , there might be 11 police officers total that have an identical family. And throughout school, I had one of the most screwed up families, which accounts for much of my problematic childhood. I acknowledge that I was very lucky later in life, but how I wish that I had someone to call family. So, thanks for allowing me to rant. I at least can relate to others here.

Matilda - October 17, 2023 Reply

My family has always treated me as the outsider. My older sister has abused me since I can remember. She has done mental issues and was also treated badly in my family. When my mother died my aunt told me how my father used to ask her why she talked to me. My father instigated this my entire life and I only learned how bad it truly was after my mother and father both passed. My parents had 6 kids. They each picked a favorite child. Causing terrible sibling rivalry. I am the one that finished college and got a great job. I believe this mad them hate me more. It is now at the point I only speak to my one sister. Not sure what else to do. It is a shame. It does hurt but the best thing that I did was finally walk away.

MartyFan - August 28, 2023 Reply

Yes! I think we should look into this issue of having a black sheep in our family.

Disappointed - August 24, 2023 Reply

I’m middle child of five children, I was always the black sheep of the family, I was the bright child with higher understanding, my father had alcohol problem. My mother was weak and terrified of my father and her family were scared of my father that’s why they never supported us..I was abused from my older sister, she had a temper and the first 4 are close by age and the fifth child came 15 years later! I was the hard working sister made good money and took care of them! And that became like a duty! I was always more successful. I left my hometown to get married and moved to another country! I’m the only one almost always calls them, go to visit and at the end they are always unhappy with something

    RAS - September 18, 2023 Reply

    Leave them in the dust! You will feel SO much better! It won’t happen immediately but when you suddenly find yourself having fun on holidays, looking forward to getting together with friends, etc, it will suddenly come to you: you love having the freedom to go and do what you want without the angst these anchors put you through! And they ARE anchors, weighing you down, putting you down and mocking you. Once you are free of these freeloading losers, you will find yourself looking forward to new things and exploring ways you can grow without being mocked or bullied! I know. My two sisters are narcissistic bullies. I hadn’t thought of them for years until I just saw something on line. Apparently the losers are putting together a family reunion. As near as I can tell, it has been an annual event. Though I would not mind seeing some cousins, based on an event a few years ago, I know the two I will call Dewillza and Anastasia have thoroughly brainwashed the family into their psycho world. When you are not there to defend yourself, who knows what psychos say behind your back? I was intrigued by the title of this article. I knew I would find others similarly bullied and tormented by siblings. I saw your dilemma and I just have to say-hold your head up! Don’t let these monkeys bring you down. Life is sweeter when you can wake up every day, not having to fit the mold that bullies create for you. Rather, break the mold and flourish! You will never regret it. I am almost 70 years old. I lost my son when he was 17 years old. My sisters were awful at his funeral. My father was even worse. I will NEVER allow them the opportunity to make me sad or anxious again.

Matthew - August 20, 2023 Reply

My family treats me like trash. I wish I never knew any of them because they are terrible human beings. Mean spirited and always bringing me down. They are bad people

AJ - July 30, 2023 Reply

my father doesn’t seem to like me as his daughter. i think he wants a son back then but unfortunately i became a daughter. every time he see’s a boy he was very happy but when he talks to me its seems like no happy world in his life. he even dare the situation of what if I was the one got bitten by my own cat. it seems like he wants me to die at a young age.. i want to get out in the said comfort zone. i thought family matters, i thought family is my comfort zone but i was wrong.

    Colette - August 1, 2023 Reply

    Sorry they hurt you, I can relate. We’re better off without them. Now learning about CPTSD from early childhood neglect. EMDR has been helpful.

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