True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are. Brené Brown.
There is so much pressure these days to look a certain way, be like this person or do what that person did. The older I get, the more I call bullshit on the lot of it. Nothing is more likely to make someone miserable than trying to squeeze into a box that doesn’t fit.
Brené Brown really spells this out in her book, Braving the Wilderness. It’s a formidable call to action for those of us who have found belonging difficult. When you feel rejected by family or at school for being who you are, you grow up feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. As a little girl, I didn’t understand why I should have to eat my school dinner of liver and onions when I hated the taste or why I had to eat all the pink custard on the pudding when it made me feel sick. Who made these stupid rules and why didn’t everyone complain about them? It wasn’t just rules about food, why did small talk exist? What made everyone so keen on talking about inconsequential things? How come no one had given me the handbook on How To Human?
I felt like the choices open to me were
- hide the ‘unacceptable’ parts and try to integrate into the crowd,
- attempt to change those parts into something more acceptable or
- hold on to who I was; stand out and risk being alone.
I didn’t like being alone, being left out of games was bad enough so I took the first choice. Taking the box marked FITTING IN, I pulled it over my head; trying to ignore my lower torso, legs and feet awkwardly sticking out. I desperately wanted to belong. My way of integrating was to learn as much as I could about pretending to be less of an outsider. First in books then later, on the internet. I studied human beings as a foreign species and faked membership of the tribe, making myself as useful as I could to the humans. I learnt not to flinch at noises that hurt my ears because other people didn’t react to them. I became fluent in how to talk about every type of British weather condition. I stopped reciting back what people had say three months ago because it wasn’t normal to remember like that. I even worked out what the top few students were likely to get in end of year exams and added enough deliberate mistakes in my answers so I didn’t stand out. Any social slip ups, I disguised with humour.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed as autistic in my 40s that I finally began to understand myself. By then I had made a career of understanding other people. In the process, I had hopelessly alienated myself. So much energy had gone into shapeshifting to fit my ever changing NORMAL boxes, I no longer had any idea of my own form. This is common for outsiders fitting in. The result of denying our own identity is often depression, anxiety and burnout.
When I realised I was autistic, things started falling into place. I wasn’t a crap version of a neurotypical, I was neurodiverse. My brain is wired up differently. Words have a flavour; I’m aware of sounds that other ears don’t register and I experience the emotions of those around me as if they are my own. That gave me the strength to start exploring what was right for me. I changed my work pattern and eventually became self-employed. I gained a new understanding of my needs and with it, more self-compassion. My friendships grew deeper as I showed up as my flapping, rocking, verbally stimming self and was delighted to find that they accepted and liked me for that.
Accepting who you are gives you the choice to live in a way that suits you. It allows you to find others who you can relate to and who make sense to you. Socialising can go from a horrible strain to complete joy. I know that it takes time and courage to be yourself in a world where standards are set so publicly but it is worth the effort. Maya Angelou described it perfectly in a 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, published in his 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou.
You only are free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
Many of you will have started this journey towards a more authentic life. Some will just be realising they need to take this path. Wherever you are, find likeminded people and gain strength from your joint weirdness. Revel in it! Life is so much more fun when you’re being yourself. Let your freak flag fly and we can all enjoy who you are.
I’d love to hear if you recognise yourself in this post. Please comment below and we can share our stories of discovering the pleasure of weirdness.