“Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?” — Ian Wallace, American science fiction author and clinical psychologist
Rick never quite fit in — anywhere.
As a child, the other kids called him weird because he would rather write a story or read a book then play sports or hang out at the corner store smoking cigarettes.
As a teenager, he had no interest in partying or experimenting with drugs as many of his contemporaries were doing.
He liked to go for long rides on his bicycle or sit for hours listening to his music.
On occasion, he would write short stories and even poetry.
Truth be known, Rick didn’t fit in all that well with his family either. While the other siblings excelled in athletics, Rick joined the drama club and writers group.
His mother supported his endeavours while his father just shook his head. Some people called Rick anti-social but that was not really an accurate assessment.
Rick just had different interests and a different outlook.
It wasn’t until he ventured out into the work-a-day world that the differences became truly apparent to Rick.
He was always the odd man out, the square peg in a round hole — the voice of dissension. Over time, Rick started to doubt himself and question his feelings and choices, likes and dislikes.
He began to wonder if he should abandon his views in lieu of traditional norms.
Most of us have felt like outsiders at one time or another.
Many creative, sensitive and intelligent people know what it feels like to be labelled as different, to be segregated or to be outnumbered by people who simply do not see the world from their unique vantage point.
Many people are preoccupied with being accepted, fitting in and being normal. This accounts for much of what we see as trends in music, clothing and even attitudes.
But what does it mean to be normal? Does it mean being average — the same as everyone else?
Why do we try so hard to be accepted when acceptance often means compromising who we really are?
Belonging is a primal need stemming from the fact that human beings are social creatures. Research suggests that we may still be moved by the hard-wired programming of our prehistoric ancestors.
In tribal times, survival depended upon inclusion in the group.
To be an outcast would leave an individual liable to starvation, the elements and even roaming predators.
Studies over the past 20 years have yielded some interesting insights into our need to fit in.
One major study found that feelings of exclusion led people to want to be accepted even more and, if acceptance was not forthcoming, some participants descended into a state of depression and despair.
The results were even more dramatic when the individuals felt that rejection by the group was going to negatively impact their ability to advance socially or in their career.
It was revealed that a strong need to fit in actually distorted judgments and negatively coloured perceptions of self.
Conversely, an experiment conducted in 2005 revealed that people who were not preoccupied with fitting in had better overall self-esteem and were able to make more accurate judgments.
They were also able to assess potential friends in a more positive light.
Not fitting in can lead to the belief that we are somehow flawed or inadequate.
This will naturally impact our self-esteem. Children often long to be part of the group and suffer greatly when acceptance is not given. Yes, there are times when it is important to fit in but we must always ponder our motivation.
Are we coming from a place of love or a place of fear?
The workplace is an arena where fitting in is often vital.
Sometimes, all it takes to fit in is a little compromise and reassessment — a little give and take on both sides.
If you are perpetually on the outside, a serious review of career choices might be in order.
It could be that you are not a good fit for the particular company or you may be constitutionally ill-suited for the job.
Issues arise when our desire to fit in overwhelms our need to be true to ourselves.
By that I mean, we stifle our creativity and sacrifice what makes us special in order to fit in with the group.
You’re never going to be included in every group and, believe me, that’s a good thing.
Remember, some of the greatest thinkers and innovators in history did not fit in with their contemporaries.
Those who do not fit in easily often think differently and ponder things in a different way. Some of our greatest leaps forward have come from people on the fringe.
On fitting in, Canadian fantasy author and popular folk musician Charles de Lint wrote, “We’re so quick to cut away pieces of ourselves to suit a particular relationship, a job, a circle of friends, incessantly editing who we are until we fit in.”
As for Rick, he eventually came to the realization that he was not faulty merchandise because his views and interests did not mesh with his peers.
Time spent in reflection and a focus on understanding and accepting himself helped Rick to reach a point where he could respect the uniqueness of each person he encountered but still remain true to his own values.
Finally, here’s something to ponder: what if the thing that makes you different from the crowd is not a weakness but actually a strength, a gift or source of wisdom that could be turned into an enormous blessing for yourself and others?
I think true self-awareness comes from the realization that only by embracing and accepting our uniqueness can we truly share the gift of who we are and make a lasting difference. Perhaps the greatest breakthroughs in life depend upon us coming to terms with the differences that have made us feel like outsiders.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca