One of the blessings of listening to the inner worlds of my global audience is that I hear about the thoughts, feelings, questions, and stories that are archetypal to all human beings. I’ve written extensively about the various intrusive thoughts that enter my virtual office, but there are other stories that tiptoe into the arena as well: stories about worthiness, stories about shame, stories about social fears and questions. There has been one in particular lately that has been calling for attention, and whenever that happens I know I need write about it here.
Whether talking about relationship anxiety, parenting styles, socializing, health choices, or work, I hear my clients and course members say several times a week, “I don’t fit in. I don’t belong. I feel like an outsider. Sometimes I feel like an alien.”
When I inquire further it becomes clear that this feeling isn’t specific to adult life but has been a theme since childhood. As one client shared from his journal:
Self: Where did you learn that you don’t fit in? Can you help me understand this?
Young self: Growing up. I remember feeling let down by friends. Always feeling like a bit of an outsider even though I hung out in a “cool” group. I didn’t like drinking, I didn’t like smoking. I constantly remember feeling so awkward and out of place at parties in high school. Girls wouldn’t pay attention to me. I would always get hell for not drinking. I remember thinking how girls would always like my friends way more than me. Some of the girls we would hang out with didn’t even acknowledge me. I still feel that is the case to this day.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re in good company. I’ll elucidate with a story.
For those of you following my Instagram feed, you know that I just returned from three days in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I attended the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute. My publisher, Sounds True, sent me and another author (the amazing Mirabai Starr, who became an instant soul-friend and shared a photo with me for our Instagram feeds) to the event to meet with independent booksellers across the country and discuss our forthcoming books: The Wisdom of Anxiety (May 2019) and Wild Mercy (April 2019). These were not the Amazon and Barnes and Noble sales reps. Rather, these were the anti-blockbuster booksellers who are keeping the gems of independent bookstores alive across the country. An anti-establishment, out-of-the-box crew, to say the least.
There were over a thousand booksellers in the conference room at the Albuquerque Convention Center with authors seated at tables around the perimeter, and before the event started I turned to Mirabai and said, “I wonder what percentage of people in this room are introverts and are counting the minutes until they can get back to their hotel rooms.” She laughed, knowingly. We had been talking all day about topics like introversion and personality types (we’re both introverts), the Enneagram (we’re both fours), and how we both love meeting like-minded people in new locations but also how essential it is to have downtime interspersed throughout these busy days. (I realize, of course, that not all of you reading this are introverts. But I suspect that you grew up feeling outside the box in some way, if only because you struggled with anxious thoughts or a level of worry that you didn’t think others had.) As I looked around the room, I saw a bunch of people who I would bet money grew up feeling like they didn’t fit in.
And I loved all of them. I loved their awkward gaits and mismatched clothes. I loved their unkempt hair and pointy glasses. I loved the man’s shirt that read, “Books were invented so that introverts don’t have to socialize.” I loved the shy, soft-spoken woman who bee-lined over to me before the event began to say, “I’m not a bookseller – I’m a children’s book publisher – but I heard about your book and I had to meet you. I struggle with anxiety every day. I need your book!” I loved the two young women in the 20s who were working at the event as caterers and cornered me after most people had left to ask if they could please have copies even though they were told not to speak with the authors. After they shared a bit about their anxiety, they melted my heart and of course I loaded them with books. These were my people. Sensitive, analytical, anxious people who never feel like they fit in.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure anyone felt like they belonged during the growing up years, and I’m not sure anyone feels like they really belong now. It’s not your fault. And it’s not even necessarily because you’re on the sensitive-creative-anxious spectrum (although I have no doubt that your personality type exacerbates the feelings of not fitting in). The truth is that our culture doesn’t foster a sense of belonging. We’re raised in the isolation box of our families, in neighborhoods where, even if you do know your neighbors, people don’t really share the vulnerability of their lives. When clients struggling with relationship anxiety say to me, “It seems like that couple are madly in love all the time and have the chemistry that I long for,” I say, “You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.” Unless you live with someone or have a transparent friendship where you share the details of your challenges and triumphs, you simply don’t know the reality of anyone else’s life.
Hopefully there is some part of you that knows that you do belong: with your partner and your friends who see you and love you, on this great blue-green planet where everyone – every, single person – struggles in some way, and in my online community with people who understand you and share your particular brand of anxiety. You belong. You fit in. And I’m so glad you’re here.