Mental Health Matters

WHEN YOU DON'T FIT IN
BY JAN TRABUE
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor


If social rejection had a voice it might say to others, "You
ignored me as if I didn't matter; you treated me as if I were a
freak; you made me feel that I didn't belong; and you made me
feel that I wasn't good enough. I don't care anymore! I don't
want to be your friend anyway! I'll show you that I don't care!" 

I DON'T FIT  IN... I FIT  OUT
Everyone experiences social rejection from time to time. It happens when you are in a conversation with someone and they abruptly wrap it up and scurry off because they see someone else they'd rather talk to. It happens when you walk into a group of people and no one looks up to acknowledge you. It happens when you contribute to a conversation and no one responds. These events happen to all of us periodically. Most people feel a bit put out when they experience these episodes of being shut out, but can easily shake it off.




WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?
You might be one of the many people who seem to endure more than their fair share of social rejections. Perhaps it seems most of your life you have felt invisible. Perhaps you have felt that you were different from others; you're not quite able to put your finger on why, but you seem to have a hard time fitting in. You wonder what is wrong with you. You replay in your mind, on a constant loop, conversations and interactions you have had, analyzing every word and every action trying to figure out what you did wrong. But the thing is, you didn't do anything wrong! And there isn't anything wrong with you either! You're just a regular human being with the same need to belong that everyone has. The need to belong is as old as mankind. It is essentially, essential for physical and emotional survival. Guy Winch, PhD., Author of Emotional First Aid tells us, "Humans are social animals; being rejected from our tribe or social group in our pre-civilized past would have meant losing access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive. Being ostracized would have been akin to receiving a death sentence. Because the consequences of ostracism were so extreme, our brains developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk for being "voted off the island" by triggering sharp pain whenever we experienced even a hint of social rejection."  



BEING HIGHLY SENSITIVE:
A Blessing & a Curse

If you feel like you don't fit in, it's very possible you have some  of these common traits with others who feel the same way: You have a kind heart and would make a great friend; you are highly critical of yourself and that criticism often applies to others as well; you are a highly sensitive person, who overthinks, overanalyzes, and jumps to conclusions. All of this mental activity, that plays out incessantly in your head, is exhausting, both mentally and physically. This only keeps you tied up in your head, feeding into your feelings of  self-consciousness and inadequacy. You may often misread social cues, overreact or under-react in social situations, may talk too loudly, and you may have been described by others as being immature. You may blurt something out without really considering how it might put the other person on the spot or frame them in a bad light. Let me repeat: There is nothing wrong with you! Your social awkwardness may be a manifestation of several internal factors including your interpretation of your experiences, self-doubt, dissatisfaction with self, and a tendency toward a negative general outlook. It is simply how you are wired. 

WHAT SCIENCE SAYS
Chronic social rejection can set in motion a chain reaction of hurt, anger, revenge seeking, isolation, apathy, and depression. Studies are clear and consistent in their findings: When a person feels socially rejected repeatedly, they experience increased incidents of anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy, apathy, and sadness. They don't have adequate impulse control and show increased signs of aggression. According to DeWall (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011), rejection takes a physical toll as well. People who feel rejected repeatedly have poor sleep quality and their immune systems don't function as well as those people with strong social connections. Furthermore, constant social rejection can make a person suspicious, hostile, and even antisocial. When a person experiences rejection repeatedly over an extended period of time, their emotional system may shut down, leaving them emotionally numb, not just to their own hurt feelings but to the sufferings of others.
Did you also know that studies show reoccurring social exclusion leads to a substantial drop in intellectual performance? The ability to logically reason, make inferences, or draw
conclusions are notably impaired. It may surprise you to know that there is a strong link between rejection and pain. We know from researchers that there is evidence that the pain of rejection is quite similar to the pain of a physical injury. MRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated
when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. In other words, the body's response to a broken heart is the same as the body's response to a broken arm! the pain is very real, can be debilitating, and very powerful in its ability to transform a person's entire outlook on life and thus, their success and happiness.

 You may dress or change your appearance to represent how different you feel inside. You flaunt it and are proud of it because this is what gives you strength: relishing in being extra bold in being different, a kind of 'rubbing it in the face' of all those who rejected you.

I JUST WANT TO BELONG
Chronic social rejection, then is a very real and serious phenomenon indeed. Because the need to belong is basic in your human makeup, denying your desire to belong, while may preserve your pride, only projects you further in to the dark hole of hopelessness and despair. How do you handle these feelings of repeated social rejection? I have observed two basic responses of how people handle repeated social rejection. Some respond by becoming better, and others respond by becoming bitter.

CHOICES 
BETTER OR BITTER?

Let's talk about the latter category first. It is understandable that you would become bitter after constantly being excluded and treated as if you are irrelevant. You feel confused, you scrutinize and analyze everything you say and do trying to figure out what is wrong with you! You feel hurt. Hurt becomes anger. Anger becomes depression. You may seek revenge, not even against a particular individual but at the human race in general. You may tend to gravitate toward others who demonstrate similar behaviors. Oftentimes these others are not your best choices for friendships. They may contribute to your negative outlook and feed your anger toward people. Your desire to be wanted and accepted clouds your ability to recognize that this friendship may not be in your best interest. You may dress or change your appearance to represent how different you feel inside. You flaunt it and are proud of it because this is what gives you strength: relishing in being extra bold in being different, a kind of 'rubbing it in the face' of all those who rejected you. 
If social rejection had a voice it might say to others, "You ignored me as if I didn't matter, you treated me as if I were a freak, you rejected me repeatedly, you made me feel that I didn't belong, and that I was not good enough. I don't care anymore! I don't want to be your friend anyway! I'll show you that I don't care!" 
I have noticed over the years in working with people who feel rejected, and in my own person experience of living a life of invisibility, a common rule of rejection has emerge:

The degree of hurt you feel is equal to the
     intensity of your
"I don't care" mantra and
     the degree of your withdrawn,
or obnoxious,
     and rude behavior.

As an educator, I always knew the student who proclaimed the loudest, "I don't care," was the student who actually cared the most. Caring stems from the human need for love and acceptance. Caring for others opens the door to new levels of joy and fulfillment that won't be experienced living in a vacuum. Less caring in life = less joy in life. There is no shame in admitting that you care. Or that you are hurt. you may think you are so clever in denying that you care and that you are hurt, but it shows in your behavior, even when you don't realize it. You may as well be wearing a sign on your back that says,
Pay attention to me!

"I DON'T CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK"
Another statement I heard often as an educator was, "I don't care what other people think!" This statement is more difficult to dispute. On the one hand, we don't want to be stifled in living our lives, fearful of judgments from others, but on the other hand, the fact of the matter is, people do judge us based on our appearance and behavior. If we are too far out of the mainstream, we may be sabotaging ourselves from having access to the greatest range of jobs, relationships, and self-fulfillment. so caring what other people think then, while not obsessing over it, pushes us in a direction of self-growth and greater opportunities. Caring what other people think to a reasonable degree provides us with accountability so we don't get too far off base, thus setting ourselves up for failure.
Of course not all individuals who experience repeated social rejection will necessarily
become hardened and bitter. Some may take a different path and become better because of the hurt. They are determined to figure out a way to create a social network for support, friendship, feedback, and personal growth. They have determined they want to make their life count and they will not be stopped by social rejection. They know their life's higher calling and are driven by fulfilling it. They seek friendships with those who may also identify as being different from others but do not engage in self-destructive or socially alienating behaviors. This often requires a great deal of patience to find others they click with who don't mind their oddities, who can accept their social awkwardness and see and appreciate the value of the person inside.

 Discover your 'why' and
keep focused on that;
build your life around it.

 The need to belong, to be loved and accepted will drive us to do surprising things. I understand this because I know in my own life how it propelled me into a lifestyle that was destructive, addictive, and hurtful not only to me but to my family. I am not proud of the things I did. I understand that having felt like I didn't fit in was the driving force behind my actions. In reflection on this period of time in my life, and in my experiences counseling thousands of children, I have composed the following practical strategies you can integrate into your life to help you find that place where you belong.
1) Seek out others who will build you up, accept you for who you are, appreciate your value, and recognize your inner gifts. Notice that I said, "seek out" others. This means you can't sit around, holed up in your room, and wait for someone to come to you. You have to go to them. Many times. Make it your mission to make a new friend with someone who is a positive person, kind, and would reciprocate with their friendship to you.
2) Try to create snippets of positive vibes in your interactions with others throughout the day. It may be something as simple as an upbeat verbal exchange with the cashier at the fast food counter. Oftentimes, these exchanges can easily begin with you complimenting the person. Creating snippets of positive vibes will remind you that there isn't anything wrong with you and just as important, that it feels nice to be nice!
3) Discover your 'why' and keep focused on that while building your life around it. Recognize and accept that your calling in life may not be to fit in at every social situation. Not everyone is a charismatic person that everyone clamors to. We all have different gifts. Find yours. What is the reason for your existence? Consider your purpose in life from a local perspective as well as a global one. Your role in life may be to serve in the background, to be a listening ear for someone, to create art for others to enjoy, to repair things with your hands, to inspire others with your music or poetry. Whatever your why, find it, find ways to live out its mission, and you may begin to see life differently. Do not neglect the importance of finding your why! It holds the power to your fulfillment in life!
4) Find what you love to do and do it.  Whether it's gardening, exercise, pets, reading, or photography, find that activity that sucks you in and causes you to lose all track of time. Doing what you love, especially if it's something that adds meaning to your life- or someone else's life- will soften the blows of social rejection. It could also be  a bridge to fitting in with others who share similar interests.
5) Identify the core people in your life who truly care for you. You know who they are. They're the ones who will come to your funeral when you die, visit you in the hospital when you're having surgery, or help you out in a time of need. Stick close to them if at all possible. Never let them get too far out of your reach. They will remind you that you matter!
6) Change your rigid thinking. Just because something was the way it was then, doesn't necessarily mean it will be the same way now. You are not made of bricks, unable to bend and change. Rigid thinking narrows the possibilities in life for you. Be flexible in your thinking and you won't get bent out of shape. Be flexible in your thinking and you will be better able to reach your goals.
7) Be a people watcher. Learn from others how they are able to quickly brush off a social snub and carry on i a positive manner. Identify people you admire who can smoothly navigate those social situations that typically find you tucked away in a corner somewhere glued to your phone. Notice their willingness to be a good listener, to ask questions, to be complimentary, to bounce the ball of shared communication back and forth without being a ball hog, dominating the conversation, and not dodging the ball either! If you are willing, you can learn the nuances of social interactions.
8) Finally, accept who you are. When you sincerely embrace who you are, there is no hint of anger, rebellion, vengeance, or carrying a chip on your shoulder. The journey to embrace who you are is grounded on humility, being teachable, and a desire to fulfill your life's purpose. Honestly accepting who you are can be a long distance journey, even a lifelong one. It includes being willing to identify areas that you can improve in, areas that will serve your purpose better, that will not sabotage your personal growth. Accept who you are while challenging yourself to grow in areas that are not easy or even comfortable. Find or create environments in which you can develop your why.

Finally, you are going to continue to feel awkward in some social situations, but try not to avoid all of them, it's just not good for you. You are are not an island. Yes, you will be left out at times, but do not interpret that to mean that you don't matter! It isn't true. These things will happen. Such is life. Humans aren't perfect and they will ignore you at times. Take a few slow and long, deep breaths and remind yourself-
there is more to life than this moment.
Refocus on your why and march bravely on, my friend.






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