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

December 18, 2018

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, with 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 one’s own family,  Hall writes, it can lead to a disintegration of identity.  What’s more, rejection engenders profound consequences, ranging from aggressiveness, 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 as different, excluded, not accepted, or not as well liked as other members in 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:

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 of her 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 where 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.’’

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 broke down 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.’’

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