I recently attended a high school reunion. It was both as amusing as it was reflective for me. It was fabulous to catch up with all of my old friends and see how great everyone is doing. It really made me think about (and be incredibly grateful for) where I am now as compared to where I was so many years ago. For me, high school was a time wrought with insecurity and low self worth and I longed for a sense of deep belonging.
One of the many gifts that getting older has brought with it is that my “give a crap” meter is breaking. It’s not quite broken, but it is getting there – and I’m very excited about this. Don’t get me wrong, I still care fiercely about things I now value to be important, but those priorities have shifted a lot over the years, and for that I am grateful.
My musings from this weekend have me thinking about how much time and effort I have expended trying to “fit in.” Being accepted, being acknowledged, and knowing we belong are things that I believe that everyone in human skin needs on a deeper level, but the extent to which we conform to external standards in order to get these needs met is where I think we can go awry. The more we try to fit in, we move further and further away from belonging.
I began playing around with the language of “fitting in” (because I am slightly obsessed with language and how it is symbolic and powerful – check out this blog to see how this might affect you) and started to see how insidious “fitting in” can be in our lives if we don’t catch it early on.
We want to Fit In with social groups (remember cliques in high school?)
We want to Fit In with social norms.
We want to Fit Into a certain clothing size.
We want to Fit In with other people’s idea of what “acceptable” is.
We try to Fit In more than we can in our daily schedule.
It goes on and on, but what I am taking away from this is how trying to “Fit Stuff In,” whether it is our self-image, what others think of us, our body shape and size, or our schedule, isn’t a healthy or compassionate act. The imagery around the words reminds me of “stuffing” – and stuffing – whether it’s stuffing our emotions or stuffing ourselves full of food, is self-harming and stunts your ability to connect with yourself on an emotional level.
As I think about the idea of “fitting in,” the image that comes to mind is a square peg and a round hole, and someone shoving and pushing trying to make the peg fit into the hole. That poor, helpless square peg – what did it do to deserve that kind of treatment? The process is harmful, painful, laborious, and honestly, futile. No fun, and really, no point.
Brene’ Brown, a shame researcher and author writes,
“Fitting In Is Not Belonging. There are so many terms we use every day whose meanings are gauzy, if not downright imprecise — which makes it hard to get your head around what’s really going on in your life. For example, contrary to what most of us think: Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I’ve discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely — it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are — love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.
Many of us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, but we’re not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of in-congruent living is soul sucking.“
So how do we find real belonging in the face of all of this?
Begin working on fitting in with yourself.
I know, this can sound trite. It is actually really complicated, can be difficult (understatement award of the year for this girl!) and requires deliberate and intentional awareness and commitment on a daily basis. All of that said, it is totally possible, so unbelievably worth the effort, and will change the way you look at life (for the better) the moment you make the choice to commit to it.
It starts with asking what I call “internally focused questions.”
Basically, throughout the day, make a point to ask yourself:
- What do I want?
- What do I need?
- What do I think about this?
- What do I think about them?
- What are my opinions?
Many of us, if we are honest, have spent a lot of time asking the “externally focused” versions of those questions.
- What do they want from me?
- What do they need me to do?
- What do they think about what’s going on?
- What do they think about me?
- What do they think about this, and how can I affirm that?
People pleasing, conflict avoidance, peace-making and care taking behaviors are all built on the external questions above. For many of us, “fitting in” has been an old defense mechanism or survival technique. But it’s time to let that go. In order to feel like we belong, to truly experience that feeling of belonging, we must remain authentic. What once protects you in life, as you grow, often becomes the very thing that begins to choke the life force out of you and pull you further away from authenticity.
Make yourself the go-to person, the expert whose acceptance you seek. Make yourself the benchmark, the gold standard, and then be curious as to who and what in the world around you is similar to you (or not) and see how that feels. Seek to align with yourself. And commit to remembering to do this daily. It’s a journey, not just a goal to meet.