The Wondrous “Black Sheep”: the Truth Teller of a Family

How often have you heard someone describing their family and either talking about a sibling that was the “Black Sheep” of the family or even themselves. Every family has one; the Black Sheep, the Problem Child, The Rebel or Underachiever. In truth I would like to reframe this name to the Wonderous Change Agent or Truth Teller of the Family.

According to Virginia Satir family pain manifests itself in the symptoms of one family member but extends itself to all family members in some shape or form. Satir distinguished the family member who carries the predominant symptom as the “Identified Patient” or “I.P.”

Satir defined the IP symptoms as an “SOS” regarding his parents’ pain and the resulting family imbalance. This member of the family is often the most sensitive and can be compared to a thermometer for the family.

The family system begins to move away from the status quo toward the inevitable chaos. It is often chaos or a crisis that motivates an individual, couple or family to seek counselling, it is this very crisis that opens the door for the possibility of change.

Once upon a time a little boy was sent to me for play therapy, he was 10 filled with uncertainty, gifted intelligence, a ball of energy bursting with emotion that eventually led him to a place where he could release his pent up rage. Toys were flying, dolls were beaten, and the boy dressed up in a costume as a devil delivering and determining what type of punishment would be expressed in his play. Prior to our meeting I met with his mom, who was separated from her husband, and it was apparent that she wanted her son to be “fixed”; he was the problem.  The time came when I met both of them in session. During the session she looked at her son and said, “You see, look at him he is impossible, he is the  devil, constantly causing problems”.  At this point I intervened and pointed out, how intelligent and sensitive he was to be able to express what was hurting in their family. Indeed, where does a devil live, in hell and he and the family were all suffering. This was an incredible metaphor to look at. The other reality is you cannot have darkness, without light, and her son was shining a light onto their lives, creating a crack in the status quo in order for change to take place.

Bert Hellinger in his work with Family Constellations  has a unique perspective ‘Black Sheep’ of the family: “Those who do not adapt to the rules or traditions of the family system, those who scream rebel, repair, detoxify and create a new blooming branch, countless unfulfilled desire, unfulfilled dreams, frustrated talents of our ancestors manifest themselves in their rebellion looking to take place.”

It is not easy to accept a crisis into your life, sometimes it is only through this that we finally stop and make a change. The script of being a rebel, underachiever or scapegoat may express itself where an individual may find themselves getting blamed or in trouble for whatever events are transpiring and can play out where the person continually struggles in putting their life together.

We often carry faulty beliefs and an old script with us, even when they no longer serve us. Why is change so hard? Because we adopted most of our behaviors to survive or comfort ourselves in some way. Being arrogant and blaming, lying, compulsive eating, shutting down, thrill seeking, burying feelings, being perfect, being an underachiever or acting like a victim serves a purpose.  Perhaps this helped us get approval, attention or sympathy, avoid being shamed, feel excitement, or escape feeling horrible about ourselves. These behaviors helped us cope on a survival level. These are short term coping forms of relief that block long-term happiness.

So, the big question here is What do you get from a behavior that makes it hard to give up, even though it is hurting you in many ways? Long standing payoffs for certain types of behavior can feel like an old familiar friend. What would help you give it up? Giving up psychological payoffs means eliciting the inner spiritual warrior and its wise voice.

The following list has been inspired in part by Ken Keye’s: The Method Work If You Do and a partial list that has been created by Charlotte Kasl from her book “If the Buddha Got Stuck.” I highly recommend this book and the following is taken from the chapter called “What Makes Change So Scary? Explore the Payoffs That Keep You Stuck.”

First you need to identify a habit or behavior that has you stuck and is hard to let go of. Here are some examples:

I get to avoid taking responsibility for the state of my life: (Examples: blaming, talking about my terrible childhood.) Nothing is ever about my lack of effort or mistakes; its always about other people.

I get to be right and make others wrong. I can feel superior, righteous and above others, and I don’t have to see their suffering.

I get sympathy and attention. (People feel sorry for me, worry about me, and call to help. This feels as if I’m loved.)

I get to be a martyr and make other people feel guilty. (Example: I’m so good, I’m suffering so much, maybe they will give me money, take care of me, and not ask anything in return.)

I have an excuse for poor performance or not being responsible. People won’t expect anything from me. (Examples: I’m in great distress, my life is such a mess.)

I never have to reach out to others. I get to remain invulnerable and not risk rejection by never asking for help or support. (Example: I isolate, avoid social situations, and keep distance from people.)

What Would it Take to Make a Change:

  1. Ask yourself, “How is the payoff behavior causing me to suffer?”
  2. Ask yourself, “How could I get what I want without using this payoff behavior?” “How could I calm myself, get comfort or ease pain without a harmful behavior?”
  3. Consciously practice your payoff behavior. Be aware of your body sensations, energy level and emotions.
  4. If you feel anxious, empty, or uneasy when you don’t act out your payoff behavior, stay with your feelings without expression or blocking them. Then in another situation, resist doing it and see how you feel.
  5. Ask yourself, “What beliefs about myself keep this payoff behavior going?”
  6. Remember, if you have difficulty sustaining this process, keep going and reach out to a skilled therapist who can support you. Sometimes there is a lot of underlying emotion and trauma that connect to releasing payoffs, with support, strong feelings can be faced more easily with insightful and therapeutic guidance.

The energetic forces of a family system as Hellinger points out are strong, the family tree will want you to maintain the ‘status quo’ but in order to create change a person must step out into the unknown, to take care of your ‘rarity’ the beautiful authentic black sheep, as the most precious flower of your tree. You are the dream of all your ancestors. Be the one in your generation that brings forth peace to their ancestors, peace within oneself and peace for future generations.