I recently had coffee with a friend who is having a difficult time fitting in where she works. She is not a new kid on the block, having worked there for several years, but the company does not promote a welcoming environment, and there are cliques that ensure people know their place. I listened to her tell me all the ways she tries not to let some of her co-workers shun her. What I heard was someone compromising her integrity, values and humanity hoping that at some point she will be invited to join one of the coteries for lunch. As we discussed it, she acknowledged that if she was ever invited, she would probably laugh at things she didn’t think were funny, compliment people when they didn’t deserve it and be good-humored in conversation. Then she would spend the rest of the afternoon at her desk with a knot in her stomach, berating herself for betraying who she is simply to be tolerated by a group of people who don’t deserve her intelligence, humor or big heart.
I understand how awful it feels when you are the one who is rejected or used by others to feel better about themselves. My parents were in the military, and we moved a lot. My sister and I were always the new kids at school. Sometimes we fit in; other times we were grateful we wouldn’t be in that school very long. Early in my career, I had a boss call me the “token freak” of the company. He was proud of himself, thinking he was so clever, and it became the name his sycophants called me. The demeaning comments were constant: “Give it to the freak. She’ll figure out the cost,” when working on a sales campaign. “The freak is in the room!” when I walked into a meeting. “Hey, freak. How is this for a new campaign?” written across an offensive image and left on my desk. It was the late ’70s, and I was a huge David Bowie fan. I cut my hair like his, had multiple piercings in my ears and wore clothing by friends who were budding designers. Tan stockings and black or brown suits were more the norm where I worked. Instead of wearing the title of freak proudly, I tried to change who I was to fit in. It was painful and didn’t go well.
Several years ago, my mother-in-law, then eighty-six, was very upset when a friend of hers ended their friendship. For more than fifty years, they were part of a group of longtime friends who played bridge, had dinner parties and spent every New Year’s Eve together. This woman was seventy-eight and had started hanging with a group of people in their early seventies. She told my mother-in-law and the others in their group that she didn’t want to be seen with old people anymore and that she had found a younger group she fit in with better. At least she was honest. My mother-in-law was crushed and continued to pursue the relationship but eventually gave up, dejected.
Wanting to belong and be accepted is human. It is painful to stand alone, but it is more destructive when the desire to fit in supersedes self-care and bargains away your soul. It zaps your energy, distracts your focus from nurturing your true self and can cost you the life you are meant to have. As cliché as it is, it is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: The only way it will ever work is when you whittle away the square until it becomes round. Then, for the rest of its existence, it will be something it was never intended to be.
As I look back on my life, I can see clearly that all the times I tried to fit in never brought me happiness. Ever. In fact, I felt angry and bad about myself for struggling to conform. It took many years for me to realize that the painful experience early in my career was a gift. It gave me the courage to pull up my freak flag and move it across the country to a city and job that fit like a glove. Once I was in an environment where I felt accepted for who I am, I truly began to thrive. Being unique is not a disease or a death sentence. It is what makes you interesting. Hold on to your values and integrity, and embrace what makes you different. You will find that if you are authentic and stay true to yourself, you will fit perfectly in all the places that champion who you were always meant to be.