Dec 19

“Black Sheep”: Don’t Let Feeling Different Be Bad

If you’re the “black sheep” in your family, probably no one has had to spell this out for you. You just know it. What you know is that your family members feel “shame or embarrassment because of [your] deviation from [their] accepted standards” (

A black sheep for real, by the way, is a sheep born that way among white sheep because of a recessive gene thing. In related news, recently I saw my first black squirrel—a rare variation among Eastern gray squirrels—and I thought, how cool. Cool because it was so different, and it’s cool to be different, maybe even preferable. Said a black sheep.

In 2007 psychologist Louis Wynne published “a survival manual” for black sheep called Healing the Hurting Soul. From his website:

Not all families have a black sheep, but most do. This is the person, male or female, who refuses to live by the family rules, who insists on doing things his/her way, and who does not respect the person in his/her generation who has inherited the title of ‘rule-enforcer’–usually the oldest sibling.

Two hundred years ago these people would have left the family at an early age and gone west with the American expansion across the continent. Some men would have joined the army. In the United States of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries these black sheep are frequently labeled mentally ill, and they are forced to take medications that families believe will bring them back into line with family expectations.

Jonice Webb, PhD, author of a 2012 book on childhood emotional neglect called Running On Empty, points out, though, that black sheep are usually not mentally ill.

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. 

Webb contends that any of the following family dynamics can contribute to black-sheep self-identification:

  1. The child who has the least in common with the parents.
  2. The best and the brightest.
  3. The child most prone to depression or anxiety.
  4. Sibling rivalry.
  5. A parent who despises himself deep down and unconsciously “projects those traits onto a chosen child, and despises him instead.”
  6. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): “the child who is the most invisible” for whatever reasons.

Another of Webb’s blog posts is “A Message to All the Black Sheep of the World.” From this piece:

  1. Research supports you. As in, it validates your pain of feeling excluded.
  2. Self-fulfilling prophecy supports you. “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.”
  3. 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.”

Her encouraging conclusion:

You were chosen for a reason.

You are real.

You are valid.

You matter.