I’ve previously discussed my often overwhelming need and desperate attempts to fit into various groups over the course of my life–the cool kids at school, the hipsters in my neighborhood, my family, etc. Being myself didn’t feel like an option. Not only that, I hadn’t the first clue about what that would mean. A blank space existed where my sense of self belonged, and it wasn’t until I was near the end of my twenties that I began to attach certain truths to it, like some sort of existential pinterest board. I started thinking about this struggle again recently, prompted by a friend’s facebook post, where she posed the question: at what point should an outcast try to conform?
Online I answered from my current vantage point as a thirty-something who has worked to own and understand herself as a relative outlier (no mortgage, no kids, no set career path, to name a few demographic characteristics). I encouraged my friend to stay true to who she is, echoing the sentiment of many of her other commenting friends. I understand from my own struggle that the times I’ve “fit in” have been some of the loneliest, most miserable periods, where I felt a lack of integration between my emotions, thoughts and actions. Eventually, hammering myself into a shape that would fit led to my alcoholic meltdown.
I can remember being twenty-two, fresh out of college and one of the youngest people working at the cosmetics counter. Initially I was ignored or put down by colleagues who saw me as a dumb kid. I strove to talk like them, agree with everything they said, make them feel comfortable and take a keen interest in everything about them. It wasn’t real, and eventually I felt like every single word coming out of my mouth was bullshit. I felt detached from my personhood, un-grounded. In trying to fit in, I offered nothing of myself, nothing true or original.
At seventeen I got drunk for the first time and realized with a sense of shock and wonder that alcohol was my missing piece, the part that would make me into the right shape, and at last I would fit. No more isolation at parties, where I hung back from the group, sober and timid. No more feeling intimidated by others in social settings. No more feeling “lame” for not drinking. With alcohol I could walk into any party, any scene and feel entirely comfortable. I could talk to anyone, flirt with any guy, dance with abandon, feel pretty and sexy. At last I found the magic tonic that made me belong.
When I was eight I was accepted into the inner circle of popularity, the mean girls. All I had to do was treat my most vulnerable classmates like garbage, publicly, going above and beyond what the group’s ringleader was willing to do. I won her respect for being fearlessly cruel and not caring about consequences. Even she had limits. By dispensing with my own, I was rewarded with the group’s attention (gross fascination?) at lunch and recess. It didn’t matter that in my homelife I was the trusted “big sister” to all the neighborhood kids who I treated with kindness and love. Being accepted was worth the terrible stress of duality.
In casting about for a pattern from which to reinvent myself after graduate school, I settled on urban hipster. I was moving back to my home state, where I had decided I needed to take the city by storm, living out a fantasy that involved dive bars, rock shows, locally-sourced food and public transportation. The vision of who I was to be was vividly clear in my mind, I just needed to gain acceptance into a group that would take me there. I found them within the first six months–a crew that had been together since high school, aloof, distant, enmeshed and utterly cool. I took on their off-hand way of speaking, attempting to project an image of insouciance, a blase attitude. I affected a smooth, laissez-faire style toward these new friendships, while covering a deeply insecure, sucking hole inside me. I revealed nothing about myself, striving to be someone easy and fun who reflected the group’s interests and styles. It worked. I was in. And I had never felt more needy, insecure and desperate. We were doing it all–bars, clubs, parties, dinners–and the moments I wasn’t in relationship with the group I felt panicked, left behind. Eventually I started drinking again, after seven years of near-abstinence. Soon enough the group started to leave me out. My wild drunk behavior, my desperation, my opacity became a liability, I’m sure.
I was twenty-eight, newly-sober, alone and on the margins, where I belong.
As a twenty-six year-old (when the hipster disaster began), I think I would have answered my friend’s facebook inquiry differently. I likely would have told her to try to conform as much as possible to make herself more comfortable, to look to others for cues on how to be. I’m sure I would have told her that the isolation of not fitting in is more painful than the white lie of conformity. I would have been wrong.
I believe very strongly, through my own experience, that I will never fit in. I’m never going to live the status quo, conforming to societal norms. I know myself well enough now to understand I have to make my own way, and that some of my choices won’t make sense to others. I’m a lone wolf extrovert, which makes life confusing to navigate at times. I draw my energy from people and relationships, yet sometimes I prefer to hang back and watch, holding myself apart from the group. I enjoy meeting new people and hanging out with friends immensely, yet crave time away with myself. While I will likely always struggle with these polarities, they are both critical parts of who I am, and I’m not going to stuff myself into some uncomfortable mold for anyone, not even myself.