My entire life, I’ve felt like an outsider. It started young, extends back as long as I can remember. I stuck out in my little family — I’m not fully extroverted, somewhere in between introvert and extrovert (the cool kids would call me an ambivert, I suppose), but I was by far the most extroverted person in my family of origin. I lived with five introverts.
And it wasn’t just volume. It was tone. It was energy. I was an incredibly energetic little person. Happy. Silly. Told jokes. Made up weird stories.
When I was little, this was a mix of good and bad. Sometimes I got into trouble for doing strange things. But I also got good grades. So it kind of balanced out.
But when I got to middle school, being different was no longer cute. It wasn’t something my peers respected. Teachers were all eye rolly about it. And my mother was really disappointed in who I was becoming. She wanted a cheerleader. A pageant girl. I was not that daughter.
She had been an extremely quiet, popular girl with model good looks. She was literally a cheerleader.
I played music, wrote odd stories, and was on the math team. I was really interested in computer programming and trying to see what was going on behind the static on the Playboy channel when I visited my friends in town who had basic cable. My family lived out on a trucking route in the woods in a house that my father had designed and built himself. All kinds of animals, including bears, would wander into our yard.
I had a ton of friends — but they were usually other people who didn’t fit in. When I was in elementary school, I developed an entourage made up of shy kids that had been bullied — by unleashing my smart mouth and humiliating bullies until they ran off and left those kids alone. Later, I’d make friends with all the exchange students. They seemed so lost and anxious — and they had so many cool things to show me.
I learned bits of Romanian, Japanese, and Italian. Took home cassette tapes they gave me of their pop songs back home. I barely understood the words but swayed along with the music.
I Helped Other People Feel Included, But Typically Feel Like an Outsider Myself
The predictable happy ending to this essay would be that this how I created a sense of belonging for myself too. That would be neat, wouldn’t it? If I’d felt included all these years by creating a space for other people.
Sorry, it didn’t happen that way.
Even as I ingrouped outsiders and built little communities, I still felt like an outsider in them.
I had a friend comment on this recently. That it was sad and strange that I continued to feel that way. Because to them it was clear that other people loved me. That they’d light up whenever they saw me. It was obvious to them that I was not only tolerated, but fully accepted — and even valued by the people around me.
But I couldn’t see it. I didn’t feel it.
This went on for decades.
And I presumed that feeling like I don’t fit in was a sign that I’m defective. Not good enough.
But recently — and I mean, as of the week that I’m writing this essay — something is starting to change.
(Aha! There may very well just be a happy ending, after all.)
Sometimes When You Don’t Fit In, That’s a GOOD Sign
I started taking some classes at a community workshop some time ago. I’ve basically taken whatever seems interesting — and so far pottery is the new thing I’ve enjoyed the most. Am I good? Nooo… But I can throw on a pottery wheel, although I prefer to hand build or slip cast (yes, those are both slower than the wheel, but I find them more fun and relaxing).
My partner had found the workshop in the first place. It was more his bag. He was super excited about it. He’s a handy sort, terribly gifted with his hands and mechanical knowledge, knows a metric butt-ton about material science. He’s a wonderful painter and graphic designer. Out of humility, he’d probably wave his hands in my face and dismiss that if he heard me saying it, but it’s true. He’s an artist. It’s obvious to me even if he doesn’t realize it yet.
Me? I’m a klutz. I am chaos. A walking tornado.
I’m good with people and express myself well (and play music very well), but that’s about it. So taking classes there wasn’t the huge success and easy thing it was for him. Not the ego boost. Nothing like that.
Instead, it’s been an exercise in failure and humility. In working on my self-compassion, frustration tolerance, and patience.
I have no natural ability for making physical things. And little to no relevant experience to fall back on.
But I’ve kept taking classes. Practicing. Making friends. Pointing out what I like about their art. Volunteering to do little tasks that help the studio stay open.
And then leadership there suggested I should start teaching writing at the center. It took me a while to get up the courage and figure out what I wanted to teach, but I’ve been doing it for a few months now, and it’s been going great. I love my students. My favorite part of the gig is pointing out what they do well — especially when no one has ever told them before (my writing students are usually well aware of their flaws).
And the writing program I started is a small change in a big organization. But a very positive one.
Here’s the thing: I still don’t really feel like I fit in anywhere. Not completely. I may just be a very strangely shaped piece.
But I’m coming to realize that it’s not because I’m defective. In fact, it could mean just the opposite. It could mean I have something unique to offer other people.
Sometimes when you don’t feel like you fit in somewhere at first, it doesn’t mean that you’re a pariah or defective or not good enough for that place.
Instead it can mean that you have something new to offer to that place. Good things. Helpful things.