© Marianne Glaeser 2022
Is this headline talking to you? Then please read on. Chances are you’ll learn something that will change the way you look at yourself and the world around you.
Feeling like the misfit among those closest to you is a tough fate indeed. Maybe you believe that nobody wants you, difficult as you are; maybe you don’t even like yourself at this point. Years of struggle may have turned you into a difficult, rebelling, possibly even self-sabotaging person with endless needs and apparently little to give. Senseless suffering is the worst kind of suffering, and senseless it seems unless you learn to understand the beautiful gift you are incorporating… so, let’s flip the coin for once and take a look at the other, much neglected side of the black sheep nature…
First let me ask you a couple of questions:
Are you one of those who somehow stand out wherever they go, who just know they have something special to offer, yet the minute they cross the threshold of their parents’ home they suffer from feeling inadequate, small and strangely guilty?
In your family of origin do you feel the pressure of having to prove yourself, justifying who you are and what you do, yet never really succeeding in getting the wholehearted approval you have been yearning for as long as you can remember?
In your grown-up environment, are you familiar with being told how amazingly gifted you are, how special, how wise beyond your age, whishing your parents and siblings could witness that?
If you have been nodding in agreement all the way to this point then I guess it’s confirmed — you too belong to the black sheep-species.
Black sheep stand out; in a herd of the usual white sheep, black are the rare exception. The difference is right in your face. The black sheep challenges a position: either to be liked as being special or to be disliked as an irritation. Black sheep force us to stop and look. They demand attention simply by being who they are. They make us aware that living the norm is not the only option, they force us to question our habitual horizon and integrate the other, their way — as a way to live.
Here is a summary of classic black-sheep-experiences that I have observed. (Please remember: categorization is meant to increase understanding and tends to simplify. It can never do justice to the richness of personal experience; certain things may not apply to you, while others you might find missing.)
This is a common experience of a black sheep child. They are observers; they observe not only with their eyes but also with their hearts. Looking deeply they distinguish nuances on multiple levels. While being so aware of people around them, black sheep seldom feel recognized or understood themselves. A lonely place to be. But also a place of experienced responsibility and power.
Not every highly sensitive person is a black sheep, but high sensitivity is a rather common trait among black sheep people. They have these additional antennas that make them perceptive of their environments, attuned to details the “norm” is not even aware of. They have additional information they need to process and integrate, a challenging task especially if they are expected to “function” just like everybody else, which, of course, they can’t. Highly sensitive people need additional space and time to process and integrate, otherwise they become irritable and confused, overwhelmed with the load of information flooding in. The parents’ understanding and support in meeting this need is key to their offspring’s development. Otherwise highly sensitive children can become quite difficult, demanding kids who tend to monopolize the family’s attention and manipulate those close to them. High sensitivity is a gift that has its price.
Black sheep are often the main carriers of childhood memories. Do you know those siblings who just seem to be able to tell endless stories, often in detail, about what happened then, while the rest of the family either simply shake their heads in an “I don’t remember anything!” way, or might burst out in an occasional: “Yes, exactly, now I remember!”? Yes, that’s black sheep. They do remember.
Their mere existence seems to cause unrest in a family. Their approach to life and their uncompromising way of sharing that challenges the whole system and often questions the kinfolk’s sacred horizon painfully. Black sheep seem to stumble right into any family taboo there is, and are poorly equipped to live by the rules passed on from generation to generation. Why? No, they are not looking for trouble. All they are trying to do is to be authentically who they think they are — they just look at life from a different angle.
Their need to express themselves has something existential: they are yearning to be seen, recognized, and to finally get a sense of belonging. But somehow it seems that the more they show, the harder it gets.
Black sheep are often very gifted people. They are courageous and extraordinary. Sooner or later they will meet people who recognize and acknowledge their core, which will help them to appreciate who they are. The moment their sense of guilt and shame about themselves is replaced by gratitude and self-respect, they can achieve great things.
Interestingly more often than not their role within the family of origin persists. No matter how impressive their success, appreciation from parents and siblings will be scarce — if any at all. They might follow via FB or twitter, but apart from the occasional “like” there won’t be much of a response.
At family gatherings the talk will rather be about the black sheep’s childhood mishaps than about the recently received award. If they do comment on the black sheep’s present career then it’s often in an indifferent or even skeptical way. The old pain of not good enough, of feeling odd and not really belonging is flaring up, and so it is that the successful musician turns into the black sheep the moment she or he crosses the parental threshold … The structure is harsh — the black sheep is where it belongs.
But, strangely, in times of real crisis, this is the sibling they will go to, confide in, ask advice from. But only one on one. And nobody must know.
If the family system is flexible enough, over time the black sheep will be embraced and even appreciated. Once the black sheep is fully integrated into the family, it will turn into a real asset — just like the kiss that turns the frog into the prince. The family as a whole, in its diversity, will be enriched, healed and transformed.
Black sheep too play a crucial role in a healthy development here; Unfortunately, hurt and hardened over the years, black sheep tend to display a lack of understanding for the needs of others and a sometimes arrogant “know-it-all”-kind of stance; this makes it extremely difficult for others to reach out and open up towards them. Humility and the capacity to self-reflect will be a decisive factor here, as everybody will have to face up to the injustice and pain that had happened on all sides.
Having said that, if the family resists the black sheep’s need for change, the whole system will grow stiffer, intensifying bitterness, pain and separation.
Black sheep are the burden bearers in the families, as long as the rest of the crowd goes for denial. If the black sheep is the only one who looks and sees what is dysfunctional, she or he is the only one who has to deal with it. The one who sees it, carries it.
Unfortunately quite a number of families fall victim to the temptation of simply turning the black sheep into a “scape goat”: “Isolate this troublemaker and we’ll have peace”, the logic goes. The outcome is disastrous — adding guilt and pain to an already ailing structure.
The more the family system is opening up to change, the more each member will be willing to see. The more they see the more they will carry their own burdens. The more they carry their own burdens the more they will be able to embrace their black sheep.
Due to the tense situation within their family coupled with their high sensitivity, black sheep kids are prone to develop psychological problems. Anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, a tendency to self-harm or addictive behaviour — there are so many ways the ongoing conflict might manifest through the black sheep’s soul. They need special attention and can be very exhausting for their caretakers in that way. It is often this very journey of pain and suffering that prepares the family to change and grow.
So, hopefully, one day you will be amazed to find strands of black in the white sheep’s fur; white hair on the black sheep, on the other hand, would have been expected…
Many of the black sheep I know have moved away from their home of origin; more often than not far away, even if it was only for a limited period of time. Although they can feel pretty homesick in the beginning, they also know that that’s exactly where they do get sick: at home. For them, in order to grow wings, they need to leave.
At family gatherings later in life family members can become all melancholic and sad about these carefree days having past, sharing cherished childhood memories, talking about the privilege of having been raised in such a beautiful environment. Black sheep usually keep quiet during these sentimental outpourings. The reason is simple: unlike their relatives, they don’t experience joy, as they are approaching their hometown. Sadly it might even be the opposite: familiar landmarks still carry those powerful memories of a childhood lived in inner exile; no matter how stunning the environment, for a black sheep it tends to dissolve un-cherished under the fog of confusion and discomfort.
So, is leaving an escape, or a sign of weakness and cowardice? This was a nagging thought that I was struggling with. After years of trying to make myself feel all those happy feelings my siblings were describing, I’ve finally come to accept: it is what it is — and it’s not what it’s not. I love visiting my family, but I’m always grateful I am not living there anymore.
In her book “Return to Love” Marianne Williamson unveils with only a few words the amazing truth of what I would call the black sheep’s true nature, it’s challenge and it’s way out of the lie.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The gifts you carry for your loved ones as much as for your own self are substantial: gifts of growth and healing. You are exactly the way you are supposed to be, you always have been! The only thing that was wrong was the judgment about you.
So please take my advice: Be gentle with yourself, don’t be too hard on others, and live, courageously live.