Are you the black sheep of the family?

Are you the black sheep?

A black sheep of the family may feel:

  • excluded, left out of family gatherings
  • disapproved of

Sometimes it is used to refer to someone who is different, maybe disreputable or odd. 

There is something undesirable about the black sheep.

It may not be all bad news, for some people being the black sheep means that you have never followed the trends.

On Google searches the dominant theme is of being excluded, rejected.  Whereas if that child grows up to be successful… then possibly being the black sheep comes to mean something different. 

It doesn’t have to mean you won’t succeed, though it may mean your family will never accept you.

What makes a black sheep?

Within psychology, and psychotherapy there are particular ideas about how early development shapes us. From an object relations perspective our early experiences of family, of our parents and siblings fundamentally shapes the way in which we feel part of the group. 

We may have been born into our family at a difficult time.  Children who are born to depressed mothers for example are likely to internalise a sense of being excluded from the start, to feel that they were never good enough.  Often the mother’s depression remains obscure while the child carries the bad feelings.

If we have had an experience of something interfering with the way in which we are settled in the group then we may feel like the black sheep in the family

family acceptance

Black sheep of the family and siblings

  • We may have had the experience of feeling like we didn’t fit in with our siblings. 
  • There might be a big age gap between us and our siblings.
  • We might be the child our parents had when they were teenagers, and then they waited several years before having more.

It is easy to think that we are to blame for the fact that we never seemed to fit in like our siblings did, but if we take a look at the structure of our families and consider the emotional states of our parents when we were conceived and born it can tell us plenty about how we do or do not fit in. All kinds of anxieties and feelings of being the odd one out can result from this.

Attachment theory would say that our ability to develop a sense of a secure base is crucial to developing good mental health.  Being born into a family at a difficult time in its development can make it very hard to have any sense of a secure base. The black sheep of the family won’t feel attached or that they have a secure base within their family of origin.

It can be helpful to think of one’s place within a family genogram

A genogram is picture of the family you are born into, a map of your kinship.

Unlike a family tree which provides a link to ancestors, a genogram is a representation of the families that we were born into, of the age difference with our siblings.  It is a representation of the family relationships you grew up in.  It includes any parents or siblings who died.

When you look closely into your family genogram it is not uncommon to find that a sibling died before you were born that had an impact on your family without you knowing it. Take the example of Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born and died on March 30, 1852—a stillbirth. Exactly a year later to the day, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, the future artist, was born. His parents gave him the same name as his deceased brother.

When Vincent (the artist) went to church with his family they walked past the dead Vincent’s grave. It was probably very difficult for the surviving Vincent, his name, his birth date all belonged to his dead sibling.

Can a black sheep thrive?

Carl G. Jung became the black sheep of Freud’s psychoanalytic family.

In 1914 Freud and Jung split.  Jung found Freud’s preoccupation with sexuality too dominant and narrow.  Jung rejected Freud’s idea that libido must be understood as solely relating to sex.  For Jung, libido represents life force, will, energy, more than sexual energy. 

The result of the dispute lead to Jung being outcast by the psychoanalytic community, a black sheep.  This is still largely the case today.

This split has meant that psychoanalysis has limped along without the balance that Jung’s view of the human psyche brought. 

For Jung, being outcast was traumatic. He kept a journal of the experience which was published posthumously (The Red Book).  We know now from the account that he kept, that he considered that all of the major insights of his future work derived from facing the pain of the rejection.  By embracing being the black sheep he came to thrive.


If you feel that you are the black sheep of your family – what are you going to do about it?

Contact now for a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach may help.