Ever Feel Like an Outsider? You Are Not Alone
If you’ve ever felt like you are different from the people around you, chances are you’ve also been tempted to hide or minimise those differences to fit in.
Humans are social animals. We thrive when we feel understood and accepted. Our mental and physical health levels sink when we are lonely or fear rejection. So if we feel threatened by rejection, we do our best to avoid it.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Psychologists point out that for early humans expulsion from your tribe or group would probably have meant death.
Although wild animal attacks or starvation is no longer at issue for most of us, the impact of not belonging still affects us deeply.
The shocking truth about rejection, or even the fear of rejection, is that it can affect our health and even our life expectancy.
Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS began taking hold, researchers at UCLA undertook a longitudinal study to look at what made the biggest difference to the health and longevity of gay men with HIV.
Unexpectedly, the factor that had the most dramatic impact was whether the men had come out as gay. Those who had decided to stay in the closet died on average 2-3 years earlier than those who were out.
Studies of elderly people, who make up a large proportion of the loneliest in our society, show similar results. Not only does lack of intimacy shorten lives, it increases the incidence of dementia, viruses and other health problems.
People who feel like outsiders, or those who are stereotyped or feel discriminated against, are also more likely to describe themselves as lonely. Their stress levels rise and their immunity falls.
This affects so many of us. Are you one of the many who can tell poignant stories of feeling left out at school, not being one of the ‘popular’ kids or being picked last for the team?
Teenagers, too, tend to feel like outsiders. They want to be accepted, but don’t know who they are yet, as they endure a complete rewiring of their brain and body.
For many of us, this sense of dislocation is temporary. Especially if we can build on a foundation of loving parents and intimate and trusting relationships with friends and lovers, we are well able to repair any damage that occurred in the dark times.
Resilience is the key, not only to health and well-being, but also for how we can harness our differences and turn them into creative fuel.
Being an outsider doesn’t have to hold you back. In fact, the greatest artists, innovators, comedians, scientists and entrepreneurs have been outsiders. Albert Einstein, Vincent Van Gogh, Woody Allen, Richard Branson, Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Meera Syal, Maya Angelou… the list goes on and on.
Each of these people began with disadvantages that could have, and at times did, exclude them from ‘normal’ society. But each turned their differences into an advantage.
Einstein turned his failure at subjects other than physics and maths, and eventual expulsion from school, into the opportunity to undertake his ‘thought experiments’, leading him to the General Theory of Relativity.
Syal turned her experience of stereotyping and discrimination into satire as she created <i>Goodness Gracious Me</i> a BBC show that changed the landscape of British comedy.
Jobs combined geeky electronics into objects of desire, not only influencing other computer manufacturers but transforming the way that people interacted with technology.
We are constantly told to ‘think out of the box’. Outsiders are not in the box in the first place. They need to overcome the temptation to try and fit in by climbing into one.
True belonging doesn’t come from fitting in. Contorting who we are to be accepted by others is like getting into our own closet. And we’ve already seen the impact that can have on our health and well-being.
No, belonging is about being accepted as the person we are. We don’t need to share all our characteristics with others, but we do need to share a sense of connection, of empathy and, ideally, of purpose.
This shared purpose may be extreme, pushing soldiers who would otherwise have little in common to feel like brothers when they are under fire. Or it may be as simple as a group of friends going for a walk.
The truth is, although we are all unique, we have more in common with one another than different. Even the experience of feeling like an outsider is itself one that is shared with millions of other people.
You may be different, but you are not alone.
Devi Clark is the founder and editor of the Outsiders’ Network. This post first appeared in the Huffington Post (click here to see the original)