When I was in the 7th grade the thing I wanted more than anything else in the entire world was a pair of Jordache Jeans. I just knew that the minute I put them on, my overly permed redhead with braces self would be instantly transformed into Brooke Shields. This, I believed, would be my ticket to being a part of the “the crowd.” I imagined putting my purple comb in the back pocket of those jeans so I could touch up my perfectly feathered hair at a moment’s notice while all the boys swooned at my coolness. My parents being the sensible, money conscious folks that they were, however, could not see dropping a cool $50 on a pair of jeans that they could get (almost kinda-sorta identical!) at JCPenney’s for $12 on layaway. No Jordache for me.
We don’t stop feeling this pull after junior high. In some ways, the pull is only more seductive. We choose a career path, relationship, neighborhood, friendship not because it is what lights us up and makes us feel fully alive, but because it is how we fit in. It is safe and comfortable. It is what we have been told we deserve.
We all have felt that pang of not fitting in, of feeling like the outsider, of feeling not “enough” for the world–or at least the part of the world we so desperately want to be a part of. So we try to fit in. We shrink down, tuck ourselves in, and even lob off entire parts of ourselves in order to squeeze into someone’s idea of who we are suppose to be. We might even be able to twist and contort ourselves for a little while. We try to be a shape-shifter in hopes that it will eventually feel normal. The problem is, we confuse “normal” with becoming numb and what becomes numb can die. Our full, real selves are choked off from the oxygen that authenticity needs to flourish.
That is the thing about fitting in. It’s not really you. At best, it is only a one-dimensional portion of yourself. At worst, it’s a wholesale co-opt of someone else’s identity. We lose our authenticity, our integrity, our creativity and our unique gift that we bring to the world. And that, my friends, makes a person exhausted in the most bone-weary of ways.
Take heart. The antithesis of fitting in is not isolation and aloneness. In fact, I say the most alone we will ever feel is when we try to fit into someone else’s vision of who we should be. No, the opposite of fitting in is belonging. Fitting in demands that we shrink, belonging begs us to expand. Fitting in excludes, belonging invites. Fitting in says, “Maybe, but only if you…”, belonging says, “Yes, all of this, please.” Fitting in is the apartment that we rent, belonging is the home that welcomes us. It is where our passion and purpose are nurtured into life. It is where vulnerability is the fertile soil of understanding, not an openness to attack. It is where authenticity flourishes. Most importantly, it is the only place where true love resides.
Fitting in is about others; Brene Brown describes it as merely acclimating to the situation. Fitting in asks, “Who does the world want me to be?” We tell ourselves little white lies to numb and tolerate when we know is counterfeit. Belonging is an inside job. Belonging asks, “What do I have to bring the world?” It starts with the being able to stand up for our authentic selves. Yes, it risks disconnectedness from people and situations who are not meant for us: the wrong job or the wrong relationship. That part is scary. I know it. I really do. But here’s the thing:
The reward is that true belonging and real connection will occur when we put out to the Universe the gift of our authentic selves. What we put out, we receive in return. We not only get to live our most real and integrated lives, we get to experience the full bounty of others’ authenticity. We all get to expand to our fullest selves. And then, finally and completely, we belong to each other. No fitting in required.