“Do you think I am pretty?”
The ninth-grader I was interviewing for one of my first assignments as a reporter looked up at me with wide eyes.
“Of course, you’re beautiful inside and out,” I replied with a smile.
“The problem is… I’m not popular,” she said with a sigh.
I followed this young woman’s career all through high school. Academically strong and with a heart of gold. At that time, I was writing about a fundraiser she was conducting for a local charity. Her reply to my compliment struck me as poignant. Here she was with the world at her feet but all she wanted was to fit into the microcosm of society found in the halls of her high school.
It is something I’ve seen in the lives of many of the students I had the pleasure to write about during my reporting career… the homeschooled young man who didn’t care for sports, the girl who wanted to play sports instead of go shopping, the boy who wanted to go to art school, the young woman who preferred books to boys. The list goes on.
I, too, was like them. Realizing that my heart was with writing, I was bullied for being different. As an adult, I like to think it was because the other kids just didn’t know how to handle me… but back then, I also wished to be popular.
Somewhere between high school and the school of life, though, something happened. I learned that fitting in wasn’t something that was essential to my survival. What was essential was being true to my inner self… the writer.
While I squashed my own words in high school in a feeble attempt to be “cool” and accepted, my adult-self uses words as my own personal flag: THIS IS ME. THIS IS WHO I AM.
Here’s how I learned to raise my own flag:
- I stopped pretending I was something I wasn’t. I have to admit it, at times, I was a total phony. I would pretend to like a certain kind of music because it was popular. I’d dress trendy, even though it was uncomfortable. I realized that the version of myself I was showing to the world wasn’t who I was. At the time, I was a carbon-copy of a human being because, like a robot, I was a slave to the trends.
- I stopped feeling that I had to be “on” all the time. There was a time when I wouldn’t leave the house without a full face of makeup and my hair done… even if I was just running out to get gas or to the ATM. Not only was it time-consuming, it was also totally pointless. Looking back, no one is going to care if your hair isn’t done when you’re in the grocery store. It was a sign of my own personal insecurity more than anything else.
- I began to take myself out on “dates.” I started to indulge my personal passions, like writing and painting. I started to value my own company and really get to know myself. It was like being reunited with an old friend. Making time for myself became the best thing I could do on a personal level.
- I began to weed out false friends. When you drop your own façade, you start to realize just how many other people wear masks in an attempt to fit in. When I started to showcase the “real me,” I learned that there were people I thought were my friends who just didn’t fit into the person I was becoming. Some were also doing what they could to fit in, so I can’t judge… but when I stopped being desperate to fit in, it allowed me to start choosing more carefully who could be in my life and who couldn’t.
- I silenced the negative voices. We are our own worst critics, that’s a given. But by being more authentic, I noticed that my self-confidence rose and the negative voices in my head were just blips on the radar, nothing to pay attention to. I began to have such a strong sense of self that it was unshakable in its foundation.
Even today, I often still don’t fit in everywhere I go… there are cliques everywhere and when you enter into a new experience, sometimes adults can be just as catty as high school students. You might get left alone at the lunch table or hear whispers about you. You might be wondering what “they” think… even though “they” don’t really matter.
There is a joy in not fitting in because it means you haven’t compromised yourself for anyone or anything.
You’re you and at the end of the day, it will only matter how you lived… How you positively influenced the world.
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This post was syndicated with expressed permission from Stephanie Longo.