One theme that I have noticed with many of my counseling and coaching clients is the feeling they have of being on the outside looking in. This might be how they feel in a particular social situation such as with their family, at work or with a particular group of friends. For some, it is what they repeatedly experience. For many, this began during school days and has been with them throughout their lives.
The isolation and devastation of feeling like you are the only one who doesn't belong or fit in can overshadow all else in one's life. It can become a repetitive self-fulfilling process -- a pervasive experience of wanting to be on the inside, but standing alone watching others have fun whom we might believe have selectively and intentionally left us out.
I remember feeling trapped in this position in high school. The "in crowd" seemed to really be having a fabulous time. I watched from the periphery wondering what was wrong with me that I didn't authentically want to be doing what they were doing and why didn't it matter to them whether I was part of the group or not. I wanted the fun they were having, but I knew that I would have to fake it to be a part of the group and I wasn't good at that. I wanted them to want me. I knew that forcing or inserting myself into their activities wouldn't accomplish that. Feelings of not fitting in, not being chosen and just not belonging anywhere dominated my experiences in high school.
As life marched on, I noticed myself experiencing the outsider phenomenon repeatedly. It was my norm in social situations until I started to take a good look at it. I noticed a few important things that became my opportunity to break free and eventually to help others to do so as well. Here are some keys to moving away from the experience of being the outsider looking in:
- Observe Your Experience, Don't Make It Wrong
- Look Inward, Not Outward.
- Consider the Possibility That You Are Creating a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
- Pay Attention to What Works for You and What Doesn't
- Look Elsewhere.
If you fall into the trap of automatically thinking "they are right and therefore I am wrong" you have made a dead end proclamation and have lost the opportunity to consider other possibilities. That's why observation rather than judgment is so important. Observation leads to neutral conclusions that allow you to explore your options. Neutral observations might look like "I am looking at them having fun. I want to have fun. I don't feel comfortable in this situation. Where else do I feel comfortable?"
When you find yourself distressed watching others seemingly having a good time, notice that you are doing that. Then choose to look inward at your experience rather than outward at what others are doing. When we look at our negative feelings as feedback rather than as cause for judgment of ourselves or others, we can work with the information in a healthier way. For example, "I want to have fun. Standing here watching them is not fun for me. What else might I do to have the experience I am looking for? What is fun for me? What would be more fun for me than standing here watching them have fun?" It stands to reason that if you put your hand over a burning flame, it hurts and the healthy response is to move your hand away and learn not to do that again. So, apply that logic here.
When you never go beyond making yourself wrong each time you encounter the feeling of being disconnected from others around you, you simply pile on more bad feelings on top of old unresolved feelings. The pain gets bigger and bigger because each encounter touches into the mother load of unresolved feelings you carry around from similar experiences in the past and you feel more "wrong" and "disconnected" with each new encounter. Convinced that you are "right" in your interpretation of being "wrong" (having never considered an alternative) makes your perspective a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Work with your own feedback to create more of what works for you and less of what doesn't. That's called mastering the art of living. It will bring you much more fulfillment, joy and satisfaction than repeating the same old negative response sadly and wistfully wishing for a different outcome. Lovingly attend to your own sense of imbalance.
Explore what other options are available to you. Stop wanting to be part of something that doesn't make you happy. If the shoe doesn't fit, try on a different shoe. Go for what fits, not for what you wish would fit, but doesn't. Go for the feeling and experience you are looking for, don't demand the conditions under which those feelings will manifest. Be committed to finding your own form of happiness where you fit in and feel good about yourself and don't settle for anything less.
Here's to being inside our own experience and to honoring our own truth, trusting that we belong in this world just the way we are.
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In my adult years, I’ve struggled with feeling like an outsider from time to time. I raise my kids a little different than how I was raised or how many of my friends are choosing to parent. I have dreams of moving to a farm, growing my own food and homeschooling my kids. I want a simple life for me and my family, which isn’t always understood by those around me. For a long time I thought that moving somewhere different and totally changing my life was the only way I was going to find true happiness. I’m slowly realizing that I can create the life I want for myself no matter where I live or what I do. If people consider me an outsider because I don’t do things the way they do, that’s okay. I’d rather be friends with those who are willing to accept my differences and be my friend anyway, whether they agree with me or not.
Maybe you’ve struggled with feeling like you don’t belong. Your situation might be different from mine, in that it’s not your parenting or lifestyle choices that set you apart. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle when others around you don’t support it. You go to a restaurant with your friends, and suddenly you’re no longer sharing the chips and cheese dip that come before the meal. When they suggest heading to the ice cream parlor for dessert, you politely decline because you don’t want to be tempted by sights and smells of high-calorie, high-fat treats. All of a sudden something you once shared with a group of people is now something you don’t have in common. That can certainly make you feel like you don’t belong.
Perhaps your weight is a new struggle in your life. In the past, you were able to eat whatever you wanted without worrying about whether or not your pants would fit. Your friends are still like that, but suddenly you have to think twice about whether or not you should eat that second serving of pasta. You’re dealing with issues related to self-esteem because you don’t look like you once did, but your friends and family are unable to relate to your feelings. That can certainly make you feel like you don’t belong.
So what can you do? I think the first step is to talk about how you’re feeling. Getting it out there can make you feel better, and can also help those around you better understand what’s going on. Maybe there are things they can do to help you feel less like an outsider, such going out for frozen yogurt or skipping dessert and talking a walk together instead. Although there are some things you may no longer have in common, I’d bet there are other things that you do. Even though we don’t parent the same way, my friends and I still have many of the same likes, dislikes and interests. Focus on those ways in which you can relate, instead of putting all of the emphasis on the ways you can’t.
I think I’ll always feel like I’m a little different from those around me. As I get older, I try to embrace those differences instead of trying to fight them or convince others about why I’m “right.” We are all different, and that’s what makes us interesting.
What do you think? Have there been times in your life when you felt like you didn’t belong?