12 Days of Self Care: Family Alienation and the Black Sheep Effect

On the fourth day of our 12 Days of Self-Care series, Take This volunteer Matthew Leardi explores a painful subject: the Black Sheep Effect. For more helpful tips on coping with common stresses of the holiday season and the transition into the new year, check back every day.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of being the “Black Sheep” of the family, hopefully in jest or when a family member was playing around. For some of us, it’s not a joke – someone in our family really is treated as the black sheep, and we might even be that someone. The Black Sheep Effect (BSE) is a real thing, an internal bias towards a member within a specific social group–a bias that might include rejection and categorization of that specific member. (Marques & Paez, 1994)

Being the black sheep

When we think about family, several different feelings might come to mind: happiness, warmth, collectiveness, sorrow, and even, at times, loss of a loved one. A family is really a series of relationships, each one with a unique role and purpose within a cohesive family group. As humans, we’re generally more likely to be open and honest about or problems and vulnerabilities with our own family than with most others. As large and as cohesive as a family structure is, relationship within the structure are very fragile and prone to conflict, pain, and even rejection. (Fitness, 2005)

Being rejected from a family group can be very painful, and it has been linked to anxiety and depression. Rejection by family members can even cause us to feel a lack of identity due to loss of that social structure. It can also lead to several issues within the family structure itself, like continued fighting with other family members, or the struggles of the “Black Sheep” who is trying not to be alienated from the family. This can all get a lot worse during the holiday season. (Hodas)

Within our culture, we focus heavily on the holidays as a time of happiness and family. Yet, for anyone who is going through a “Black Sheep Effect,” it’s often a time of pain and a reminder of the alienation they feel from family and functions, or the loneliness of being part of a holiday function in which they are not fully accepted. This feeling of alienation can also lead to anger and depression, in part because the ego is unsure of how to process the alienation. When our ideals of family clash with reality, we might develop maladaptive ways of responding to the situation, including feelings of anger, depression, and even anxiety. (Fitness, 2005)

But there are ways to manage such situations. Through our own mindfulness to the response to our ego as well as positive behavior changes, we can address these tough feelings during the holiday seasons.

Getting through the holidays

Being able to understand our triggers for our own maladaptive behaviors allows us to control our emotional response. For example, if we know spending the holidays with our family will trigger our depression or our anger, we might need to make the conscious decision to stay away. This can feel like it goes against everything taught to us by our culture, but that’s fine. Our mental health comes first. It is important to remember that it’s okay to not be okay.

While the idea may seem foreign, it really is okay to spend the holiday alone. At times, all of us need to spend some time alone to recharge and to be the best person we can be. You can use this day to enjoy something you may not have normally been able to do. Let’s take Christmas, for example. On this one day, why not do the things you always wanted to but never had the time? New comedy club in town? Go laugh the night away. New movie out that you want to see? Go see it! Want check out the cool dive bar that your friends have been avoiding? Go have that responsible fun. Is there a band in town that you want to see? Go enjoy the show. Whatever it is, do something. In order to help ourselves, we not only need to be mindful, we need to push ourselves to help fight those maladaptive behaviors.

Engaging in simple cognitive restructuring exercises can be a good way to handle stress in general, and are also a good to practice during moments of feeling alienated. We need to accept of feelings of sadness or anger during these times but also engage in some simple self-talk. Try reminding yourself that this feeling will pass and that you are okay. For another simple tool, try to create a list of the positive things currently going on in your life. Being able to look at the positive encourages positive thoughts and actions. Dwelling on the negative will disturb our cognitive outlook and force us to only look at the negative.

Another good practice is to reach out to others for help. While one social structure may not be available, the relationships that you have formed outside of your family may still be there. Surrounding yourself with an alternative source of positivity and connection can help you move past the holiday alienation that you may feel. Give yourself permission to reach out to trusted people when you’re not feeling well—that’s what friends are for.

Some of us don’t have anywhere to belong during the holidays, and that can be painful–and it’s okay to feel a sense of alienation about that. It’s okay to be upset when you know someone doesn’t want you around at a holiday gathering, too. The Black Sheep Effect within a family structure is a painful thing for any person. Even so, with the right frame of mind, the understanding of our own personal triggers, and the capacity to seek out alternative ways of celebrating, we can survive the holidays together.


Fitness, J. (2005). Bye bye, black sheep: The causes and consequences of rejection in family relationships. In K. Williams, J. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 445–468). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Hodas, G. R. Holiday Blues: How to Recognize and Overcome It.

Marques, J. M. & Paez, D. (1994) The black sheep effect; social categorization, rejection of ingroup deviates, and perception of group variability. In W. Strobe & M. Hewstone (Eds) European Review of Social Psychology, 5, 37-68.

Matthew Leardi is a LMSW Social Worker who works in an emergency room providing resources, referrals, and supportive counseling to patients. Matthew also works as a therapist in a private practice. In his occasional time off, he enjoys playing Destiny 2, Splatoon 2, and Hearthstone. He also enjoys comic books such as The Walking Dead, Outcast, and Saga.
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