Much more than a humble phrase, the ‘black sheep’ is very real. Particularly when you consider that, among any gaggle of relatives, human nature often dictates that individuals slot into archetypal roles – even if they do so unconsciously.
“If you think of the family as a system,” says Barbara Honey, a counselor for Relate, “you can be cast in all kinds of different roles. You might be the baby of the family, the rescuer of the family, or you may well be the black sheep, which essentially means you’re the baddie of the family.”
But beyond the trivialities of modern life – how many hearts your Instagram snaps acquire from your aunties, say, or to what extent your Facebook wall lights up each birthday – how can you actually identify your role? Asking seems dumb (and certainly not behavior befitting ‘the rescuer’), whereas deciding yourself is a little delusional and broadly pointless.
In the hope of enlightening you about your black sheep credentials (or, you know, that ‘cousin’ you’re worried about), you’ll find a whole slew of potential red flags below. So, go on… what are ewe waiting for? (Sorry – I’m ‘the one with crap jokes’ in my family.)
1. You’re reading this.
Let’s address the elephant – or rather, sheep – in the room. There is no cousin, is there? You’re more than a little concerned that, throughout your family, the default fall guy is you. It’s alright. Nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all friends here.
If someone is reading this article, they may well be wondering about their own relationship with being a black sheep
“People engage in things because it has some personal connection for them,” admits psychotherapist, Nicholas Rose. “So, if someone is reading this article, they may well be wondering about their own relationship with being a black sheep, or maybe they’ve got a black sheep in the family and they’re not treating them so nicely. More likely, though, it’s the other way around.”
2. Your relatives put you down.
Another fairly unambiguous sign-post, this. When getting together at Christmas or for your birthday, are your family members quicker to dish out smiles and thoughtful gifts, or eye rolls and heavy sighs? “The attitudes of other family members are very telling,” claims Honey. “People can be warm and kind and loving and so on, or they can be cold and critical and constantly putting you down.”
Going further, the ways a black sheep is talked about, particularly by their parents, while they’re in the same room, can shed light on their standing. “It can be a red flag,” confirms Honey, “especially if they’re saying things like, ‘I told you he is up to no good’, ‘He’s an absolute waste of space’, or, you know, ‘He’s done it again’. Essentially, if family members can’t even do you the favor of waiting till you’re out of earshot before bitching about you, you could well be in trouble.
3. Your beliefs are wildly different from your families’.
Whether you’re a Trump supporter among a band of ardent Obama lovers, or find that your newly found Buddhist faith really screws with the family’s Scientology vibe, fundamental differences in views can cause lasting – if not permanent – ructions.
“It’s all about difference,” says Honey, “and to what extent can difference be tolerated in a family. You don’t have them written down in a book, but every family has rules – from whether you invite people in the house, to how you manage meal times. If you diverge from these rules, and do something like become a member of a particular religion, join a cult or become a goth, if that’s not acceptable in your family, then yes, you can become the black sheep.”
4. You’re an academic, swimming in a sea of blue collars.
Another instance of chalk colliding quite dramatically with cheese, intelligence-based division can also come a large degree of snark. (‘You’ve got all those degrees, but you still can’t work the television’ muttered 10,000 uncles, today alone.)
People have very strong reactions to these things because they feel so threatened
“It’s a threat,” says Honey. “When a person in the family does something different, it’s like a threat to the whole family, to the whole family system and to the whole set of rules. The reason we behave in all these funny and strange ways is usually quite profound, and it often comes down to issues of survival.
“So if you think about the family as a little tribe, when somebody threatens the tribe and the rules of the tribe, then the ultimate implication is the family will completely break down – the person who is a threat breaks it all up – and that’s disastrous.
“People have very strong reactions to these things because they feel so threatened. So the first person to go to university, or the opposite of that – everyone goes to university and somebody wants to be a farmer – it’s about being cast as the ‘other’. It doesn’t matter what the difference is, the point is that ‘different’ is threatening.”
5. You don’t look related.
Cue any number of jokes about being the milkman’s child, but being visually different to the rest of your family can raise subconscious hackles. Hackles that, once again, link back to our ancestry.
‘Oh, did the milkman have blue eyes?’
“Difference is bias, and bias is always about survival instincts and self-defence,” says Rose. “The reason why we spot difference is that it alerts us to something, and we question whether it’s a threat or not. And so, yes, if someone is very different to us in a family context – being the only one with the blue eyes – will raise questions.
“You’ll get comments like, ‘Oh, did the milkman have blue eyes?’, but really what people are saying is: ‘Is everything okay?’ And wanting reassurance that it is. If there isn’t that reassurance, then yes, someone can become the black sheep, because there’s a fear that something is not quite as it should be.”
6. Family gatherings feel like a prison sentence.
You arrive, and immediately check your watch. You begrudgingly do the rounds, saying hi to everyone you’re related to – and who you’d never share a room with, let alone a bottle of Pinot Noir, if you didn’t happen to share DNA – and rattle through the pleasantries.
Such feelings of malaise often derive from fear
Then follows the same three conversations you always have. Yep, work is fine. Nope, still no girlfriend. Uh huh, weather is quite nice for this time of year. Christmas? You’d be lying if you said you’d even thought about it. You eat too much food. You try to avoid drinking too much alcohol. You fail. You leave, and already dread that you’ll do it all again within a few months.
Put in more clinical terms, according to Honey such feelings of malaise often derive from fear. “The individual won’t necessarily feel welcome, they won’t feel valued, they might be ignored and they might be criticized,” she says. “All of these negative things can make a family gathering extremely uncomfortable for someone – particularly if they feel like the black sheep.”
7. You’re viewed as a bit of a rebel.
One might wonder whether ‘rebel’ is merely a synonym for black sheep, however there’s a clear distinction between the two. Rebellion suggests action – someone intentionally rejecting rules or expectations – and that can extend beyond a family unit to their social life, music or clothing choices; not to mention lairy haircuts, piercings or tattoos.
A black sheep, on the other hand, “that’s the judgement of the other people, as opposed to the individual,” confirms Rose. “The person doesn’t say ‘I want to be the black sheep’, it’s more of a passive acquisition.”
That said, your family might cast you as the rebel, for little more reason than they don’t understand you. Which brings us back to our old friend difference. Rose: “It’s about the attitudes of the people who are concerned they’ve got a member of the family that’s different. Of course, what might be going on for them is that they might be feeling rejected by the individual – they might be feeling hurt that the family’s mutual way of life isn’t shared.”
8. You’ve never introduced a partner to family members.
Your family doesn’t understand you, so why on earth would you actively choose to subject someone else to such treatment? Worse, you fear that your relatives are actually on to something, and there is something peculiar and black sheep-ish about you. If you bring a date into that environment, they’ll soon learn of the ‘real’ you, and promptly bail. It’s bleak, but a reality for some.
They’re more likely to withdraw or be more defensive
“They can’t see a way of addressing what they see as a misunderstanding,” says Rose, “and so they’re more likely to withdraw or be more defensive.” The irony comes, as Rose notes, when “they then act more like the black sheep, which leads to a sort of vicious cycle.”