Dealing with becoming the outsider

Steve Pults

Most of us find some comfort in having our routines, our homes and acquaintances stable and predictable. Life has a way of constantly reminding us, however, that we do not have it all under our control. Jobs come and go, family members move far away, children grow up and declare their independence, and friends may drift in and out of our lives for any of these reasons and more. Ultimately, we may find that we are the ones who choose to leave the comfort of our routines and valued relationships. When that happens, we find ourselves in the often uncomfortable position of starting over, of becoming “the new guy,” “the newbie” or “the outsider.”

Suddenly, we find ourselves having to learn a whole new culture, whether at school, the workplace or in the community. No one offers us a handy manual on the norms and conventions of our new environment. We often learn of these only when we inadvertently break the unspoken rules of our new community — not a fun way to learn how to fit in.

We can also find ourselves isolated, lonely and not really sure how to “break in” to our new world. Each of us has our own style of working our way into a new group. Some of us may choose just to observe for awhile, i.e. to blend in with the woodwork. After we feel confident that we understand how things work, we will take a few baby steps towards making a connection or starting a relationship. Others of us may plow right in and announce to our new world, “Here I am, and you’re gonna love me!” For some of us, we wait to be noticed or appreciated as we quietly go through our day.

As a kid, I grew up in a home that moved often due to my father’s work. Knowing that I would probably be moving soon, I found I could get away with trying different approaches to fitting in. At one school, I tried being the class clown. At another I tried being the “quiet kid in the back.” Neither really worked well for me. As the class clown, I found myself always feeling pressure to outdo myself, and ultimately all I accomplished was telling other kids, “Laugh at me.” And being the “quiet kid in the back” pretty much said to my peers, “Don’t talk to me.” But one approach actually did work out well. I tried just being myself. At the time I was too young to realize how important that choice was.

We often “tell” people how to feel about us without saying a word. Sometimes this concept is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” which means we read each other’s body language, demeanor and communication styles to get a “fix” on what another person is like. First impressions certainly can be dead wrong, but we intuitively tend to rely on them in most of our interactions.

Often in counseling this can be an area of focus for a person who is “attracting problematic relationships” or having difficulty “fitting in.” As children we receive “messages” from important people that can impact us throughout our lives, based on what we were told about ourselves. A child often neglected and ignored learns, “I’m not important or worthy of attention.” Children who are told, “You’re always the troublemaker,” may well believe that is all they are. We can unknowingly repeat these messages to ourselves throughout our lives, presenting ourselves to others as “unworthy of attention” or as “always the troublemaker.”

When we walk out our front door each morning, the way we present ourselves to others is the way we tell them to treat us. That can make all the difference in how we transition from being “the new guy” or “the outsider” to being recognized as “a really nice person,” “fun to be with,” or “we have a lot of common interests and values.”

As each of us learns and grows through life’s experiences, we can become aware of and challenge any negative self-talk we have taken from others and carried with us. We can discover we are someone who has something to offer, we are worthy of good and positive friendships and relationships, and we do have the courage to risk letting others see who we are and what is important to us — and we like ourselves.

In the process of life’s changes and upheavals, we can come to enjoy inviting the new people we meet at school or work or in the community to know us and become our friends just by being ourselves and believing we are worth being “someone you’d like to know.”

Steve Pults, LMHC, recently joined the staff at Mercer Island Youth and Family Services as an individual, couple and family therapist.

For more information about counseling services at MIYFS, contact Gayle Erickson, Clinical Supervisor, at (206) 275-7611.

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