Understanding and embracing our differentness as something valuable, honorable and empowering about our selves in a world that presses always to make us be "just like everyone else."
When it gets hard, remember to remind your self that it's okay to be different!
I've been marching to a different rhythm from nearly everyone around me for most of my life. In my earliest days, though, I didn't notice or know that this was what was so for me. Others' reactions to or comments about me over the years gradually made me conscious of my differentness. With that consciousness, feeling good about my self sometimes became a daunting prospect.
I felt confused by my differentness; upset by the teasing and snubbing to which I was subject. Often I felt odd, out-of-place and even crazy compared to my peers. Yet, I couldn't find other ways to be that felt any better to me. When I tried to copy normal behavior – what everyone else was doing – I felt even crazier, completely off balance. And, most of the time I wasn't particularly good at the business of passing for normal. Turning to my own company gave me the solace and comfort absent for me in the society of my cohort.
In part, my being a loner was simply how I came into the world. It was, as well, the way I learned to survive the inadequate, often hostile mothering that I received as a little person. After my early experiences of not fitting in with others my age, I became even more invested in being my own best company. Of course, the more time I spent with my self, separate from others my age, the wider the gap between us became. I was old-for-my-age, wondering and feeling about things that were of little concern to my peers. The more I wondered, the more out-of-sync with them I became.
My fascination with inner landscapes started in those years and expanded as I read my way across the library's shelves. I identified with and lived in the worlds that I read about or listened to on the radio.
Everything evoked vivid visuals in my mind's eye and empathy in my emotional being. I traveled far and wide, back in time and across many geographies as I explored fairy tales from around the world and the myths and legends of many other cultures. Inspired, I wrote poems and stories of my own, drew pictures and created my own fantasy worlds. In summers in the mountains, I played in imaginary worlds among the trees and tall grasses. And, I watched and listened intently (and secretly) to the adult world around me, always more captivated by that world than the world of my age group.
For a brief two-year period in high school, I was part of a cohort of Honor Society students that did a lot of theater and musical projects together. It was a fleeting season of feeling part of a group of people my own age. We were a fringe-y group – what would probably be called nerds these days. And, as might be expected, I teetered at the fringe of the fringe.
In my early mid-thirties I hung out with and seemed, for a time, part of another small fringe-y cohort. In that season the group was one of social activist feminists-coming-out-as-political-lesbians.
Except for those two periods in my life, I've rarely fit in with the norms of my age peers, my professional peers or my cultural/socio-economic peers. Through the years my differentness has felt like one of the most significant aspects of my being-in-the-world. In my lower-middle-class-aspiring, actually working class family, it was cause for others' consternation, dubious commentary and perplexed questioning.
I was sexually active much earlier than my friends and living on my own when nice-Jewish-girls of my age/class didn't do that. Then I lived, unmarried, with a man well before that was considered acceptable behavior for young women my age. Once I married, keeping my own name, choosing not to have children, living in an open marriage and having a woman lover continued to place me at the fringe. Dropping out of my highly successful private practice in psychotherapy and my open marriage to live alone in a van traveling to and around the West Coast made my oddness even more notable.
Devoting my self to recovering from a lifetime of super-achieving, committing my self to self-nurture, living in the slow lane with lots of timeless resting, choosing the richness of empty time over the riches of high income in a culture that measures our value by how busy we are and how much money we make at our busyness – all this placed me beyond the pale in newer ways.
Owning my voracious hunger for solitude, respecting my abiding inclination to have only my self as significant-other and choosing to live in a primary relationship with my Self rather than with another person in a culture whose gold standard is a two-by-two socially outgoing existence – has continued to mark me as outsider.
Through all these years of being on the fringes of my culture, of following my own inner urgings rather than doing what was expected of me, I've had both wonderful and excruciating times. The wonderfulness has come from and with living in harmony with my true nature: standing firmly in and acting from the truths at the center of my being.
The excruciating times have come at moments of inner upheaval or transition. In these times the ground under me grows unstable. I'm no longer who I've been and not yet clear about who I'm becoming. The truths at my center are wobbly. Until fairly recently, I could be swept up in agonizing self-doubt and self-criticism during these transitioning periods. The stinging voice of my now mostly defanged inner-critic can still, even these days, rise briefly to the surface when I'm on such shaky ground.
When life is calm, I feel quite okay about my differentness, my out-of-pattern choices. I no longer have the need (as I earlier did) to see my differentness as my being superior in order to feel at peace with it. When I'm hanging out in the between-place and feeling disoriented, uneasiness about my differentness comes up and my inner critic often snidely insinuates that I choose the ways I do because I can't handle real life, that I'm too damaged/too screwed up/too vested in being different for its own sake to handle living "like a normal person."
I'm more likely, lately, to recognize that voice/those nasty insinuations as a signal that I need to attend to parts of me that are frightened by the bigness or uncertainties of the changing that's taking place. I'm able, then, to avoid getting caught up in going for the whole awful ride that the critic used to take me on. Instead, I gather the little scared parts to me and work to help them feel more safe with the shakiness of the transition process.
I remind my self that it doesn't matter why I choose what I do, only that I keep on choosing what feels right to me. I remind my self that in these times of turmoil I inevitably feel uncertain about my choices, more vulnerable to my own or others' outside-eyes challenges about my process. I remind my frightened self that there's nothing wrong with us or with our path. I remind my self that it's all right to be different even in times when being different feels scary and difficult.
I move more slowly and gently than usual during these unsteady periods. When I'm feeling so vulnerable and un-jelled, I'm particularly careful about where or around whom I'm putting my self. I stay away from situations and people who might intentionally (out of fear) or inadvertently (out of caring) press me to opt for what they see as the comfort/safety of conventional choices. Gradually, as I come more solidly into the next me-that-I-am-becoming, the shakiness quiets down. I again feel centered and comfortable with all of the who(s) that I am.
Living in a world where difference and living from one's own personal ethic are viewed with suspicion, it's essential to keep reminding our selves that being different and choosing differently than the herd is an acceptable option. It helps to remind our selves that being different is merely that – not being better or being worse than; that even though being different can be hard out-there, it's a perfectly fine way to be, particularly when it's our basic nature.
When we're feeling intense pressure to be like everyone else, to not honor all of whom we each are – it's important to remember that, no matter what anybody (including our own inner critical voice) says, it's actually essential for us each to be all of whom we are, to live from the center of our own truths. No one else carries our particular thread into the tapestry of all life. If we don't honor it and carry it with integrity and commitment, it will (as Martha Graham pointed out) forever be lost from the whole.
The words of e.e. cummings speak to the intensity of that commitment: "being nobody but your self – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight, and never stop fighting."
When life gets hard, remember how important it is to lovingly remind your self that it really is okay to be different.