Most of my childhood, I never fit in. Being painfully shy, social anything was excruciatingly hard for me. During recess in elementary school, I’d do everything I could to spend it inside, alone, playing computer games.
Frequently, though, my teacher would insist I go outside and I’d instantly feel an utter sense of overwhelming embarrassment. I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t know how to make them and didn’t know what to do with myself. So I’d sit off to the side and literally twiddle my thumbs waiting for playtime to be over, trying not to cry and praying I’d disappear. All I wanted was to go back inside so I didn’t have to be reminded so blatantly that I didn’t belong.
I felt so alone. So left out. Like a total loser. And I hated myself for not being able to conform to what I needed to be to fit in. I could hear their voices in my head, “She’s so weird!” “Why won’t she ever play with us?” “How come she always sits by herself?” “I feel sorry for her.” What’s wrong with her?!”
Words and social actions just weren’t something that came naturally to me. No matter how hard I tried, I felt rejected and shut out. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to say or do. I felt like the other kids were judging me for not participating and not joining their games.
As an adult, I finally understand that there’s a difference from “fitting in” and “belonging”. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else (and not yourself). Belonging is being accepted for being you. Fitting in is the superficial way to having “friends” around to fill up your time, give you something to do with your fingers and being something you’re not. Belonging is feeling connected with people who get you despite your flaws and shortcomings. It’s having friends who may or may not be like you, but accept you as you are.
Fitting in is
“I need to act this way and wear this type of clothing to hang out with these people.”
“I really don’t want to go to this party but I need to go anyway and pretend I like it so everyone likes me.”
“I’m following this career path because my parents expect it of me and I don’t want to disappoint them, even though I want to do something different.”
“I’m going to eat this food even though it makes me feel like crap because otherwise, these people will judge me and think I’m not one of them.”
“I want to be a part of this group, so I need to change the way I am in order to be accepted.”
“I need to be thin to be loveable.”
“I’ve had a really rough day but I know if I show up looking like it, my friends will just be grateful for my presence.”
“I’m going to stay home and catch up on some much-needed rest. I know I won’t miss out or be thought less of by not going.”
“I’m going to do what I love even at the risk of failing. And feel worthy regardless.”
“I’m going to enjoy this food no matter what everyone else’s opinions may be about my diet choices.”
“I want to join this organization because those I’ve spoken to in it made me feel like I mattered even though I’m different.”
“I am loved. My body shape is irrelevant.”
Even today, I have moments that take me right back to the playground where I held back tears for 60 minutes nearly every school day. But the world has taught me (through both wondrous and cruel ways) how to navigate it. And now I remind myself that I don’t need to play with others in order to belong.
I’ve spent too much time running from the overwhelming shame and guilt that can flood my entire being at any given moment because of those playground days, that I missed out on so much simply because I avoided it. I did whatever I could to protect myself from the hurt, the pain, the embarrassment…
There was a time when avoidance was what I needed to heal but that time has passed. Now I know that when I experience these emotions, to let them flow. I have a silent conversation with myself so I can get to know myself and who I am better – and I look into my life to see what’s going on and ask myself how I can connect.
My mantra changed from, “I’m so lonely. I hate myself for not being able to be like everyone else” to…
“I don’t need to be someone I’m not to be accepted. Because I know that I’m worthy and I’m loved no matter what anyone says or thinks of me. And I’m not going to let their opinions – or what I think they’re thinking – stop me from living my life and doing the things I love.”
“I have relationships where I can be myself and not pretend to be something I’m not. I love my body how it is despite culture and my industry screaming at me to look a certain way. I do what I love when I want with people who accept me for being authentically me.”
What mantra has been your own that no longer serves you? What can you change it to now?
If it helps, use the words from my own and adapt it for yourself. Tell yourself every day in the mirror. Write it down in your journal. Have silent conversations with yourself daily each time you feel that you’re running for cover instead of showing up for yourself.
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