In just over 15 days I reach the tenderised age of 40. In those 40 years I have only had rare encounters with any real sense of belonging. A sense that society insists we should all feel, once we accept our place in it. If we are part of a larger collective how could we ever feel apart?
The urge to label and compartmentalise everything is human nature. This provides the backbone for a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society as a whole. As a result our perception of how we should integrate with society is warped. We all feel like outsiders when we are children. Fitting in at that age is more about survival than growth. Conformity becomes a negative habit that we hope we will shed as we grow into adulthood.
Society is organised into neat little boxes, all strapped tightly together so nothing slips through the gaps. We are nudged by disapproval into meeting certain expectations. Those with the self-awareness to understand their predicament push against this tide, turning it just enough to make their own way in the world. For some of us, any self-awareness is neutered by our deep need to fit in, to be accepted, to be loved. This experience is not unique to any one individual. The uniqueness is in how we each live that experience and how it has impacted on us this far.
For me that self-awareness was always there, but it was stymied by that desire to conform. I wasn’t driven by a need to meet society’s expectations, more to be accepted and avoid the attention that being different would bring. It wasn’t insight I lacked, it was courage. It would be much easier to say I was blind to my weakness, but it would be a lie. Much like the majority, I needed to huddle in my neat little box, because anything else was too hard. I had hoped all that would change once I was an adult, making my adult choices. I would be the captain of my own destiny and expectations be damned. Trouble is if you do something for long enough you become conditioned. Life on automation is society’s sedative, and breaking that habit is about more than courage and conscious choice.
When you are suffering from mental illness, that feeling of isolation we all experience becomes even more acute. Every emotion is compulsively clawed, leaving it raw and inflamed. After I got help I found a feeling of isolation still persisted, but with it came a clarity of thought that allowed me to see my mistakes. We all have a path to take as we make our way through life and I stumbled too far from that path. This led to an emotional schism that became too much to bear. Playing the chameleon was impacting on my health and mental illness helped me see the why. It is a double-edged sword I must admit. I welcome the mindfulness it brings, the awakening to what makes me who I need to be. But I also wonder at the lost years that can never be regained. That time spent following a path that was wrong for me. Let me say though, the former far outweighs the latter. Looking forward is the only worthwhile endeavor if I want to waste no more time. I am choosing the second chance it has afforded me and the opportunities it will bring.
I love to ponder what a younger me would do, armed with such clarity. I think the messages that would have mattered most to me at the time would be:
The cost of fitting in is too high….. trust your oddness, your individuality. Try not to spend too much time wondering why you don’t fit in. Keep moving and maybe you will find a place you do fit.
Be brave, the imagined far exceeds any reality….. you could live a whole life without ever leaving your head. Being too introspective will only hold you back. Take the risk, embrace the failures when they come. It means you are smarter and more experienced than you were before you tried. Never be afraid to look stupid, the real stupidity lies in living a life you never wanted.
Have faith in yourself….. I am going to be honest, the world won’t show you much faith. It is harsh by nature and only your successes get you credit. Have faith you will figure out what success means for you.
Live your life for you not for others…… I am not saying to be selfish, I am saying to be true. If you don’t know what you want then find out what it is. Don’t let others decide that for you, regardless of circumstance or expectation.
Pay attention to your instincts…… If it feels like the wrong choice for you then it probably is. Learn to recognise that feeling, and trust it when it happens. You won’t always get it right but that’s OK.