How to cope with criticism and lack of support when you're the black sheep of the familySomeone on Twitter recently asked me about coping with family members who don’t support your decision to follow your own path. She said that she was finding it difficult to build a foundation for herself when she’s never had any kind of emotional support or encouragement from the fam.

So today we’re going to take a good look at this problem of being the black sheep of the family, where you’re different than everyone else, and you’re constantly being criticized about it. We’re going to look at why it happens, and what you can do to make it easier on yourself if you’re in that kind of situation.


The Curse of the Black Sheep

So family dynamics, as we all know, can be complicated things. We want our families to accept us for who we are. We want them to believe in us, to believe that we are doing the right thing, and to believe that we have the ability to succeed. And we want them to be proud of us and to be happy for us.

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But if you’re different, if you have a different way of looking at the world than the rest of your family, those same people whose opinions matter so much to you often end up being your harshest critics and the people most likely to undermine your self-confidence at every step.

This is that terrible “curse of the black sheep” problem, when you’re trying to do something with your life that is different than anything anyone else in your family has ever done before and you’re getting all sorts of flak from them because of it.

Two Contributing Factors

Now, there are two things going on in this kind of situation that we need to look at. The first is what’s going on inside the other people – what your family is thinking and feeling that makes them unable to give you the support you want from them.

And the second is what’s going on inside of you that makes you want that support from them in the first place, and this is by far the most important factor to think about when you’re looking at ways to deal with any lack of emotional support from outside forces.

Why Is My Family So Mean?

Let’s look at the first issue. Because when this kind of situation occurs, the most pressing question that people have is why. “Why is my family so freaking mean to me about all of this? Why can’t they just be happy for me? Why can’t they just for once give me some encouragement or say even one nice thing about what I’m trying to do? Would that be so hard???”

Sadly, the answer to that last part is yes. Yes, it would be too hard for them. For a couple of reasons, actually: 1) they don’t understand you; and 2) they’re jealous and angry.

They Just Don’t Understand You

When you’re the only one in your family to hear a different calling in your heart than anyone else in your clan, or, more specifically, when you’re the only one in your family who has ever accepted that calling to something different and then actually gone out started exploring that alternate path, your family is not, and may never be able to fully understand you.

What you need to understand is that the status quo is always easier. It’s the expected path that doesn’t rock the boat. It’s the route in which everyone knows their roles and can fulfil them without even thinking about it. It’s familiar. And it’s safe.

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And when you challenge that safety zone that everyone else you know is so comfortable in, it’s going to alarm them, and it’s going to shake their little world up. And that’s an unpleasant sensation for people who are used to following the unspoken behavioural rules and expected social roles that exist in most families.

You’re shaking up their predictable, pre-existing worldview and they won’t understand why you want to risk changing something that “has always worked before”. And they’re going to fight you over your failure to conform because of it.

They’re Jealous and Angry

The other thing that causes your family to withhold their emotional support of your dreams is that they may have given up dreams of their own and made themselves conform to the same standards that you’re now trying to shake off. And there is always a price to giving up a dream. Always.

There’s a withering in the soul that happens when you turn away from anything that really and truly matters to you. And if your family members let their own dreams of doing something different die, they would have begun, long ago, to accept misery as being the natural state of adult life.

They expect misery, in other words, and they expect you to “grow up” and accept it, too. And when you don’t, when you refuse to just put up, shut up, and do what you’re told, it sets off an awful lot of subconscious dangers signals within them.

Because if you can defy the expectations of your family, it’s going to bring back all the things they’ve shoved into a tiny box in the back of their minds. They’re going to start remembering what they gave up, and what (they believe) is now too late for them to ever have.

And that is painful. It is so painful. And like any cornered, wounded creature, they’re going to fight back and they’re going to bite you (metaphorically, of course).

What’s Up With You?

So that’s what’s happening on the side of the other people in your life. But as I mentioned earlier the second, and far more important, aspect to this kind of situation is what’s going on with you.

And I think one of the best things you can do when you’re suffering from this black sheep syndrome and feeling bad about this lack of support from your family is to ask yourself why you need them be supportive of you and your dreams.

This is a critical point. I can’t stress enough how important it is for you connect with that part of you that needs approval from these other people, and to understand the real reasons why you’re upset that they don’t approve of what you’re doing with your life.

Image quote - believe in yourself and all that you are

It’s Not About Your Family – It’s About You

In his book Ego and Archetype, Edward Edinger says that “We demand from others only what we fail to give ourselves.”

Think about that for a minute. We demand from others only what we fail to give ourselves.

The first time I read that line, while researching an upcoming book, it blew me away. It was like that proverbial lightbulb just went off in my head and I had this crystal-clear “aha!” kind of moment. What we look for from other people is what we most need to give to ourselves.

So when we get angry or upset about other people not loving us, not accepting us, not encouraging us, not valuing us, not believing in us – it’s not really about them, it’s about us. It’s about us not giving ourselves what it is that we need most.

Looking for Confidence in All the Wrong Places

Essentially, what’s happening in this kind of dynamic is that you need something that you are unable to give to yourself, for whatever reason, and so you look to outside sources to provide it for you.

So let’s spell this out here. What this means is that you’re not actually upset about what your family is doing (or not doing). You’re upset about the fact that YOU don’t feel believed in and supported. There’s a difference there, and it’s a critical one.

The important thing in this situation is your own self-confidence.

And you’ve been looking to outside sources to provide it for you. But the problem with doing it that way is that it doesn’t last – if you’re looking to other people to make you feel strong enough and worthy enough and capable enough to build your dreams, you’re always going to be struggling with this. You’re always going to feel inadequate.

You Can’t Control Other People

Because the thing is, you cannot control those outside sources. You can’t force them to believe in you. You can’t make them be happy that you’re marching to the beat of your own drum.  You can’t coerce them into becoming your biggest fans and most vocal supporters. You don’t get to control other people’s lives that way.

But on the other hand, they don’t get to control yours, either.

Unless you let them. Unless your inability to give yourself what you need leads to you surrendering your own autonomy in order to keep those others happy. (Hint – that game never works because they’re never going to be happy. You cave on this and they’re just going to find something else about you to disapprove of. )

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Be Your Own Cheering Squad

So, ideally, you want to cultivate these kinds of emotional resources within yourself. Ideally, you want to be your own source of support and approval, and you want to be your own cheering squad. Because when you are fueled by something that is inside of you, no one can take that away from you. There is real freedom in getting to the stage where you don’t need anyone else’s approval in order to do whatever it is that matters to you most.

The starting point for getting to this stage is to ask yourself what it is that you really want from your family. Is it acceptance, even if they don’t quite “get” you? Is it encouragement to do what you need to do to build your dream? Is it confidence in your abilities to actually follow through and make things happen?

Figure out what you wish your family would do for you. And then find a way to do that for yourself. Learn to accept yourself, exactly as you are. Learn to encourage yourself and become your own pep-talk-giving coach. Learn to believe in your own abilities.

In short, the ideal solution here is that you become what you wish your family was so that you are not affected by their not being what you want them to be.

Finding Other Sources of Emotional Support

Now the reality, of course, is that most of us just aren’t there yet. Most of us are not yet strong enough in ourselves that we are capable of being the only source of support that we need.

So what do we do then, if we can’t yet give ourselves everything that we need, and we can’t expect to get what we need from our families?

The best thing to do is to look elsewhere. Family dynamics are usually too emotionally charged for your to be able to untangle them in any reasonable length of time, and waiting around for your family to be what you wish they would be is just going to sap your energy.

So find what you need in other people. And there are three easy ways in which you can do that:

#1. Find Your Tribe

I’ve talked at length in the past about the importance of building connections with like-minded people and of finding your tribe, and I’m going to reiterate that here today. If your family doesn’t give you the emotional support you need, then look for other people who are working towards their own dreams and connect with them. Because they’re going to understand what you’re going through, and because you’ll be able to help each other through the ups and downs of being a black sheep in a world that expects conformity.

#2. Find a Mentor

If you can, find a mentor, someone who is a bit further along in their own journey than you are who can act as a sounding board and voice of wisdom as you travel your own path.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn groups, your local Toastmasters club or business associations – these are all great places to find either a tribe or a mentor, so be sure to take some time to check those out.

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#3. Be a Mentor

And finally, never forget that you have wisdom and experience of your own that you can share with someone who could benefit from it. So be open to the possibility of becoming a mentor to someone else who may be just starting out on that scary path of the black sheep themselves.

Being a mentor to someone is always a two-way street, and very often the mentor gets as much out of the arrangement and as the mentee does.

The Blessing of the Black Sheep

Being a black sheep with a calling in your heart that is different than anyone else in your family can be a difficult burden to bear, and it’s going to add an extra layer of difficulty for you as you go out there and build that dream of yours. Until you let go of needing your family to be something that they aren’t.

To do this, you need to become aware of what it is that you want your family to give you and then find other ways of getting it, whether it’s from other people who aren’t your family, or whether you cultivate the ability to meet those emotional needs on your own.

And when you can finally let go of needing your family to be your emotional support, you’re going to become less bothered by them and whatever they say and do. They just won’t be able to rock your boat anymore because you’ll have other anchors to keep yourself steady.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, in doing what you’re doing – in building a different kind of dream – you’ll inspire those same family members to start building their own dreams, too. Because sometimes, being the black sheep of the family can be one of those blessings in disguise that end up making the biggest differences in everyone’s lives.


photo credit: cc (modified by me)

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