“The desire to fit in is the enemy of true belonging.” – Brene Brown
I have been trying to fit in my whole life. First in my family, then school, then church, then post secondary, then family, then work. On and on it goes. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the freedom to just be who I am until I gave myself that permission when I was 40. That’s a lot of years of trying to fit in.
When I was young, I felt like I was an outsider in my family. I didn’t feel like I belonged. While there are lots of examples of this, two stand out the most.
The first was when when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I apparently (and I sort of remember some of this) liked to dress up in girls clothes (of course as any good boy would do, that means his mother’s closet). I’m not sure how long this went on for. I only remember once or twice. However, when my children questioned my brother Dan about “embarrassing things dad did when he was little?” the only response he could come with was “he dressed in girls clothes all the time.”
My mother on the other hand was not impressed. One day my mother was particularly angry and yelled some horrible things to me like “you like to dress up like a f-ing little girl? Maybe we would parade you around like an f-ing little girl that you are!” All I remember is dropping my head and my eyes staring blindly at the floor.
The other time that stands out for me was when I was 12. My mother had been drinking the night before and began talking about how she never wanted children and offered to give me up for adoption. I was crushed in that moment but remembered she was drunk and didn’t mean it so I went to bed. The next day, she woke up and repeated her words to give me up for adoption. While I regret now not taking her up on it, there are two very distinct experiences that I did not belong in my family. I was not wanted.
As a side note, this is where the title of this blog comes from. “A beautiful mistake” is something that resonates with me.
As I grew up, I tried to fit in to school and with friends but was usually the third in any situation. I was the backbencher that filled the room but was not the main attraction. When someone cooler walked in, I was quickly discarded.
When I entered the church as a older teen, I thought “finally, this is a place I can belong.” I was wrong there too. The church (generally) spent years communicating to me that I was not one of them. I remember one evening, the youth group I was attending at the church was electing their executive council for the following year. Someone in the room nominated me for President, lost; then vice, lost; then treasurer, lost, then secretary, lost…you get the point. After five or six nominations I stopped letting him put my name forward. It was a hard night.
“BUT,” people would say, “God is different than his people. God loves you no matter what.” I hung onto that belief so desperately because I needed somewhere to belong. I went to Bible School and they too communicated I did not belong. I began some counselling with the assistant dean and after a time he disclosed our conversations to the registrar and then I was suspended from classes for one year. The response i got from the dean was “surely you must have known I’d have to tell someone?” I was shocked and horrified. It was however the story of my life. Bad things happened and somehow it was always my fault. I did not conform to their image and therefore must adapt or leave.
In my attempt to fit in, I also got married to a good Christian girl. That gave me some street cred with the religious community to be sure but I heard from her consistently about how deficient I was in various ways. I wasn’t polite enough, outgoing enough, I didn’t say the right things at the right times, etc. I didn’t perform properly therefore I didn’t belong. Throughout our marriage I remained the “troubled youth she was rescuing” so to speak.
I bounced from job to job through most of my teens and early adult life.
Until, in my mid 30’s, I started to question the long-held beliefs of the church and my family and where I stand with them. I began to recognize that the negative beliefs I hold are not my voice but the voice of others. I was no longer content to just “follow along.” After all, it wasn’t fulfilling and getting me any sense of belonging that I desperately craved. I started to reject the need to fit in and find my own path.
Authenticity and self acceptance are beautiful but costly. I have a colleague who believes the entire purpose of therapy is self acceptance. Not the need to change but the need to embrace oneself. Being authentic in who we are and reflecting that to those around us is frightening to those who struggle to “fit in.” But if we want to live and belong, it is necessary. It took me a long time, and to be honest, is still in process. I don’t believe “self acceptance” is a destination. It is a journey where everyday we decide who we are and how we are going to reflect that to the world. If I can give you any encouragement today, is to accept yourself as you are. You are beautiful, you are safe, you are strong. Remind yourself of that and own it. It’s true.