One of the hardest things I had to deal with was my self-image. Since I was an extrovert, constantly seeking the opinions and validations of others, it was hard for me to have a constant opinion about myself. In the quest for an identity, I was looking to be part of a larger, more well-known group. In a nutshell, I wanted to be popular, and recognized and have lots of friends and be admired. It’s a human need, so I didn’t think it was unfair of me to ask for it. However, my definitions of what it means to be admired and popular and respected changed with maturity and time.
To be honest, there was a while when I was scared of being alone. I just did not want to be left out of anything. This anxiety translated itself into a supremely inconvenient habit of being too curious, asking too many questions and not being discrete/tactful enough. In the process of wanting to be included so badly, I was alienating people away from me and thus left with deep insecurities about whether I would belong anywhere. I was trying too hard to belong. Of course, they would try to be as nice to me as they could, but I could see them slowly backing away from me. To my face they told me I was “unique”. It took some level of cringe-worthy snooping to realize that behind my back I popularly known as a “weird freak”.
It was a devastating discovery, and my parents still remember all those days I would come back from school crying and wondering what I wasn’t doing right. Self-delusional, I thought that if I walked away from them, pretended that I didn’t need them, they would probably come for me. I was the only one who was further hurt by the discovery that they didn’t. Nobody seemed to need me as much as I seemed to need them. Again, I was alone and anxious.
Between my transitions from groups, I slowly learned that adjusting into some groups was easier than others. In my school, this group sub-culture was the norm. Everyone was identified as part of a network, and without that you were literally nobody. As the cliched stereotype of high school dramas have established, they were undoubtedly pretty and/or affluent and/or seemed to know everyone. Clearly, as I was still a loner, they didn’t know me. So, I had to publicize myself by displaying behavior that would make them take note of me. I carefully observed the mannerisms and behavior of the cool girls’ gang in my school. It wasn’t too hard to locate the common factors that endeared them all to each other. The only problem was that I didn’t seem to have some of the native attributes to belong to that group. If I tried hard enough, I could replicate the same behavior and belong with them. Maybe they would even appreciate my effort.
I used to get sad and angry over the fact that reality continued to prove me wrong. I had the arrogance to assume that I knew enough about human behavior to be able to safely tell how a group of adjusting teenagers would behave. Strangely enough, I was actually an integral part of this group for a while. I cannot tell you how happy the fourteen/fifteen year old me was to actually find people whom I could talk to, who trusted me, who confided in me. However, my behavior had changed. Within the group I was trying to be the nicest person possible to everyone else. But beyond that, I had acquired a snooty attitude (a symbol of my new social status?) that served to only repel more people away from me than before. It dawned on me that the people who were nice to me even when I was a loner now avoided me. I tried to justify their behavior as jealousy. They weren’t part of the cool gang and I was. I tried to pretend that I didn’t care. But instinctively, I knew that something was not right.
That’s when our differences began to show, and I began to grow increasingly disillusioned with my new status. Maintaining it seemed to involve telling many lies, being two-faced and more so, keeping up a physical appearance that had to meet some expected standards, all of which I was terrible at. It was too much effort to keep up so many concurrent charades. I longed for the quiet of having my own thoughts for company. I longed for a conversation that did not involve demeaning someone else for no fault of theirs, or for something that did not involve the opposite sex, or something that wasn’t even emotionally demanding. It was a huge transformation that I was now actually running back to the solitude and silence which I had so abhorred. With a pang of regret, I chose to leave.
Back in my self-imposed exile, I welcomed the emptiness at first. I told myself that I was better off and I even tried very hard to believe it. But I still felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I was an outcast and maybe I just didn’t have what was necessary to belong to any group. I managed to make new friends, find some old ones, but even then it wasn’t a group. It was more like a community of misfits who hadn’t been completely accepted anywhere, each one scared of being hurt again by another, reserved and guarded and sort of unfriendly.
I grew to learn to respect this community. They were friendly enough for the short duration we spent together, which was a very pleasant replacement for adhering to a group protocol. They kept their conversation to non-private topics, so I didn’t have to be emotionally burdened with anyone’s secrets. I learned what it meant to respect someone’s space, what the difference was between being eager and being too eager, what it meant to not fit a generic mold. I was influenced by their fierce pride in their diversity. So I was weird, according to those not in the group. By categorizing me, they made their labels their problem. Not mine. I was still me.
A year or so later, everyone was suddenly filled with affection as we would be graduating from school. All these petty groups would now be dispersed into the big wide world, where we wouldn’t be sheltered any more. More so, all these differences and squabbles seemed so much smaller in light of what awaited us beyond the school’s comforting archways. As a final form of seeking redemption, I tried one last time to look actively for friends. To my immense surprise, people had evolved to a level of greater tolerance. The very distinct boundaries between groups blurred as graduation approached nearer. “Everyone is my friend now, because these are the people I grew up with” was the general slogan. I was relatively more social once again.
In retrospect, I remain close friends with those other misfits who endured me for the longest. They were the few who didn’t chose to categorize me as weird. They didn’t even call themselves as outcasts. Admission into this group was much more easier and welcoming. But the learning experience left some lasting memories. I had learned to become comfortable with myself. The solitude forced me to forge my own identity. While the experience was rough, I remain sincerely grateful to them. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be unique and proud of it.