What Makes an Outsider?
Our identity is co-created by ourselves and sociaety. We combine our own sense of self with a sense of what others think about us. Together the different versions of who we are grow, change and interact to create the multi-faceted truth.
Sometimes the sense of what others think of us overwhelms the sense of self. We forget that the social version of ourselves is only a partial truth.
Especially in our youth and adolescence, when we are still developing our sense of self, the judgement of others looms large. If those judgements are negative, we can learn, falsely, to do ourselves down before anyone else has the chance to do us down.
Alternatively, our sense of self grows grandiose and we forget to learn from the feedback that others give us. We can grow arrogant and self-righteous if our sense of self derives only from our inner world.
We need a social sense to help us to navigate our lives. We need it to empathise and connect with others. We need it for what we choose to do with our time and money to feel like it matters.
So, our identity is in balance when there is a healthy dialogue. As we grow up we learn who we are and what we care about, but we also build an awareness of the effect we have on others and how to make things happen. If either of these senses is impaired, we have a tougher time.
At birth, our sense of self, and our sense of the world, is non-existent. We learn both simultaneously.
Identity can only exist in relation to others. If we are a girl, we are not a boy. If we are a child, we are not an adult. We are humans, not plants. We are happy not sad. We are one thing and that means we are not something else.
We learn the rules of the culture we grow up in. We learn how to follow its rules, and even when we might break them.
We judge, necessarily, to locate ourselves, to learn how to behave. And that judgement need not be judgemental.
As we develop the ability to move around (at about the age of 1 year old), we also develop the understanding that others are separate beings. Most of us get a dose of separation anxiety, before learning that our parents or carers do return.
It turns out this knowledge, that we will be loved and cared for, is fundamental to our sense of belonging. After all, we don’t have to be identical to the people we belong with. But we do need a sense of acceptance and a shared purpose, even if that purpose is as simple as wishing the best for one another.
Before creating the Outsiders’ Network, I interviewed many people who self-identified as outsiders. As I spoke to them I realised that the biggest determinant of whether outsiders felt awkward about who they were, or proud and confident, was how loved and accepted they felt in the earliest years of their lives.
The people who felt secure that they were loved whatever they did continued to love themselves as adults. They felt the kind of safe love that enabled them to make choices that others would think of as risky.
They also had a strong sense of self. They could see how other people felt about them, and would sometimes change the choices they made because of their ability to empathise or learn about the effect they had. However, whether they changed or not, they tended to do so without feeling crushed if the judgement of others was negative.
In contrast, those who were less sure that they were loved as children often internalised the message that they were not inherently worthy of love.
These people frequently hid parts of themselves, or worked extra hard to earn the right to exist. They could be high achievers, but despite this their success never felt like it was enough. They were too worried about what other people really thought about them to stop trying hard.
While we cannot always influence what others feel about us, we can change the way we think about ourselves. This is what the Outsiders’ Network is for. Here we can remind ourselves that we are no, after all, alone. We are not unworthy or unimportant. We don’t have to prove ourselves.
And perhaps, if we teach ourselves to stop being judgemental about who we are, we also stop our children learning to judge themselves. That would be a cycle worth breaking, wouldn’t it?
Devi Clark is the founder of the Outsiders’ Network and the lead organiser of TEDxAylesbury.