Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Role of the Family Black Sheep – The Hidden Aspects

Are you a black sheep in your family? You know, the one that doesn’t seem to go along with the program and acts in ways that seemingly run counter to the values of the rest of the family? Guess what: you are not nearly as rebellious as you think you are.

A frequent topic on this blog and on my blog on Psychology Today is dysfunctional family roles. Because of the biological phenomenon known as kin selection, individuals are often willing to sacrifice their own needs and desires in order to act in ways which stabilize unstable parents and maintain what family systems therapists refer to as family homeostasis

The latter is a process by which the family operates by rules, strongly enforced by all family members, in which every family member plays a predictable, designated part. Family rules are originally derived from the culture or ethnic group in which the family has operated as well as by family experiences that necessitated certain behavior. In dysfunctional families, the family rules have become obsolete due to rapid changes in the ambient culture (cultural lag).

Many cultural changes have lead to situations in which individuals are much freer to express their own wants and needs separate from those of the family (self-actualization). If the family is stuck in the past, members (especially the older ones) may be threatened by certain aspects of individual freedom. They may be enticing and seductive, but were strongly forbidden to them by the people that raised them in earlier times.

This desire versus fear dynamic is what the Freudians were talking about with their notion of intrapsychic conflict. What they missed, however, was that the conflict is not entirely intrapsychic, but is triggered and reinforced by an entire family. In fact, the “intrapsychic conflict” is actually shared by all of them! It leads to family members giving off mixed and contradictory messages to one another about what is expected of them.

A big source of shared intrapsychic conflict in families that I have not discussed extensively is changing attitudes toward individual satisfaction involving things such as the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There has been a marked cultural shift in the propriety of pleasuring oneself with these pursuits. Because of cultural lag, people will often give lip service to such issues as sexual abstinence or reserving sex for procreation only, while at the same time covertly availing themselves of opportunities seemingly at odds with their expressed values.

This is the situation that leads to one member of the family – often but not always a younger child—to volunteer to be the rule breaker, enjoying that which is attractive to but forbidden to all the others. The others, particularly the parents, get vicarious satisfaction of their own secret desires through watching their children indulge themselves. However, the situation is far more complicated. While black sheep may seem to be having a good time so the parents can do this, that unfortunately is not their only job.

If they have too good a time, and end up being happy and content, a parent who was secretly and subtly pushing them to break the family rules starts to become unstable. Vicarious experience, while mildly satisfying, is just not the same thing as actual experience. The conflicted parents start to wonder about their own choices in life and then become depressed, have marital problems with the spouse that has helped them go along with family rules, or engage in self-destructive behavior.

To prevent this and keep the parents stable, the black sheep must also demonstrate the folly of engaging in the “rebellious” behavior. They do so by, in a sense, finding ways to make themselves miserable because of it. In a sense, they fail at it, so the parents can become once again secure in the knowledge that they made the right decision in sticking to the old prohibitions.

In the process of indulging themselves in sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, black sheep may develop an addiction, contract a sexually transmitted disease, have an affair and destroy their marriage and their relationships with their own children, have multiple divorces, or become deadbeat dads. The rest of the family can then hold them up as examples that “prove” that the forbidden impulses are forbidden for good reason. The old family rules against self indulgence simply must continue to be followed. 

If they want to redeem themselves, black sheep may have to join a 12 step program and denounce their own willfulness. They need to go back to that old time religion – and the group that they join, in order to maintain itself, also needs someone to do just that. Just like their families need them to do.


  1. Interesting post

    Can, and if so, how can family therapy help a black sheep who lives away from home and has not been home in over a year, not working and is possibly a gaming/screen addict, with lots of money in the bank , social anxiety, and would probably refuse to attend anyway?

    If it could help in this situation I would be willing to try.

    Does not seem likely to help

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Yes, family therapy or finding an individual therapist who understands family dynamics absolutely can help, although finding the latter can be quite a challenge.

      Of course, either the family or the individual would have to not only show up but stick with it, as the work isn't easy.

      I don't know what's available wherever you are, but the therapy treatments I recommend are listed at the end of my post You can ask about a therapist’s theoretical orientation before making an appointment. Bowen family therapists and schema therapists are the most common of those listed in the United States.

  2. I am a black sheep, the product of being the eldest of eleven children (I will soon turn 61). That said, I will forever shine my truth and in doing so, I will forever carry this label as far as my family is concerned. And yet, being the black one is quite positive (speaking for myself), for some of the traits associated with this word include power, mystery, strength, and elegance. Thank you for the label, family. I am all those traits and more, for I am a survivor.

    I had to distance myself from the family 42 years ago...I had to escape the dysfunction/passive aggressiveness. Why? Because I spoke the truth without hesitation and became the internal, unwelcomed mirror. Borrowing this edited movie quote: You/they can’t/could not handle the truth! Externally, this separate reflection threatened the family's projected facade.

    My parents have since passed. I have little contact with and my younger siblings. The majority of them seem to be repeating what I refer to as the “mental illness” our parents possessed. I certainly feel for them, yet accept who they are (even though this is not reciprocated by most). Live and let live. A couple siblings seem a bit healthier, yet do carry a touch of that facade around. And, I do have one brother who, like me, is also labeled the black one. Having two black sheep in our family gives me hope, for we made a choice, our beacons are genuine, and they do shine brightly. It is entirely up to the others what journey they will follow and I do wish them all well.

    Yes, being the black one can be quite positive. Family therapy not likely here with this group. The facade embraced by the family is a tough nut to crack.

    1. I love your response. I am 54 and am STILL dealing w black sheep syndrome. I’m completely opposite in all aspects of my mom and dad and sister and brother. I went for an obligatory visit (had to fly its so far) to see my parents last weekend. I was traumatized. Dad is insinuating that I will receive no inheritance-he holds it over my head. I need to fall in line. He actually said “ your husband would be a good guy if he made more money”. My husband is everything that my dad isn’t!! My brother and sister are kissing up so much now that my parents are 85/81.......I won’t do it!

  3. Your last paragraph is powerful. I love your work.