One of the hardest realizations that many of us face of on our healing journeys is the thought (and all the feelings that come with it!) when we come to realize that we’re the black sheep of our family-of-origin, or of our peers, our childhood religious institution, or our early community.
Maybe there’s always been that niggling sense of feeling like the odd one out. Like the proverbial ugly stepsister. Or a sense of feeling a bit orphaned. Feeling like the lone wolf. Or a sense of being the scapegoat.
Maybe it’s because you felt, understood, and responded to things differently than other members of your family/peer group/community. Maybe it’s because you looked or sounded different. Maybe your life choices went against the grain of what was “normal” where you grew up — whether that’s because you spoke up when others didn’t, you moved away from your hometown, or you chose to love, work, and politic differently. So maybe your sense of feeling like the Black Sheep of your family or early communities was subtle and implicit, nothing directly said out loud but rather always a slight sense of the back of your mind and heart.
Or maybe your feeling of being The Black Sheep was more explicit and you were physically and relationally rejected by your family-of-origin, your church, or your early communities for who you are and how you move through the world. Maybe you were disowned, emotionally cutoff, kicked out of your house, or treated visibly differently. Maybe it’s never been a question for you that you were the proverbial Black Sheep.
However and for whatever reasons this may have manifested for you, I think that so many of us can identify with “The Black Sheep” archetype and, while this is predominantly a pejorative term in our collective lexicon, today’s blog post is all about reclaiming the power of that archetype – diving deep into what it may mean to be the so-called “Black Sheep” from both a cultural and psychological lens, exploring the pain of what it can mean to embody this archetype, but also the power, gifts, and opportunities of it, too. Finally, I’ll share a list of examples of common “black sheep” archetypes in modern media and offer up a list of prompts and inquiries for your growth and benefit if you do indeed identify as The Black Sheep.
What does it even mean to be “The Black Sheep of the Family”?
So let’s be clear: The phrase “The Black Sheep of the Family” isn’t a term listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the cornerstone diagnostic bedrock book for us mental health clinicians). It’s not like there’s one single, defined, universally-agreed-upon definition of this term (and certainly not clinically) but it’s nonetheless a phrase that has largely infused our collective cultural lexicon over the years.
So where does it come from, what does it mean, and why is it important to your psychological journey?
The phrase originally and objectively was used to describe what happened when a recessive gene resulted in the birth of a sheep with black rather than white coloring. Obviously, these black sheep stood out from the flock, and, apparently, their wool was traditionally considered less valuable. (The not-so-subtle devaluation begins…)
However, round about the 18th century is where some say the pejorative nature of the term as we come to understand it today came about. It became an idiom (a turn of phrase) meant to imply waywardness.
These days, “The Black Sheep” is a term that may be used by others to describe (or for us to self-describe) if we feel like the odd one out in any way from our family-of-origin or our early communities. And still, there are many different definitions for this phrase depending on the branch of science or arts you consult.
From a Family Systems Theory perspective — a theory introduced by Murray Bowen, MD in the mid-20th-century — the family is an emotional unit and a system in which a proverbial “Black Sheep” might be otherwise known as the “identified patient.”
The identified patient is part of a family’s collective, unconscious psychological projection process where they essentially defer and outsource the pain, tension, and anxiety felt within the dysfunctional family system onto one person who then psychologically and sometimes physically “holds” the emotional energy of the family, manifesting it in symptoms and behaviors that the other members of the group can point to and say, “There’s the problem! It’s her, not us!”
In this way, the identified patient is the so-called family scapegoat, the proverbial “Black Sheep,” serving as a “protective function” for the family’s larger dysfunctional patterning.
The “orphan” and “abandoned child” archetypes are, in essence, recurring symbols or motifs that describe someone — or some aspect of someone — who doesn’t feel like they fit in with their family or community-of-origin, physically or spiritually.
For example, “The notion of the “black sheep” in a family describes the syndrome of the child who does not seem to fit, and worse yet, on whom, maybe because of it, the family’s shadow is projected.” Showing up across myths, legends, and fairy tales since time immemorial, “the orphan” and “abandoned child” archetypes are incredibly prevalent to the point where I personally think that, at some level, we all embody this archetype in some way.
And, in a playful but also archetypal psychological storytelling way, Clarissa Pinkola Esté’s now-classic story of the Mistaken Zygote Syndrome elaborates further on the archetype of the “orphan” or “abandoned child” and can be found here and also in her book, “Women Who Run With The Wolves.”
So whether you most closely resonate with the description of the identified patient, the orphan or abandoned child archetype, the Mistaken Zygote, or all of these descriptions, you’re likely seeing that throughout each descriptor is laced the theme of being misunderstood, rejected at some level, and feeling misplaced or displaced. This is the essence, to me as a psychotherapist, of what “The Black Sheep” archetype is all about.
So if you find yourself nodding, seeing yourself in these descriptions, know that there is both pain and power, shadow and light from living out this archetype and great gifts to be gained if we do our personal work around it.
I’m ready to seek help embracing my “black sheep” archetype.
The Pain and The Power. The Shadow and the Light. And The Psychological Growth Tasks of the “Black Sheep.”
Frankly, this section of the article might as well be titled: what’s good and what’s hard about being “the black sheep” and what do we need to do about it if we want to heal. Because, as you can likely imagine, with the built-in thread of rejection and otherness that comes part and parcel with embodying the “black sheep” of your family, comes emotional pain.
While the pain of living out “the black sheep” archetype will look different for all of us, what’s likely universally true is that we all probably found ways to cope with the pain early on. Ways of coping which, at one point, probably served us extremely well just to survive and make it through that experience of being rejected, misunderstood, or feeling “other.” However, like with most psychological defenses, there’s going to come a time when our coping mechanisms, our adaptive ways of being in the world, likely stop working so well.
So the “shadow side” of living out this black sheep archetype can often mean coping in ways that are maladaptive to healthy, functional, thriving lives that we ultimately want to live. For example, some coping mechanisms may manifest as the following:
- Perhaps because you felt so rejected by your family of origin you walled off your heart and developed ways of keeping other people at arm’s length so you’ll never have to feel that rejection again. But now you’re struggling to form a healthy, close romantic relationship despite truly longing for this.
- Or perhaps you learned to take comfort in food, overeating, or restricting, or binging and purging to feel “nourishment” and “control” that you didn’t otherwise feel from your family or community-of-origin and now your physical body (not to mention your health) is suffering because of it.
- Maybe you developed a deep sense of rage and resentment that you were treated so unkindly and unfairly and this has pervaded your life and keeps you in a state of chronic negativity and victimhood even today.
- Perhaps, because your trust was broken early on by people who were supposed to accept and support you, you developed a hyper-inflated sense of independence versus learning how to be interdependent with others. And you’re experiencing challenges with your coworkers, or spouse, neighbors, or girlfriends because of this.
- Conversely, maybe because of an absence of functional, healthy parenting early on, you developed on over-dependency on others to compensate on what you originally didn’t receive and so now you struggle to be appropriately self-reliant and put too much pressure on other relationships in your life to unrealistically fulfill all your needs.
- Maybe you feel disconnected and isolated at all levels from others and from yourself and this sense of loneliness is manifesting for you as a deep sense of sadness and depression.
These are but just a few of the ways this pain, this “shadow side” of being the black sheep may manifest and I’ve included more questions and prompts to help you get clearer about what your own personal shadow aspects of embodying this archetype may be further down in the article.
But, as with everything in life, along with a “shadow side” comes a “light side” which means there is actually a tremendous amount of gift, opportunity, and power that can come with living out the “black sheep” archetype.
Specifically, I think some of the great gifts from living out this archetype can include:
- Greater physical freedom. When you feel or are rejected by your family or community-of-origin, there may be more freedom for you to strike out, explore this big wide world and find your truer home. The place you want to intentionally set down roots. And without feeling “obligated” to stay within the immediate radius of your family or community-of-origin, you have more freedom and choice to do this.
- Increased lifestyle choice. When you aren’t beholden to your family or church’s or community’s expectations of you, you have a greater opportunity to craft the life you truly want, not just the one you’re “supposed to have.” You can more fully choose how you want to love, politic, work, dress, worship, and nourish and build community.
- The potential for a greater and stronger sense of self. When you’re subtly or overtly rejected, you may be forced to develop more independence than your siblings or peers earlier on. This can dovetail, too, with an increased capacity for a stronger sense of self if you’ve had to defend and assert yourself for a place in your family or community. Those who embody “the black sheep” of the family may often have more psychological “scars” than other, more accepted family members, but they may also have a greater sense of self than others in the family, too.
- A greater sense of empathy and compassion for those who likewise and in their own way identify as “other.” Pain can create empathy, and empathy can create connection. I think that one of the great gifts of being “the black sheep” is the opportunity for increased empathy and compassion for so many others who society often deems as “other.”
- A unique opportunity to find our “Wolf Pack.” When we’re rejected or misunderstood by those we come from, we have the opportunity to own and use our voice and our deep sense of self-awareness to seek out those we more closely identify with and resonate with. These folks become our “wolf pack,” our family-of-choice, our urban family, our soul tribe, a group that can love and cherish us in a way that our family or community-of-origins may simply not have the capacity to do.
These are but only a handful of examples of what we stand to gain If we’re willing to do the psychological work required for any of us who identify as The Black Sheep.
However, in order to fully mine the gold in the mud, to claim the gifts in the pain that can come from living out this archetype, there is, of course, psychological work that may be required for us. Specifically, I think the primary psychological tasks anyone who self-identifies as “The Black Sheep” may include:
- Cultivating self-awareness: Accepting your differences and getting to know yourself apart from other’s expectations.
- Grieving: Mourning your losses, perhaps of your family or place-of-origin and certainly of the experience of acceptance you likely didn’t have. And please know, this grieving work takes time, and it’s critical.
- Individuating: Facing your fears of isolation and loneliness by moving away from your family (physically or psychologically) and finding your proverbial wolf pack instead.
- Healthy relating: Learning or relearning how to have close, connected, healthy relationships and embracing interdependence versus independence or isolation.
- Becoming self-esteemed: Standing in your deep truth and keeping 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.
So how do we do the psychological work that may be required of us to grow, to heal, and to fully claim the gifts that come along with living out “the black sheep” archetype?
What’s *Your* Unique Work As A “Black Sheep?”
I can’t emphasize this enough, but I think investing in therapy to move towards and craft the life you actually want to live is one of the most effective and pivotal steps you can take.
Therapy gives you the chance to experience exactly what you may not have experienced in your family or communities-of-origin: acceptance, safety, attunement, mirroring, and the transformational experience of being in a healthy, functional relationship (this alone cannot be underestimated as a healing force!).
So whether you work with me or with another therapist in your hometown, or if you choose to do this work on your own in the safe pages of your old-school journal or in a password protected Google doc, dig into these sample questions to help to get to know more about how living out the “black sheep” archetype has played out and impacted your life and what you may need in order to do something different:
With or without the help of a therapist, consider the following:
- When you read through this article, what came up for you? Did you full-on identify with being “a black sheep”? Or did only some parts of it feel true for you?
- In what ways did you experience “being the black sheep” of your family-of-origin? Your community-of-origin? Your childhood peers? Your childhood religious institution?
- How did you cope with being “the black sheep”? What ways of being or thoughts or behaviors did you create to keep yourself safe and sane? Were they effective back then?
- How well are those behaviors/ways of being/coping mechanisms working out for you today? How are they now getting in your way?
- What do you think you need to grieve or mourn in order to process the pain of having been “the black sheep”? What do you need to give up or release?
- What do you see as some of your big healing tasks (psychological or physical or logistical) that you may need to face in order to “find the gold in the mud” of being the black sheep?
- What supports and resources do you need to gather around you in order to do this work? A therapist? A support group? Your wolf pack?
- What do you think life might be like if you could heal the pain that you’ve carried around from identifying as “The Black Sheep”?
Wrapping this up.
I truly hope you enjoyed this article and felt, at least in some way, seen and understood by learning more about “The Black Sheep” archetype.
“The Black Sheep” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in our collective lexicon but few articles/books/movies really do a deep dive on what this truly means and how it may impact us psychologically if we likewise identify with it.
So my hope is that you took away at least one idea from this article about how you can further your own growth and development and claim all the gifts and goodness that embodying “The Black Sheep” archetype can hold. Because honestly, there really is just so much psychological growth opportunity in it!
And if you need to feel some camaraderie/are interested in digging further into what embodying “The Black Sheep” archetype may look like, I’ve included a list of some characters and books at the end of this article that I personally think embody this archetype. I hope you enjoy it!
And until next time, take very good care of yourself no matter where you are on your healing journey, and remember, “He who cannot howl, will not find his pack.” So don’t forget to howl…
Examples of “The Black Sheep” Archetype In Media and Literature:
If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you guys know I love cinematherapy (using film, media, and books as tools in our own personal growth) and over the years I’ve collected a little list of those I think embody “The Black Sheep” archetype in both big and subtle ways from my own reading/viewing. Peruse the list and let me know in the comments what other characters/books/TV shows/movies you think have a proverbial “Black Sheep” in them, too.
- Luke Skywalker from Star Wars
- Frodo Baggins from Lord of The Rings
- Elphaba from Wicked
- Harry Potter
- The Ugly Duckling (here’s a little Disney short of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale classic)
- Simba in The Lion King
- Elsa from Frozen
- Maleficent from the Sleeping Beauty story (check out the 2014 Angelina Jolie version for a complex example of how the “shadow” of “The Black Sheep” can manifest)
- Jon Snow from Game of Thrones
- So. many. characters. in Orange Is the New Black, but particularly Piper in the context of her family
- Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl
- Martha Beck’s autobiographical narrative in Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith
If, in reading this article, you saw yourself in it AND if you could use some support establishing healthy boundaries with those in your life that challenge you, I want to let you know about my upcoming course “Hard Families, Good Boundaries.”
Here’s the thing: Identifying your needs and wants and asserting your boundaries skillfully is a big, complex issue and something I’ve spent nearly a decade helping others learn how to do.
I’ve often wanted to reach way more people than I can ever see in my therapy practice who want my support around this and that’s why I’m excited to say that I’m launching my first ever online course – “Hard Families, Good Boundaries” – very soon and would love to have you in my first class cohort!
This course will teach you:
- What boundaries actually are and how to know if yours are being crossed;
- Why having and holding clear and firm boundaries actually benefits you and that other family member;
- How to hold boundaries even when you’re afraid to (and especially when you feel like you “can’t”) ;
- The critical steps you need to take in order to cope with any external or internal backlash (strong, hard feelings from them or from inside of you).
If you’re interested, please join the waitlist here and I’ll let you know when the course pre-sale goes live.
I’m soooo excited to teach this. Will you join me?
- Jung, C. (August 1, 1981). Collected Works of C.G. Jung (Book 1). Princeton University Press.
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