Being the Odd Man Out in Your Family

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Every home is a theater. Every family has its roles to cast. Even with no outside director, positions must be filled, characters assigned. We are all auditioning in each moment of early life. Someone must “wear the pants” in the family, whether he or she wears a dress, a suit, or shorts. The ensemble requires a caretaker, not necessarily the adult variety. In dysfunctional homes one role is the most challenging: the person who recognizes the dysfunction for what it is.

You don’t get paid for taking this part, except in tears; nor will your fellow cast members applaud. Indeed, you become the clan’s scapegoat, the one who takes on most of the blame for the whirling, muddy mess of life at home. The part can kill you or liberate you, or both. One thing for sure: you will need strength and endurance.

The job of portraying “the bad one” doesn’t always demand that you do any major wrong. A fine student and a good citizen can fit the slot so long as he is not what a parent was hoping for. Were you supposed to be a boy, but turned out a girl? Are you artistic when an athlete was expected? Were you required to be forever devoted, but began having ideas of your own, a life of your own? Do you bear a resemblance to someone a parent disliked? Perhaps the elder is jealous of your beauty, intelligence, or his spouse’s affection for you. Maybe the issue comes down to knowing too much for the comfort of others.

Your character’s script gives voice to pained pleadings for the guardian’s approval, but allows only inconsistent success, at best. The parental judge is not impartial. Brothers and sisters, better treated than you, won’t acknowledge the truth in your complaints. Perhaps the other parent instructs you not to upset his spouse, as if you own more power than you do, as if the trouble is your fault and not his.

The odd man out attempts to find a regular ally. No takers, I’m afraid. This job would not only put him in the crosshairs, but worse. He’d have to know the family for what it is, share the psychic pain of realizing its truth is false; its court unjust, with no hope of appeal.

Sides must be picked, teams chosen. You might have a single ally only on occasion, but not anyone with the courage and insight to make common cause with you and speak truth to power.

A kind of brainwashing occurred in your home. The family “drank the Kool-Aid” or breathed in the air of the household delusion. They are blinded to the truth, as you are not.

The one who is immune to the family’s warped vision is dangerous. What might happen if everyone recognizes the reality of the home dysfunction? No, this can’t be permitted. The play would fail, the audience depart. The odd man out must be crushed.

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Such a person is likely to become the “identified patient (IP)” of the family, the one who is “wrong,” the one with the problem. He may be depressed, angry, rebellious or all of these.  The IP can lose years, decades to the stamp of imperfection emblazoned on his personality. A lifetime is not long enough for such a one to find approval on this morally bankrupt stage. If, however, he enters treatment he might grieve the undeserved contempt that is his lot. Now, finally, he escapes from home psychologically, perhaps physically.

The family condemns him for betrayal, of course. Disloyalty is added to his list of transgressions and if guilt can be induced he will return to them for more of the same life: more of the same mistreatment. His role in the play resembles Sisyphus, the mythological character who was assigned the punishment of pushing a huge boulder up a hill until it rolled back down; up and down, never reaching the top, for all his days.

The identified patient can be drawn to a mate who also rejects and ridicules him, persuading their children our hero is the problem. Thus, we reach the second act of the performance, where the lead character enacts a new version of the torture, one he has chosen, unconsciously replicating his early misfortune. Perhaps he resembles Tantalus in his futile, unending search for that which is unreachable. Despite knowledge of the familial corruption, he cannot resist the temptation, the desire for proper acknowledgement. The Greek myth tells us Tantalus stood in a pool, forever hungry, forever thirsty. Bending, the water receded, leaving him parched. Reaching for fruit from a branch just above, the nutrition raised itself and could not be grasped. He was “tantalized.”

Do not lose heart. With sufficient courage and time in treatment our protagonist can become the healthiest person in the clan. The rest, you understand, continue bumping into many of life’s obstacles, the parts to which they are blinded. They too play a role assigned in childhood. They do not know themselves well, since this would require seeing the family as it is, not the imagined world of pretend functionality that was the first lie taught at home.

Terrible choices? Yes. Victims all, but in different ways. Yet a scapegoat need not enact the role night-after-night, as if indentured to a long running play. All of the players in the small ensemble can, at last, say “enough.” Ironically, the one who saw the home-grown theater for what it was — the one who suffered the most — has a head start for the sign marked EXIT. The bright letters shine in the darkness and lead to a world of possibilities.

The top painting is Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus. An illustration by Koloman Moser follows: A Modern Tantalus. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

22 thoughts on “Being the Odd Man Out in Your Family

  1. Dr. Stein, thank you!! I’ve been playing that role with my family for the past 6 years (if not before). I never understood why my brothers and sisters didn’t get mad when my brother took advantage of my mom’s dementia to have her sign over millions in real estate. But I sure got the heave-ho from the family. Thank you for the insight!

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    • You are welcome, Harry. Glad to help. You have lots of company. You make an interesting point re: family members cheating each other out of money. I heard some of these stories in my work, including parents squeezing out their children in business deals. Take care.

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  2. brklynbet@aol.com

    Very interesting–right up my alley!

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  3. “In dysfunctional homes one role is the most challenging: the person who recognizes the dysfunction for what it is.”

    And when I realized this was me, it was crazymaking. And finally, now, there has started to be some relief.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post. I can relate to it on such a deep level. I don’t actually even know what to say right now.

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  5. Very profound and very painful reading although after several decades gradual insight to some degree has come to all members of my immediate family to a point where I can say that despite how damaged we all are we have redeemed quite a close family tie and a commitment to save the next generation from what we could not escape.

    I must say to that these dynamics can be played out in the work place as well and ones means of living can make it hard to work out whether strength and courage is worth the cost and how much to risk reputation and professionalism for self preservation.
    I’m trying to work that one out to.

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    • You make excellent points, Claire. Yes, sometimes other family members open their eyes, although in my experience this is neither easy nor very common. And, yes, the workplace is another spot allowing the “scapegoat” dynamic to be repeated, along with a work force that fails to admit the destructive machinations at work. Good luck in dealing with the challenges there.

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  6. Thanks for this, it describes my life perfectly and reassures me that I’m not going mad when I try to tell the truth as I see it and find that no-one else in the family will accept it. It’s been hard coming to terms with this and trying to give up hope of my voice being heard in the family but I’m getting there slowly. Your words “Brothers and sisters, better treated than you, won’t acknowledge the truth in your complaints” stood out especially – trying to get my sister to acknowledge my perspective on our upbringing and finding her dismissing the narcissistic, abusive household we grew up in as “not that bad” is hard but maybe it’s her role and way of coping.

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  7. drgeraldstein

    You are welcome, Greenbird. Giving up the attempt to persuade other family members to see what seems obvious is terribly difficult. Like matters of politics or religion, such attempts to change minds almost inevitably fail. Then the job is to grieve the loss, grieve the lack of acknowledgement, and accept the truth of the Bible verse (Mark 6:4): “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” “Not that bad” covers and normalizes much bad parenting.

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  8. Thanks for that reassuring article, Dr. Stein. Being the family’s scapegoat is no fun place to be. It took me years and lots of unjust battering to say “enough.”

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  9. Writing about me again Dr. Stein? The good thing that came out of me playing that role is that I learned at a very young age what I did not want my life to be like. Once I moved out of the house I looked for friends who were emotionally healthy and happy.

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    • Good decision. The streets are full of people searching for the emotionally healthy. There is an old saying: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Perhaps that doesn’t fit here, but it does come to mind, especially since we don’t possess a perfect capacity to identify those with whom we will fit well and find friendship or love. You, my dear, found love, so you must have learned quite a lot.

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  10. Steven Kuptsis

    I liked this, noting that in my case I was running for the “Exit” sign years before truly understanding why. Having some insight with the benefit of time and distance is helpful, although somewhat painful.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Glad to hear from you, Steven, and glad you made a successful escape. Sorry for the pain. I haven’t mastered that part yet! Be well.

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  11. Thank you, Dr. I think my husband falls into this category. My parents divorced when I was little, so everyone in the family is caring about me and blaming my parents for my suffering. I was always the kind, bright, and poor girl in the family everyone likes. In addition, my loneliness brought me freedom and I received sufficient financial supports from family. When I married my husband, who grows up in a “normal” family, I could not understand why he is so rebellious to his parents. After two years of marriage, I started to get that. Ever since he was a small kid, he is strictly disciplined, controlled, criticized and compared (to his smarter brother). Not like me, growing up in a “unnormal” family, I read psychological books about my own situation. But he and his family, did not recognize he has psychological wounds as well. He, at his late thirties, is still criticized by parents, who disapprove everything he does. I actually have to defend him from his parents at some occassions. I think he needs help, but how can I do it? Can you recommend any books for me to read?

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    • Apologies for not responding to this sooner, Renee. The difficulty here may be that you seem more interested in helping your husband than he is in helping himself. The best you might do is to get support for yourself unless he identifies the problem and seeks treatment. A support group or a therapist could be the place to start. Best of luck with this.

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  12. I identify with this description – which is really helpful to read. Dr. Stein, I’m currently living at home after graduating from college, dealing with the same old dynamics. I feel that, since leaving home four years ago, I’ve found a way to work through a lot of the problems outside of my family associated with how I was treated growing up (I’m much better at making friends, making my own decisions, and seeing my worth than ever before) but when I get home I just spiral. Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with temporarily living with my family, once again? Are there ways to talk with them that might diffuse the tension in our relationship? I am definitely working on controlling my temper (which can easily flare in these conversations) but was wondering if you have advice for how else to deal with the feelings that I’m continuously interrupted, not treated with respect, etc. Thank you for your insights!

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    • drgeraldstein

      If a person is still wishing to get the approval of people who won’t ever approve, then it is hard not to be both sad and angry. If, however, one accepts that the approval will not come no matter what, then all that can be done is to limit contact as much as possible and try to achieve a low profile. Living with the family, in effect dependent upon their willingness to put a roof over one’s head, complicates the situation. The goal, however, is the same: to free oneself both emotionally and financially: to achieve independence. Perhaps you have access to individual or group therapy that might provide provide support. Putting your energies in whatever will allow you to achieve independence is usually better than “beating dead horse.” Good luck with this.

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