It was after a couple of posts on the ‘black sheep’ of the family that Mary (a reader) posed a great question:

What about the ‘white’ sheep?

What about those of us who wrestle with a role that seems to almost shine or shimmer in the light (a bit mirage-like)? Who might feel the pressures to keep surpassing family expectations. Or the need to be the constant peacemakers, the bridge-builders, the hatchet-buriers.

The ‘good girl.’
The ‘golden boy.’
The ‘chosen child.’

Can you relate to this sort of stuff?

Did you fall into the habit of fulfilling this family myth when you were growing up?

(And does it follow you around, now, in your adult relationships? In your work? In your life? In your loves?)

If you’ve ever been the ‘white sheep’ in your family, chances are, it’s also impacted how you are with other people in your life.

And Bowen Family Systems Theory might have some interesting clues about what it all means for you, and how you can re-define this role for yourself, if you’d like to.

Murray Bowen is considered the ‘father’ of family systems therapy. In the 1950’s, he devised a set of eight concepts that weave together to explain a lot about how families work, and how they shape us.

Among these are the “forces of individuality and togetherness.” These two counterbalancing forces span the divide between the safety to be found in a group, and the safety in protecting your own individuality and identity. They’re both thought to be almost evolutionarily hardwired into us. And they’re both about safety.

The tricky part is that at some point, the safety you can find in togetherness starts to rob you of the safety you need to survive as an individual (as Bowen saw it). There’s a crucial tipping-point.

So, if you always put the group above yourself, or others’ needs ahead of your own, you ‘trade in self’. Or, as Harriet Lerner puts it, you learn to “de-self,” where:

“…too much of one’s self (including one’s thoughts, wants beliefs, and ambitions) is ‘negotioable’ under pressures from the relationship” (1995, p.20).

So, if you were the ‘good’ child in your family, you might have sold ‘self’, to buy safety.
Sold individuality to buy fusion.
Sold ‘me’ to buy ‘us’.

Does that ring a bell for you?

And if you have a look at the patterns in your adult relationships now, do you still tend towards this stuff? Maybe even in relationships outside your family, where you almost unconsciously default to ‘not rocking the boat’ or somehow making sure everyone else feels comfortable before you do?

As Mary pointed out, our society can inadvertently support all of this ‘white sheep’ business. So-called ‘goodness’ is often praised, “even if that goodness is imbalanced or anxiety-driven,” as Mary put it. In fact, some theorists (like Knudson-Martin, McGoldrick and Carter) even suggest that this kind of fusion or togetherness is practically set as an unwritten goal, particularly for women, in western society – so it can be pretty deep work to overcome it.

And what might that work look like?

How can you finally put away that bottle of bleach that sucks out the colour of you, and leaves you the whitest of white sheep?

How can you invite your own shades of colour and individuality back into the fold?

Bowen thought it was all about the process of differentiation. Of learning, over time, about your family’s patterns and habits and where you fit into them (or perhaps even where you played into them).

It’s a lifelong quest to understand, define and express your identity in relationship with people, but not just in reaction to them.

It’s about finding yourself. But not having to isolate yourself to do it.

About understanding some of the differences between your feelings and your thoughts and your actions – and choosing your emotional responses more deliberately in light of all of that.

And ultimately to let yourself be a bit more of the ‘me’ in the midst of the ‘us’.

It can be tough, especially if you’re used to not rocking that boat. And, if family systems theory is right, you can usually expect some resistance to changing your role (as other people put on the pressure for you to ‘change back’ to where they’re comfortable).

But maybe it’s also worth considering what it would it mean to you if you didn’t try it?

If you spent another year – or another decade – fulfilling a role that you feel isn’t really expressing who you are? More time inhabiting the fleecy myth of the white sheep.

And who knows what wonderful colours you might discover you actually have right now, underneath all that bleach…

.

References:
Bowen, M. (1972) On the Differentiation of Self. In Bowen, M. (1978) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Jason Aronson Inc.: New York.
Gilbert, R. M. (2006) The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group. Leading Systems Press: Falls Church, Virginia.
Knudson-Martin, C. (1994) The Female Voice: Applications to Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol.20, 35-47.
McGoldrick, M. and Carter, B. (2001) Advances in Coaching: Family Therapy with One Person. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy Vol. 27:3, 281-301.
Lerner, HG (1995) The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships, Harper & Row, Toronto, p.20.
Image: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.

 


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    Last reviewed: 21 May 2011

APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). What About the WHITE Sheep in the Family? Showing Your True Colours. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 20, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapist-within/2011/05/what-about-the-white-sheep-in-the-family-showing-your-true-colours/

 

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