I was 8 years old when my brother said to me, ‘You’re the black sheep of this family, you always have been and you always will be.’ I remember where we were at the time, what we were doing and the intense feeling which slammed into me, we were riding our bikes together, he was 11 and my twin sister and I were 8, we were just having fun on our bikes, and I don’t know why he said that to me, but I remember how I felt. His words crashed into me like a ten ton truck. Truth is a feeling, we just know when something is true or not because it resonates, and with that resonation comes the feeling. I knew it was true, and with the pain came almost a sense of relief, I wasn’t paranoid, I was perceptive, I knew this to be true ‘always have been, always will be.’ I had to be the black sheep because my siblings needed a scapegoat to offload their own pain on to. We lost our mum very suddenly when we were young, and it hit our family like a seismic wave, not helped by an emotionally unavailable father and a step-mother who had problems of her own which caused her to be cruel and spiteful. Mum’s death affected us all in different ways, my twin and I were 3 years old, my brother was 6, my older sisters 9 and 11. None of us knew how to cope with this. Children can be very creative in finding ways to cope, and we probably all developed different coping strategies.
Years later when I was studying during my Adlerian counselling course, we were asked to draw an image of our family of origin using animals. We were asked to sketch the first thing which came into our minds, and to not give it too much thought, to just get it down on paper, and then we would look at what we had all produced and talk about where it had stemmed from for us. I drew this:-
A black sheep leaving the pen with 3 other sheep huddled together and a fourth sheep sat on the fence. I was the black sheep leaving, the other 3 were my sisters all huddled together, and the fourth was my brother sat on the fence, because he was always so good at ‘not being involved.’ Yet, despite his ‘I love all my siblings, and I pray for them every night’ in fact he subtly colludes and distances himself.
We all know that family dynamics can be very complex, particularly when the main care givers have not been loving, have been emotionally abusive and sometimes downright cruel. Children find their own coping strategies, and will collude here or there or wherever they feel safe. I remember reading La Toya Jackson’s autobiography and her parents were incredibly controlling, and their father was a tyrant. She had got straight A grades in school but on her report card a teacher had written ‘La Toya could speak up more in class.’ Her father took a belt to her for that! She lay on the cool bathroom floor to soothe the pain of those lashings, crying and feeling wretched, as her brothers and sisters stepped over her to wash their hands for dinner without saying a word to her, such was their own fear at being beaten by their father. This incident would have had a profound effect on La Toya, feelings of rejection, victimization, separation and of low self-esteem. As an adult I’m sure she has had many times when she has been triggered by those exact same feelings.
We know when we have been triggered because those feelings don’t match the situation at the time. We also feel those feelings from our gut, which I believe is where our inner child resides. The feelings can be so intense causing us to act out if we cannot emotionally regulate. To be able to emotionally regulate you need to feel calm, and in the heat of the moment who can do that?! The worst part about this is that ‘the acting out’ then becomes the main event in the situation rather than who caused it in the first place by what they said or did to you! They walk away gathering their allies as they go, colluding with them and pointing the finger at you for your reaction rather than owning what they said or did in the first place, and apologizing for it! Never happens! In my own family, I am still condemned to this day for my ‘reactions.’ Just this year my eldest sister hurled a hand grenade which devastated me, when I over-reacted due to my inability to manage my feelings at the moment of detonation, I exploded and ‘reacted,’ Predictably, she and her troops were able to sit back and point the finger again and collude together about my anger! But let’s not forget that anger is the lid for pain, and underneath that ‘reaction’ of anger is always deep pain. The ‘reaction’ of anger is a defense against the pain we don’t want to feel, because it hurts! The thing is, however much you understand yourself, study psychology, or use coping strategies when you can, you can never change other people, you can only change yourself, and when a situation isn’t working for you, why keep going back for more? If it’s hurting you and the only option is to walk away to protect yourself DO IT! The emotional energy it will cost you to ‘do the right thing/keep the peace/let sleeping dogs lie/rise above it/grow up/people please’ might cost YOU more than you can cope with, and by the very fact that the same old stuff is still being played out means it hasn’t changed, but YOU have and it might be time to stop trying to please others, and to walk away and please yourself at last. This doesn’t necessarily mean no contact, but it may mean contact on a one to one basis if that works better for you, and not toute la famille en masse!
There’s a lot of passive aggression which gets played out in complex families, particularly when YOU change. You might message a sibling and they’re ‘too busy’ to reply! Or you might give a birthday gift and not receive a thank you. This withholding is a passive aggressive punishment which apparently you deserve! Easy to say ignore it, but if you are feeling triggered by their behaviour it will hurt and you’re in danger of ‘reacting’ and acting out your pain. In these moments it is important to talk to a friend who understands, or write about it in a diary, or if you can get an appointment with your therapist if you have one. On-line therapy can work quite well at these times as the writing out of your feelings in the moment can be very helpful. Don’t confide in people who tell you ‘You’re as bad as they are/Get over it/grow up!’
Growing up is about growing FULL STOP, there is no UP! Where is UP anyway? It’s an unkind thing superior people level at you to let you know that they think you’re immature. You’re NOT immature, you’re just struggling with your feelings and unable to emotionally regulate in that very painful moment in time and you need support and love to get you through, including self-love of course – hence the diary and the on-line therapy to get you back in touch with YOU as soon as possible. Once you feel centered again you will feel better and can move on, this is when you need to protect yourself and not go back for more, and play out the same dynamic like a broken record, because maybe, just maybe it IS broken and you can’t fix it on your own.
However much you try to stay alert to being triggered by painful feelings, the fact is you’re never going to know just when it’s going to happen, and if your experiences have left you with deep sensitivity you WILL be triggered by the things people say to you, whether that’s your family of origin, your partner, your work colleague, your friends, your children, there WILL be things which will bother you, and that’s the first step in your growing – to understand and forgive yourself for just FEELING! Just because you feel things with great intensity doesn’t make you wrong or immature, it just means you still have some more growing to do, to understand it and hopefully regulate it. Being a sensitive person means it’s harder to shrug things off or chill out. Anyone who tells you to either doesn’t want to engage with your feelings or they’re the ones who caused the bad feeling in the first place. You may just be someone who feels emotions more deeply because of your past, reacting to things faster, and more intensely than other people do because it’s harder to contain the pain. It does not mean that you are weak or too soft or less than, it means you love harder, you feel more deeply, you experience your world more intensely and your life is more colorful than it would be in shades of grey.