The urge to ‘fit in’ fascinates me. Whether at work or play, amongst family, friends or peers, privately or publicly, it seems to be a part of being alive. (I would have said ‘of the human experience’ except it’s just as obvious amongst animals too).
Recently I watched an episode of ‘Madam Secretary’ where the intellectual son wanted to try out for the Football team. His parents were totally bewildered. Turns out, like many of us, he just wanted to make some friends. I well remember my own painful teenage years – I was desperate to fit in. To show up in a way that didn’t label me as more weird than I could bear…
So completing my High School education in the USA (class of ‘79) as a foreign exchange student was a relief for me, in that my very foreign-ness meant I didn’t have a hope in hell of fitting in with the well-established cliques. It was my first experience of being both quietly proud of my uniqueness and comfortable in my own skin – the result of which was that I had no impetus, at all, to be more like my peers.
Interestingly, when I returned to New Zealand, the lesson was reinforced again when I found, initially to my dismay, that I no longer fitted in with the friends I had before my year away. My worldview had changed but by then I neither could, nor wanted, to be anything but by my own unique self – whoever I turned out to be!
That resolve was sorely tested in my first marriage, where for the first couple of years I found my new family so much more interesting and compelling to be with than my own, which seemed somewhat ordinary, frankly, by comparison.
Eventually I realised that the flipside of the spontaneity and fun was high emotion and drama, which made the consistent calm, predictability and pragmatism of my family – even if ordinary – infinitely more desirable to me.
Increasingly I found it harder to fit in with the mores, values and expectations of my family-in-law and it was a relief when work took my husband and I away. The pressure I felt to fit in disappeared as quickly as did the miles between us.
The Corporate world too, can do a good number in making fitting in desirable. The expression ‘She/He needs to either fit in or f*** off’ is still alive and well, albeit said behind closed doors to safe ears, more often than not. Sadly, the She/He invariably gets that feeling that they are doing something, or being somehow, wrong. So they try to do their best to become whatever they need to, in order to fit in – the other option being less palatable. Until, of course, it’s not.
With ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ and ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’ type of statements as a backdrop, particularly in our younger years, is it any wonder that fitting in and around others can be a default behaviour? Habitual even?
If you are curious about whether you have this tendency, pay attention to your self talk. For example, do you say:
- Why don’t these people like me OR These people don’t appreciate my uniqueness
- I’m too fat or flabby or old for this dress OR This dress doesn’t make me feel fabulous enough to buy
- I can’t do anything right for my boss OR My boss and I aren’t on the same page
The emphasis here is on recognising that there are at least two ways to look at any given situation. And only one of them is empowering.
At midlife we have earned the right to be ourselves. And that means – apart from behaviour required for proprieties sake – we need not change ourselves to fit in with any body or group that doesn’t respect our individuality. In fact, finding ‘our tribe’ – those kindred souls who support and celebrate our uniqueness, as we do theirs – has surely got to be one of the more satisfying midlife adventures.
If you’ve found your tribe, how did you go about it?