Dear black sheep, if you visit your family for a birthday or the holidays, you put on a benevolent smile, but you sense a big distance. You don’t say all that much, because you don’t agree with most of the things being said. And you know there’s no room for other ideas.
After that one Christmas that ended in an icy silence, you learned to shut up. Or maybe, after a fight, you stopped talking to your family altogether and your heart starts pounding when you walk into an aunt in the supermarket. Or maybe you have a difficult time handling how some family members do pick your side and yet make you feel like you’re ‘different’ or not good enough. Every time, you leave feeling bad, because you feel they don’t understand you or see you.
If you feel different within your family, or you feel like you’re the black sheep in an otherwise white herd, this letter is for you. As a child, you probably had the distinct feeling you couldn’t be yourself (you maybe even fantasized that you were adopted), but back then, you were still tied to the family system.
Now that you’re older, you’ve driven away from the herd. You’ve grown, and that makes the differences between you and your family more visible. Maybe you’ve picked a practical profession, as opposed to your ‘educated’ family, and they keep asking you when you will really do something with your life. Or maybe you were the only one to go to university (this is me). Maybe they call you ‘the professor’ every time you say a ‘difficult’ word. Maybe you have a different view on politics than the rest, maybe you’ve stopped going to church or maybe your love life is different from how your family thinks it should be.
In the system of a family, there’s always a ‘we’. How much room there is for people to be different, depends on how broad-minded this ‘we’ is. If there’s room enough, people are less likely to have conflicts (I’m lucky that this is the case in my family). If, however, the family is like crabs in a bucket, there will be trouble.
The extreme step is to end all contact with your family. In some cases, it’s the best solution, but there are quite a lot of downsides. It will not make the pain go away, and it ends all hope for improvement. The thought of ‘honor your mother and father’ can cause a lot of guilt. And every year that goes by without you talking to your family, will make it more difficult to break the silence.
What I would rather suggest, dear black sheep, is to keep your distance – both physically and emotionally. You don’t have to go to every birthday, but make sure you see your family a couple times a year, but it’s mostly about emotional distance. Study your pain with a therapist or go to a workshop about Family Constellations. Write it all down. Practice self reflection, even if you think only ten percent of the trouble is your ‘fault’ – analyse the ten percent. Try to see your family members with kindness, take their own youth and personal problems into account. See whether you can change something about the dynamics between you and your family by assuming another role, and avoiding to get into the same old dynamics.
Celebrate what’s there
Whether the relationship will get better or not, it’s important to make room for grief. Allow yourself to grieve about the things you hoped for, but your family wasn’t able to give you. Mourn the image of a family, laughing and having dinner sitting at long tables in the grass – the image you’ve kept in mind for so long, but simply doesn’t exist. Cherish the good memories, cry about the sad ones.
Black sheep, accept things the way they are. From there, it’s easier to see and celebrate the good stuff. You may even be able to jump into the white herd every now and then, and afterwards get back to the sheep you’ve chosen to be around in your own life.
With love and respect for how you’re handling it all,
Text: Susan Smit - Photo: Nathalie Heathcoat