As a career therapist, I have sat with clients of all ages who have expressed feeling like an outsider who doesn’t quite fit in, a square peg in a round hole, so different from others that they may have come from another planet. Some are adults, some children and teens and what they have in common is a longing to belong.
This sense of feeling like an “other” may have emerged from their family of origin, where they may have grown up as the only artist among athletes, the only introvert among social butterflies, or the only mechanic among PhDs. Being in lock step may have superseded unique talents. And, once they enter school, the expectation to conform may seem overwhelming.
During sessions, some have shared a belief that other people have it all together. I laugh with them and relate a story from my own adolescence. Although I had friends in the various social circles (athletes, cheerleaders, student council, drama club, musicians, chess club — the only group I didn’t hang with were those referred to back then as “stoners”), I never felt like one of the “cool” or “popular” kids.
When were planning our 35th reunion, a Facebook group was created. I made a passing comment about that dynamic. A few people chimed in that they thought I was one of the cool kids who they admired and wanted to emulate. Imagine that. One of the guys even said he had a crush on me back then. When I laughingly inquired why he hadn’t told me that during my insecure adolescence, it was because he felt lacking, just like I did.
I also encourage my clients to visualize walking down the hall in school and seeing thought bubbles over the heads of the other kids. What would they see in them? They agreed that the chances were pretty good that they would reflect their own personal insecurities. I asked if they would feel more compassion toward themselves if they knew that everyone, even the most popular and lauded kids had some of the same self -doubts that they fell prey to; the others just covered better. They said it would be easier. Peel off the layers, and we all question our worth. Part of the human condition, I guess.
In the wake of the most recent tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, there have been suggestions that students should befriend those perceived as different, outcast, and weird. This was recommended to prevent someone who feels isolated or has been bullied from retaliating. I am all for inclusivity, reaching out to make new friends and certainly, refraining from harassing or ostracizing others; buoying up instead of bullying down. But there is a major downside to this strategy.
I read a statement recently, written by a young person who was being bullied. They expressed that after the Columbine shootings, when, along with similar peers, they were called in to speak with the administration as a potential at-risk kid, they felt singled out and even more weird. Others were encouraged to befriend them, which felt contrived and condescending. A powerful statement that this student made to the guidance counselor was that this treatment made them feel “like a school shooter in the making.”
“When we fail to teach kids about bullying, fail to intervene when necessary, fail to recognize a child in pain, we leave children being bullied with few options,” says MaryAnn Byrne, a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention trainer. “Some children will muddle through and grow up with a variety of issues including anxiety, depression, social phobia and so on. Some children turn on themselves. They become self-injurious, suicidal, substance abusers, drop out of school, society and sometimes life. Others become bullies.”
In working with child, teen and adult victims of bullying behaviors, I remind them that the best way to get back at the bullies is not to repeat their behaviors and thus become like them. There is a false sense of power when in the bullying position, rooted in unhappiness, but when someone feels genuinely empowered, the desire to put another down to elevate oneself, diminishes. Healing takes place.
How do we create a sense of belonging?
- Find people with whom you have interests in common.
- Volunteer in your community in spiritual or secular groups.
- See areas of similarity as well as diversity.
- Acknowledge what makes you unique and special, as opposed to “weird” by making a list of your talents and abilities.
- Identify a role model/mentor who presents as confident and is adept at making friends and learn what has worked for that person.
Attributional Retraining as a modality is championed by social psychologist and Stanford assistant professor Gregory Walton. He teaches people to reframe their self -deprecating, isolative thoughts of “It’s just me. I’m the only one going through this,” as a means of feeling a sense of belonging. Re-writing the narrative allows us to tell a new story about who we are and what place we occupy in the world.
Sadly, a young person with whom I worked saw himself through the eyes of those who were picking on him. He expressed feeling like the loser they told him he was. By using this technique, he was able to re-create himself, so that when he moved from elementary to middle school, he was able to engage in more fulfilling relationships, joined in various activities. According to him, and verified by his parents, he is now excelling in school and has many more friends. He is walking taller and feels he has posse around him.