My Dear Black Sheep, 3 Things You Must Know

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I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed. 

In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.

Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.

My Dear Black Sheep

Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:

First, Research Supports You

First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.

But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.

They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.

If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.

Imagine how it affected you.

Second, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Affects You

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.

Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.

The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.

Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.

You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.

The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.

So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?

Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.

A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.

And Third, You Were Chosen

You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.

Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.

Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.

But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.

So embrace your difference, for it is your power.

And please know this:

You were chosen for a reason.

You are real.

You are valid.

You matter.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.


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Drew - February 16, 2023 Reply

I really needed this article. My familial black sheep status has been hitting hard lately which has prompted me to search for answers. I found this article and I am now reading your first book. I am finding soooo many answers to many of the questions I’ve had about my family dynamics in adulthood and how we got here. Thank you!

Jonice - February 4, 2020 Reply

That’s excellent, Rodney! That was my goal for readers when I wrote the article.

Shelly Jo - February 3, 2020 Reply

What do you think of the enneagram personality test and profiles?

    Jonice - February 4, 2020 Reply

    I’m not familiar with it, I’m sorry.

Gigi - February 3, 2020 Reply

For years I went to counseling. I had sexual abuse, physical and verbal by family until I left the home at 17. I never spoke a word about it due to how powerless I was in the home. I knew at 3 years old my parents were not going to protect me. Nothing hurt me worse than knowing I had no value to those who where suppose to be immediate family. Counselors always focused on the acts done to me and i remember thinking I must be crazy because the acts were bad but nothing hurt worse than knowing if I was to talk about things being done to me I wouldn’t be believed and would probably endure more pain for speaking out. At 40 i couldnt take anymore abuses.. left a diagnosed narc that I was married to for 10 years and vowed to not tolerate any abuse around me. It was healthy. I told my parents about everything that happened to me in their home, some of it they knew about because they were the violators. But the overall feeling I got was I was now a threat to their fake existence. I cut all contact at Christmas. They now are focused on degrading me to my children in the most cunning ways. I have only told one child about what happened to me… my parents spoke to this child thinking they could belittle me to him. He called them out ..ultimitly asking if they ever loved me. I know my parents were shocked because if manipulation doesnt get worse I had made a deal with them to move forward and keep issues between parents and myself, because I had more empathy for them than love for myself. They never said no deal like this needed..we dont want to brush your past under the rug to spare have suffered enough…they loved the idea that I would sell myself out to protect them. I could use more info on how to explain to my kids the depth of pain inflicted on me. My parents want to play me off as oversensitive and them the innocent bystanders. My siblings all tolerate my by not going along I’m the black sheep. How do you handle children who also see you as the blacksheep..the disparate treatment is obvious among my children see it..and they as also are substandard compared to their cousins in the eyes of their grandparents.

    Jonice - February 4, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gigi, I am so very sorry for all you have endured. Please, please call a therapist on the CEN Therapist List and set up an appointment.

Jean - February 3, 2020 Reply

I have been given a quarter out of my late mothers estate,my sister gets half and the other quarter goes to my ex husband. It hurts so much why I dont understand.

    Jonice - February 4, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jean, that sounds very hurtful. Please see a CEN therapist to work through your natural and understandable feelings about this!

Muna - February 3, 2020 Reply

Oh Jonice.. I’ve found you recently and I relate so much to what you are writing about.. I was emotionally neglected, yes. And it was not subtle at all.. My mom passed away when I was 7. I lived with my dad and his wife for a short while but then moved to my grandparents house where my paternal uncles and aunts lived.. I was trained to do housework beginning of my teenage years, and learned they are key to earn acceptance.. Very rarely did I receive feedback on my good hard work. I waited for feedback often I thought I did something wrong though I had done what I’m supposed to do.. Bereaved also from the usual fun teenagers have due to poor social environment around.. Those memories are ineffaceable. Grew up to search for love in all wrong places and now hope it’s not too late to heal. I’ve got your book recently and will start reading it soon.. Thank you

    Jonice - February 4, 2020 Reply

    It’s not too late, Muna! You can do it.

Lesley - January 5, 2020 Reply

I am an adopted child, and my brother was adopted about a year later. When my mother got the boy she wanted, she didn’t want the girl any more. I grew up with the catch phrase ” Mark’s the nice one. Lesley’s the clever one – and nobody likes a smart arse, do they, Lesley?” I was labelled lazy, selfish and devious. Actually I had severe asthma and eczema, and terrible travel sickness. I was accused of ” putting it on” and at one point ended up in hospital with pneumonia. In adulthood, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and when I told her, she accused me of making it up!! When Mark was seven, he was sent to boarding school as a choral scholar at our local cathedral. My dad worked away during the week, and on Saturday we used to have to go and see Mark ( his day off) down winding country lanes (remember that motion sickness?) – then on Sunday we would go back to hear him sing choral evensong. Meanwhile, I was being bullied at school and eventually Mum came up to school and gave the bullies a ” hard stare” – even at ten, I knew that wouldn’t work. Mark and I never lived together again. He only moved home as I was leaving to start nurse training. When I got my PhD my mother never even said congratulations, even though I had neurosurgery and cerebral radiotherapy during the process. I cared for my Mum until she died aged 95 two years ago. Mark ( who didn’t visit throughout all those months while I was so poorly) used to ” call in” when he was in the area, tell me I had nothing to worry about, and vanish for another three months. Mum had vascular dementia and leukaemia, which eventually killed her. I dealt with doctors, social workers, carers, neighbours and everything else, while my twenty seven year marriage disintegrated and while caring for my daughter who has learning disabilities. All the while holding down a job. All Mum ever did was ask me where Mark was. Everyone was appalled by the way she spoke to me. The psychiatrist asked me if she was always like that. I remember saying it would be difficult to change the habit of a lifetime at this stage…. Having said all that, I am glad I did what I did. I found I could do for her what she could not do for me. It was, for me, a healing experience, and I am pleased that I got to take her funeral (even if I was annoyed initially that I felt forced into it as her own vicar hadn’t visited for years – and neither Mark or I wanted some stranger taking the service.) I know all about being the black sheep. Your article brought tears to my eyes. I promise you I have never treated any of my children the same way as I was .

    Jonice - January 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lesley, you are amazing. I hope you are remembering to take care of yourself and pay attention to your own feelings and needs.

Michelle - December 31, 2019 Reply

I was always made to feel like my emotions were invalid. I was dubbed the drama queen any time I asked why I was kept on the outside. My family go on days out and holidays together and I get asked to stay home and look after their pets. They recently invited me on a trip and it made me feel suspicious so I didn’t go. So it’s been a heady mixture of their choice and my self fulfilling prophecy. Just trying to fight the need for acceptance these days!

    Jonice - January 3, 2020 Reply

    Dear Michelle, please seek out a CEN Therapist from the referral page on my website. It’s important for you to get support and help with this and you deserve it!

diane - December 5, 2019 Reply

You have opened my eyes to what is wrong with me Jonice (from reading your emails, website and 1st book) so thank you so so much. Re this article, as an adult I certainly feel/am left out of my family (only 2 of them left, mum and sister) but I don’t know if I was treated this way as a child because I can’t remember.
I’ve got your first book and will buy the second and will probably do your online course when I have the money but I’m scared it won’t help – for 2 reasons. I can’t remember much about my childhood really and also, because I procrastinate so badly (had therapy for it and still can’t stop it) I don’t think I could make myself do the work. I’d love a CEN therapist as I would do the work for her but live in Scotland.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    Hi Diane, there may be a CEN therapist in Scotland. Check the list!

Nelleke - December 4, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice Webb,
How everything falls to place with this article, is magical for me. My whole life I knew about the trauma my parents went through, they lost 4 children before me in a housefire. (Mom was 5 months pregnant of me) Slowly my life went worse and worse, even when I had a car accident at 18, I never felt understood by my mom (my parents divorced when I was 7)
Highly sensitive like I was, a year after my accident my one year younger brother died in traffic and from that moment on I became the black sheep and was called ‘stupid’ ‘hysteric’ and all that kind of stuff.
Finally it was due to sibling domestic violence done by my youngest brother, I had to go out of the house and became homeless. I stayed with family but for a year I had no safe place for myself. I was 19 then.
Now I am (female) 54 and thanx to internet and everything about CEN from your site I know that I was never at fault! I have had therapy and emdr because last year my brother raised his hand on me again but I get stronger and stronger one step at a time. Thank you for your help online! With regards, N.P. Netherlands

    Jonice - December 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nelleke, it is impressive how much trauma you have endured and still come out stronger. Thank you for sharing your story with us!

Sur - December 4, 2019 Reply

How do you accept that you will never get that connection from a CEN spouse who loves but for 35 years has been incapable of emotional intimacy. How do i get rid of my need for emotional connection in marriage since ive accepted its
never going to be fulfilled?

    Jonice - December 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear Sur, I encourage you to refuse to give up on this. Even if you never get complete emotional intimacy, you can perhaps accomplish some level of improvement. Please drag your spouse to therapy! See the Find A CEN Therapist List to find one near you.

Marie - December 2, 2019 Reply

This article touched my soul. I do feel different from my family and even thought when I was younger that I was adopted. I don’t feel that I can be my true self around my family. I don’t think they really see me for who I am. They seem to be stuck in the past with this image of who I was. But they think this is still who I am. Thank you, the healing begins with understand and letting go of past hurt. Sometimes, you just have to let go and accept that you will receive the love you want.

    Jonice - December 3, 2019 Reply

    Dear Marie, yes letting go of that quest for validation from your family is very difficult but it must be done. Then you can start accepting love from those who actually are able to get to know the real you.

Karen - December 2, 2019 Reply

Dear Dr Webb every time I think I’ve got myself sorted you come up with a new and astonishing way of how CEN messes with one’s mind and life! And this one is a corker! Your article prompted me to reflect on something my mother has always maintained. She apparently produced me for my father as she believed he wanted a daughter. Then she produced a son (my brother) for herself – at least that’s how she describes it. Trouble was my father didn’t actually want any kids and that included me. So that meant I never felt wanted by anyone. My mother saw her role as being to ‘protect’ my brother from my father but since my father ‘wanted’ me I needed no protection. Ha! My father was vile to both of us but more so to my brother because he no doubt viewed him as a rival for my mother’s affections. I’ll be working through your 3 points with my therapist. Your article has shown me just how screwy my family is and has taken yet another layer off my journey to discover who I really am. Once again thank you for your amazing insights, articles and books. Over the past couple of years you’ve completely transformed my life. More and more I can just be with my family members and not get sucked right back in, yet see it all for the mess it is. For the first time ever I’m coming into my own power and finding inner peace. The journey is definitely worth it although very confronting at times. Many thanks for your wisdom and willingness to share it to the world.

    Jonice - December 3, 2019 Reply

    Dear Karen, I am so sorry you went through this as a child. It is a very painful thing to grow up unwanted. you sound like a strong person who will persist and survive. Good for you!

Amanda - December 2, 2019 Reply

Dear Dr Jonice,

I just wanted to say thank you. I can’t attend any of your courses as I live in the UK but I have two of your books on CEN and I read all of your emails. Everything you say about CEN resonates with me, and your words have been a really important part of my recovery from depression and a past that never felt right but outwardly seemed fine. Until I read about CEN, I didn’t realise that it was possible for a person to be loved by their parents and yet have their needs completely overlooked. I felt so guilty for feeling the way I did. I was under the illusion that I had everything I needed, but actually some vital things were missing. I did not realise the damaging impact this can have, but after reading your books I totally recognised that overwhelming feeling of emptiness and the sense of being completely alone and an onlooker in the world, and a sense of even being distant from my own true self and my true feelings. I am still working on this, but receiving your emails regularly reminds me that my feelings are valid, I am not alone and I can change and learn to connect. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.


    Jonice - December 3, 2019 Reply

    Dear Amanda, thank you for sharing your experience with us! I’m so glad to be a part of your healing. If you should ever wish to participate in my online program, you can certainly do so from the UK. Keep up the great work!

jim morrison - December 1, 2019 Reply

as a teenager my family went to a roller skating rink for an outing. they refused to let me in because of the length of my hair, my father was pleased by it and i was left in the car while the rest of them went in, i was not surprised by the way i was rejected and left behind. jim

    Jonice - December 1, 2019 Reply

    That is a sad story, Jim. I’m sorry that happened, and I’m sure many others on this site can identify with it.

Janet Chelsvig-Brommel - December 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you SO much for all your articles and help! They really help me. I appreciate all you do more than you can ever know!!!

    Jonice - December 1, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome Janet!

Harold - December 1, 2019 Reply

a follow up question: for myself, this indoctrination involved teaching me thru subtext, never thru words, to be ashamed of who I am. What do you do when you discover thanks to this entire dehumanizing process that shame of self IS the self? How do I start to unpack that? It feels to me like an near impossible task : how does a human being unbecome something he has always been?

    Jonice - December 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Harold, please look up Brene Brown’s TED Talks (on Youtube) about shame.

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