Chatting off-topic one day with one of my favorite editors, Deborah Levine, I talked about feeling like an outsider at age 7 in my own family. Perhaps she had not discussed her similar feelings before because she embraced the topic and told about similar feelings in her childhood. Deborah told her mom how she believed she belonged to gypsy parents who must have left her on the doorstep. Then without surprise or forethought she asked her mom, “Would you please return me to where I really belong?” Her mom was amused by her hyperactive daughter with the quick mind and tongue.
I then shared with Deborah that I felt I’d been left behind by aliens as part of an intergalactic experiment by my far-away family. This was not as far fetched as you might think when I explain how my father was a scientist working for the government in Radiation Biology. He had security clearances, and this was to explain why he was gone a lot to places he could not speak about upon return. was often on the road to places he could not tell us about. It was also the 1950s when the red-scare atmosphere filled the very air and our television programing the paranoia of the McCarthy era.
We talked about the feelings that go with being an outsider. It was hard to find a search term that didn’t lead to all kinds of discussions about anxiety, the need to belong, rebellious adolescence, and other topics too specialized to mention. Apparently, simply feeling different or like outsider and being ok with that is not common or of interest to the internet population. I think of it more as a way of being and then a path analogy to be cured.
Finally I found the correct Google phrase to query with: Feeling Like an Outsider. The first article I absorbed was by student Natalie Proulx asked in a 2019 New York Times’ “Student Opinion” column,
“Have you ever felt like an outsider, or as if you just didn’t fit in somewhere? Maybe it was at school, on a team, with a group of friends, in a public place or even in your own home… In general, did you enjoy standing out, or did you find it challenging?”
It turns out that we have more in common with one another and fewer differences than we might imagine. Even the experience of feeling like an outsider is shared with millions of other people. You can feel different without feeling alone and much has been written about the benefits that being an outsider.
Writers have focused on notable outsiders like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, Tracey Emin, and Julie Walters. Steve Jobs would go on to found Apple computers with the slogan, Think Differently. When his board of directors rejected his slogan in favor of their banal slogan “We’re back.” Jobs left (or was kicked out) only to return with the goods from thinking differently and launching the infamous i–culture (iphone, imac, ipod, i-connector, ad nauseum)
Some writers believe that “aloneness” makes people more aware and observant. As COVID demands “aloneness” of us, this could lead eventually to an era of growing inner wisdom and compassion for others. Still, many people are not comfortable feeling outside, lacking belonging. My research next landed on the many tips to freeing one’s self from feeling like an outsider. Time and again I read how an outsider should NOT try too hard to fit in because it would make them appear as clingy or inauthentic. Ironically, being okay with not being included could make one more attractive to others, even admired.
This segued to a long list of benefits outsiders experienced. Being an outsider helps many individuals become more aware of society’s dictates, and propels them in their search to get around the rules. Another benefit may be how outsiders feel they grow their personal wisdom over time, and some become counselors based on their enhanced empathy. One searcher reported, “I drink up the knowledge that I are not alone in my feelings of self-love of solitude.” The most widely agreed upon tip was to stop twisting and contorting one’s self into the narrow definition of normal. Instead, seek out other outsiders.
COVID has put a spotlight on the introverts among us and their introverted skills, And while the extrovert is generally viewed in popular culture as the hero in any gathering, it turns out that studies like those summed up in the book Quiet illustrate how the most successful work teams consciously combine introverts with extroverts. Alone neither accomplishes much, except extroverts are noisier, perhaps more entertaining. Just as extroversion is not the only way to be, neither is the role of insider or “belong-er”.
Jennifer Romo was 17 when she began blogging. Jennifer felt she was born into an awakened soul and mind, possessed by a super-awareness of her surroundings, and yet not experiencing isolation. She felt this helped in her search for meaning and purpose in life. She concluded, “If you ever feel bad about not fitting in, just remember it’s a sign that a great path is coming your way and you still haven’t reached your full potential.”
Tim Rettig notes, “Being an outsider doesn’t always have to be painful.” He goes on in his 2017 Intercultural Mindset article to share his definition of being an outside:
I am talking about people who have a unique position in society. People who, either by choice or by force, are different from the people around them. People who do not “fit in” for various different reasons…People who live on the margins of society…who do not belong anywhere completely. People who do not fit into a single group of people completely. People who are living in-between worlds.
And he goes on to observe an intentional quality found in many outsiders:
Although they recognize that staying comfortably in one single group of people or one single community would satisfy their need for belonging, they have the courage to expose themselves to new environments on a regular basis.
Rettig sees outsider life existing in a “permanent state of transition.” He theorizes that outsiders are constantly seeking growth…trying to learn new things…constantly in movement…constantly pushing forward.”
Hollywood royal Angelina Jolie adds some detail to Rettig’s theories in a Healthista digital magazine in 2015. She reported, “When I was little, I was told that I was different… I felt out of place, and too loud, too full of fire, never good at sitting still, never good at fitting in…then I realized different is good.” Jolie enjoys the good company of many culture icons from the worlds of comedy, writing, drama, art and technology with diverse names like Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowlings and Julie Walters. Many have shared how they felt misunderstood as children and escaped into a private world where they found their royal road to their creativity. In my second Google search I found quotes by famous and accomplished people asserting pride in their outsider status.
“Some of us aren’t meant to belong. Some of us have to turn the world upside down and shake the hell out of it until we make our own place in it.”
~ Elizabeth Lowell
“It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must be a little in love with death!”
~ Eugene O’Neill
For a long while I have believed – that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached… there may even be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers
~ Salman Rushdie
If you’ve ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider, it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you.”
~ Tim Burton
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COVID-19 has brought us into an era of widespread loneliness. Martin’s words will resonate with the loner within and help bring clarity. Those of us who are life-long outsiders want the newbies to know that there are deep treasures hidden in the isolation of this time. Embrace your gifts and share your stories in the comments.