“Basically I don’t have a family now. I only see them once a year and that’s mostly so they don’t bother me for the rest of the year. I don’t talk to them . . . My mother wants more of a relationship but I don’t.”
Rejection engenders profound consequences.
Many families are a wellspring of belongingness. But this isn’t the case for the Black Sheep, who are all too often cast away or disapproved of by their family members. Family members who perceive they are marginalized experience chronic stress associated with their position in the family.
New research investigates how marginalized family members remain resilient.
The holidays are a tough time of the year for many, potentially triggering both old and new family dramas. But when you’re the Black Sheep, it can be particularly difficult to engage with family members. For those who must contend with this station in life, feeling left out and put down can intensify during this time.
How does the Black Sheep of the family cope with their predicament? This was the focus of a study conducted by Elizabeth Dorrance Hall of Utah State University.
Human beings are wired to connect and bond and to belong. This means having positive experiences with others, with whom we feel are caring and close, over time. When the fundamental need to belong is not filled it can lead to a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, loneliness and jealousy. For many, families are a wellspring of belongingness. But this isn’t the case for the Black Sheep, who are all too often cast away or disapproved of by their family members.
Hall describes being the Black Sheep of the family as a form of marginalization. People who are “on the margins,” live on the edge of a group or society. They suffer from rejection, and have virtually no voice or influence on the group. Branded as deviant, they feel a strong need to make both a psychological and physical break from the group. This is difficult enough to contend with in the larger society, but when a person is deemed an outcast by one’s own family, Hall writes, it can lead to a disintegration of identity. What’s more, rejection engenders profound consequences, ranging from aggressiveness, diminished intellectual functioning, detachment, and emotional numbness.
Marginalized family members have a unique set of circumstances with which to cope, Hall writes. Though the process of marginalization happens over time, there are often “turning point” events, like coming out, that mark faltering shifts in members. Black Sheep may also be experiencing a form of ambiguous loss, involving a physical presence but psychological absence at family events. Moreover, marginalized family members have low status in their families, which need for coping strategies. Taken together, and unsurprisingly, being the Black Sheep is a deeply painful experience.
In order to better understand how the Black Sheep of families remain resilient in spite of it all, here’s what Hall did. She recruited 30 marginalized family members who identified themselves as different, excluded, not accepted, or not as well liked as other members in their family. Participants were limited to those between the ages of 25 to 35 years so that their experiences with their families were recent and relevant. They also had to report having “chronic feelings of marginalization,” in which they felt “different, not included, or not approved of. . . by multiple family members.” Participants were then interviewed, and their narratives were coded and examined.
What did Hall find? Participants’ interviews yielded five coping strategies:
1. Seeking support from “communication networks”.
Black Sheep found social support from others via two major routes. First, they elected to invest in relationships with family members that they felt were genuine, loving, and inclusive. For some participants, siblings were the antagonizing source of their distress, but many found that siblings as well as extended family members provided much needed support especially when her brother was “very accepting, very open, very encouraging” when she came out, which was not the case of her other family members. This acceptance helped her feel less marginalized and comfortable with herself.
Participants also turned to “adopted or fictive kin,” that is, people in their social networks who were not family members. One participant felt she had formed a new family: “I have an adopted family now and I have since I was 25. I have holidays with them and we sort of share the things that families are supposed to do.”
2. Creating and negotiating boundaries.
Boundaries proved to be a protective measure for participants. Reducing exposure to their families gave them the opportunity for a fresh start or to move forward. This broke down in two ways. One was to create physical distance from their families. One participant said of his move to New York City, “I want to really live like I don’t have to work to get somebody’s acceptance.”
A second way participants created and negotiated boundaries was to limit family members’ access to personal information. A participant remarked, “I don’t really call my family and talk very often. When I do I keep things very surface level, how’s school, oh school’s great. How’s everything going at home, oh it’s good.” Again, this was a strategy in the service of self-protectiveness.
3. (Re)building while recognizing negative experiences.
Participants described “reframing” their personal circumstances by focusing on (re)building their lives, such as seeking higher education or independence. At the same time, they recognized that being the Black Sheep was profoundly painful.
Some participants were able to reframe their marginalization and find positive meaning in their experience as the Black Sheep. They spoke of how being the Black Sheep ultimately made them stronger and proud of being different. One participant reflected, “What motivated me really was that I was gay. And that I knew that if I came out, like, I might have ended up in the streets . . . the best choice for me was to get an education.”
4. Downplaying the lived experience of marginalization.
Participants downplayed the impact that marginalization had on them, while trying to understand their experience as the Black Sheep at the same time. By doing so, they were attempting to change the meaning of their marginalization through their “talk”. This resilience strategy is distinct from (re)building while recognizing negative experiences in that they essentially minimized their pain as opposed to confronting it.
By diminishing the influence of their family relationships, participants could change the meaning of their marginalized experience. One participant remarked, “Basically I don’t have a family now. I only see them once a year and that’s mostly so they don’t bother me for the rest of the year. I don’t talk to them . . . My mother wants more of a relationship but I don’t.”
5. Living authentically despite disapproval.
Participants also spoke about living authentic lives, and being true to themselves in the face of disapproval from their families. Hall observed an undertow of anger in participant’s responses, and how this anger was then redirected towards achieving productive goals in which they defended themselves against their Black Sheep status. Participants also coped with their marginalization by being proud of their stigma.
Relatedly, participants were well aware that expressing their beliefs, sexual identity, or religion threatened family relations, but it was worth the price to live an authentic life. As one participant stated, “I know exactly what I would need to do to be completely accepted by my family . . . if I wanted that, I could do that but I realize that that would never be enough?
The communicative process of resilience for marginalized family members
Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Utah State University, USA
This study aims to understand how people living at the edge of their familial group as marginalized members (i.e., “black sheep”) enact resilience. Inductive analysis of inter views with 30 marginalized family members uncovered five resilience strategies marginalized family members engage in to come to terms with their position in the family, repair family relationships. and/or create a new sense of normalcy.
Five resilience strategies
(a) seeking support from communication networks,
(b) creating and negotiating boundaries.
(c) (re)building while recognizing negative experiences.
(d) downplaying the lived experience of marginalization. and
(e) living authentically despite disapproval.
This research extends the resilience framework by exploring situated resilience strategies engaged in by marginalized family members. Practical implications for marginalized family members, their families. and family counselors are discussed along with avenues for future research examining the marginalization of diverse employees.
Keywords: Black sheep, coping, family communication, marginalization, resilience, social support
Humans experience an innate need to belong that requires frequent positive interactions with close others who care about them in ongoing relationships. Psychological and physical consequences occur when the need for belonging is not met (e.g., depression, anxiety, loneliness, jealousy, and guilt), rather than the positive affect that comes from forming and maintaining close relationships. For many, families offer a key sense of belonging. Excluded family members are often referred to as “black sheep”.
Black sheep, or marginalized family members, feel fundamentally different from other members and are often excluded or disapproved of by several members of their family. They belong, yet not in the same way as the others in the family. Communication is the vehicle with which marginalization of people is enacted, perpetuated, and received. This study utilizes a communicative lens to understand how marginalized family members remain resilient in the face of rejection and disapproval from a group considered by many people the core of their support network.
Resilience provides a theoretical framework for understanding strategies that marginalized family members use to cope with chronic or acute stress and come to terms with their position in the family, repair family relationships, or create a new sense of normal (e.g., a “family” comprised of in-law relationships, colleagues, or friends).
Resilience has been conceptualized as the human ability to withstand and bounce back from tragedies, disasters, or other difficult life experiences From a communicative standpoint, resilience is the interactive “process of meaning making through everyday messages and stories that enable reintegration from life’s disruptions”.
Family is an intriguing context in which to study resilience since family members’ lives are inextricably linked. As described by Lucas and Buzzanell (2012), “family members develop shared constructions of reality whereby they craft coherent narratives about the meanings of adversity”. Family members who perceive they are marginalized experience chronic stress associated with their position in the family requiring them to enact resilience, yet traditional family coping strategies may not be available to them for this very reason. This study extends resilience and marginalization scholarship by exploring how marginalized family members engage in the process of resilience and identifying new resilience strategies specific to this context.
Marginalization from social groups
Little is known about family member marginalization, yet organizational scholars and psychologists have been studying marginalization in social groups for decades. According to Hogg (2005), members on the margins (i.e., on the in-/out-group boundary) feel affectively rejected and are more disliked than members of either the in or out group. These members have little to no influence over the group and tend to be viewed as deviant. Marginal members feel uncertain about their group membership which often causes a desire to leave the group “physically and psychologically”.
Organizational scholars have identified a “black sheep effect” in which likeable in-group members are regarded more positively than similar out-group members and disliked in-group members are regarded more negatively than similar out-group members. In other words, it is socially worse to be part of the in-group and be disliked than to be in the out-group. Although the black sheep effect has not been examined in the context of families, the distinction may be especially salient in families as the in-group is not typically chosen by its members (i.e., a person is born/adopted into the in-group) and rejection from the in-group could indicate a loss of identity.
Social psychologists have also explored the negative effects of marginalization from groups. Social exclusion and rejection incur bleak consequences for both behavior and health. For example, rejected people display aggressiveness, reduced intellectual functioning, emotional numbness, and detachment. Family member marginalization provides an example of repeated rejection and/or social exclusion.
Fitness (2005) provides one of the only studies that has explored family member marginalization. Fitness surveyed 70 Australian university students and found that the marginalization of family members is common (i.e., 80% of participants reported at least one black sheep in their family). Her study identified sources of feeling marginalized such as differences in interests, not fitting in with family, engaging in crime, or marrying an undesirable partner. The process of marginalization, including how marginalized members cope with their status has yet to be explored.
Organizational and social psychology research paints a picture of the emotional pain and difficulties likely encountered by marginalized family members. As such, marginalized family members would benefit from engaging in resilience in the face of stressors small and large. The marginalization of family members tends to be a process which unfolds over time, indicating that there may be events that marginalized family members can pinpoint as especially stressful, or “turning points” in their marginalization (e.g., coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ)).
Members who perceive they are marginalized also need to be resilient to a chronically stressful life position; their ongoing status as the black sheep. For example, some may be experiencing ambiguous loss associated with their place in the family. A family member may feel ambiguous about their role if they are a son or daughter, sister or brother, yet treated differently than the others. Marginalized members may be physically present but psychologically absent at family events. These contradictions and chronic uncertainties can cause distress. Marginalized members likely need more support than other family members, yet their position as the marginalized member makes seeking support and coping with others in “traditional” ways more difficult.
Evidence from related frameworks: Social support, coping, and stigma management
Family members experiencing the emotional pain related to marginalization likely engage in multiple communicative processes to enact resilience including seeking social support, engaging in active coping, and utilizing stigma management strategies. Research on each of these frameworks builds a foundation for understanding how family members who perceive they are marginalized engage in resilience.
Social support is an integral way individuals cope with life stressors and maintain happy, healthy lives, yet marginalized family members are not always able to turn to family to gain the support they need. Social support, defined as “verbal and nonverbal behavior produced with the intention of providing assistance to others perceived as needing that aid,” can decrease emotional distress and enhance coping. Marginalized family members likely seek social support from family or friends to feel connected with others and cope with their feelings of marginalization.
Previous literature has identified three types of general coping, one of which includes seeking social support. Active behavioral coping strategies encompass attempts at coping that directly deal with the problem at hand (e.g., seeking social support, confronting a situation, discussing the problem with others, or seeking information). Active cognitive coping strategies include attempts to reframe the situation or accept things as they are (i.e., primarily cognitive work). Avoidance strategies include attempts to hide information or avoid confrontation of the problem. According to Maguire (2012), this three-part approach to understanding coping is problematic because “it is often difficult to determine whether a particular behavior is approach or avoidance oriented. . . and leaves out other forms of coping”.
A third communicative process marginalized people may engage in is stigma management. Stigma parallels marginalization in many ways, for instance, stigmatization is a process that casts certain people as out-group members serving to build group solidarity. Stigmas can be physical, social, or moral, and marginalized family members may have stigmatized identities in any of these areas. Fitness (2005) found that black sheep family members were marginalized for looking different, having different interests or talents, or troublemaking (e.g., crime, drugs).
Stigma, like marginalization, is a chronic stressor that endures over time and requires management. Meisenbach’s discursive stigma management typology connects stigma communication to resilience and identifies how individuals manage stigmatized identities in interactions. The typology organizes six categories of stigma management based on whether the individual accepts or denies the existence and applicability of their stigmatized identity: accepting, avoiding, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, denying, and ignoring/displaying.
Resilience incorporates elements of social support, coping, and stigma management, yet is distinct.
Resilience can be viewed in two ways:
(1) as a set of adaptive behaviors fostered in individuals (e.g., a positive psychology view of resilience).
(2) as a process accounting for context specific factors at individual, group, and societal levels.
Research and theorizing about resilience from each point of view are reviewed below.
Resilience as individually focused
Interdisciplinary scholars have amassed a great deal of research on resilience as a desirable outcome or personality trait and have found that resilience is quite common among people. This study assumes that despite sometimes extreme stress experienced by people who are disapproved of or excluded by family, most people who are marginalized find ways to cope with their family situation.
Resilience scholars have identified social relationships with others as an important protective factor and a part of individual resilience. Luthar (2006) wrote that “resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships”, yet research has not fully explored how relationships with others are part of resilience. Ong et al. (2009) found support for the idea that people who are more socially connected are more resilient in a study concerning life challenges with cardiovascular functioning. This study aims to understand resilience “pathways” marked by communication with others by refocusing the microscope to examine how people enact resilience.
Resilience as a communicative process
Buzzanell (2010) describes resilience as a set of family-level processes “fundamentally grounded in messages, discourse, and narrative,” rather than the individual. Labeling resilience as a process as opposed to a skill or behavior implies a dynamic and ever-evolving nature. This investigation further explores resilience as a communicative process, people engage in with others to actively cope with serious life stressors.
Buzzanell (2010) forwarded five communicative processes through which resilience is achieved:
- crafting normalcy,
- affirming identity anchors,
- utilizing communication networks,
- downplaying negative feelings while focusing on positive emotions.
These processes could be used by marginalized family members to reframe their situation or relationships. Buzzanell (2010) defined crafted normalcy as “embedded in material realities and generated by talk-in-interaction”. This means that families can “talk normalcy into being”. For example, marginalized family members might express preference for celebrating holidays with friends instead of their family of origin.
Affirming identity anchors (i.e., identity discourses people rely on to define who they are in relation to others) included significant identity work (e.g., maintaining face) on the part of the entire family. Marginalized members and their families might affirm existing valued identities such as “son” or “sister” in the face of changing social identities such as sexual orientation.
Maintaining and using communication networks focused on “building and utilizing social capital” and might include marginalized family members relying on network members outside of their family for roles family usually fill.
Reframing or creating alternative logics (e.g., organizing logics that may be contradictory or nonsensical) with others provide a different way of looking at and understanding the process of marginalization for those who are marginalized. Buzzanell’s (2010) last process allows people facing difficulty in life to validate negative feelings while refocusing on the positive. Marginalized family members may recognize the hurt they have experienced so that they can focus on improving their family situation or surround themselves with nonfamily of origin people who care about them (i.e., voluntary or fictive kin).
Because major stressors in families are complex and unfold over time, Walsh (2003) argued different coping strategies may be more effective at different stages of the process and in different contexts. Buzzanell (2010) offered her five processes as examples of how people engage in resilience inviting scholars to uncover other context specific processes. This study draws from Buzzanell’s work yet is distinct as it focuses specifically on the resilience enacted by family members struggling with marginalization rather than a variety of issues families and organizations face (e.g., job loss and hurricanes). To explore what resilience processes look like in the family member marginalization context, the following research question is proposed:
Research Question: What, if any, resilience strategies do family members who perceive they are marginalized engage in to actively cope with their marginalization?
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