This one goes out to all of the people out there who are on the "outside looking in".
You know who you are. You are the ones who at some point in your life, for one reason or another, went on a path that took you away from the kinds of paths your fellow peers took. You are the ones sitting in the back row, watching the action unfold but never getting yourself into the mix. You are the wallflower, leaning against the back wall with arms folded across your chest attentively listening in but never speaking unless spoken to. You are the deep ones, with a lot to say, but somehow don't seem to have whatever it is other people have that lets them just open up and talk to people and be "social" and this drives you crazy but you'll never let anyone else see it on your face.
If this at all sounds like you, you probably think this is just the way you are, and that this is the way you are going to remain for the rest of your life - and maybe you have even made peace with it or romaticized the idea of being the "outsider" and turned it into a part of who you are even though there is still some part of you, some small, tiny spark that says "No, I am more than this and I want to connect with people" but instead of listening to that little spark, you tend to push it down and dismiss it as fantasy or wishful thinking.
I am going to tell you a very personal story - a story that I very rarely tell, but may open up some new perspectives for you, the outsiders looking in. And by the end of the story perhaps you will reconsider some things about yourself and see that the fears that come up inside of you when even considering the possibility of engaging in a social life, or participating in a group setting, or simply sharing yourself with others and being comfortable, are simply indications that some very simple steps had been missed at some point in your crazy, outsider life - steps that with some understanding, awareness, and a bit of effort can easily be recovered.
An Outsider is Born
Throughout childhood I would often move back and forth between two countries. I was initially raised primarily by my aunts and grandparents in Taiwan and then returned to the US to begin my elementary schooling.
In the beginning I spoke no English - but it was quite remarkable how quickly and effortlessly I learned by simply being immersed in the language while I was in the US. I wanted to reach out and play with the other kids in my neighborhood and at that young age I did not have a conception of judging myself or thinking about whether or not the other kids would accept me if my language skills were poor or nearly non-existent. There was a kind of innocence to me back then - something that only later on in my life got replaced - but more on that later.
Throughout the years though I would be taken out of school and return to stay for many months in Taiwan - which meant that I never fully got a grade school education and would often be absent for much of the schooling. This also meant that I would be away from the friends that I had made and the American culture that I had gotten accustomed to and identified with.
When I was around 11 years old, we left the US once more but this time we stayed in Taiwan for a year. During this year the majority of my time was spent in my bedroom, very much isolated for most of the day except for the few moments of eating with family members. I was not able to read or write Chinese, and so I did not attend school while I was in Taiwan. Rather, I simply stayed at my bedroom and entertained myself with my toys, comic books, and video games - very much in my own little bubble.
I would often see other kids from outside of my window, looking down from the several storied flat where we lived. I felt detached from them - like I was locked up in my tower looking down. The most contact I managed to establish was to throw down from my window pictures and drawings that I had made to see if the kids down below would pick them up, react to them, comment about them. I never dared to venture out by myself to meet and interact with those kids on my own.
As the year progressed I found myself spending more and more time alone, in my own mind, creating pictures and fantasies and developing a lot of internalization in the absence of social living, all of this while also going through the onset of puberty. My mind began to become far more 'active' and 'vivid' so to speak - where I would constantly participate in backchat and internal dialogue while very seldom speaking with others.
At the end of that long stay, I returned to the US to finish the 8th grade - where once again there were other kids my age who spoke English and had been raised in the American culture that I had identified with. But this time however, I did not have that same point of "innocence" that I had when I was a child. This time, I had judgment and fear and comparison and all manner of fears and anxieties in dealing with other people after my period of relative isolation. Gone was that child who fearlessly went out to play with the "foreign" kids despite having no common language.
From that point on, I felt it was always a matter of having to "catch up" with everyone else - everyone else who had lived a more stable life, had a more well rounded education experience, had spent time socializing with others while I did not. I felt constantly awkward and judged myself for feeling awkward, which only made me act more.... awkward. Oh, did I mention I was also going through puberty? Yeah that didn't help my sense of confusion.
My voice was soft, quiet, sometimes quivering. I was often nervous and anxious and by hands and arms would shake like a caffeine addict going through withdrawal. My body was small, scrawny, and in some ways underdeveloped in comparison to others who had more active childhoods. It was hard to speak up, to ask for things, to seek assistance - the last thing I wanted was for more people to see this awkward, scrawny kid that I had become.
And thus, a loner/isolationist/outsider was born.
I never felt that I could relate to other people. The things that they were involved in and interested in didn't seem as interesting or appealing to me. But this was also due to my own judgments about myself not fitting in and telling myself that I would never be accepted and that those things were just "not for me". I would for instance attempt to play sports with the other kids but because I never learned the rules of the sport or watched any sports on TV, I would make mistakes or do things that put my team into a bad position. I never quite got the hang of working within a team and did not understand how many of those dynamics worked. When the team I was on would tell me that I was no longer allowed to play with, I would simply internalize it as "That's okay, I don't like this anyway".
I focused more on my own pursuits and was a very introverted person, though of somebody were to reach out to me and speak with me I would have plenty to say. It simply did not move myself to engage with or open myself up to others. From High School on, I would live out this pattern of being a lone wolf so to speak - doing my own thing, not wanting to bother with friends, social outings, sports, or anything having to do with a normal life - which included going to school, going to college, earning a degree, getting into a career, settling down and having kids and a house, etc. All of that seemed strange to me and I told myself I wanted no part in it - even though within me a part of me always did.
I struggled with understanding HOW so many other people in my life seemed to be so good at... well, life. How did they manage to get into relationships, have children, get careers, move on with their lives? Why was it so difficult for me to develop those things? How can others so easily and effortlessly just seem to walk into a crowd and instantly make friends and be an "insider"? The answer eluded me for a long time - because the answer was always RIGHT IN MY FACE and I was too busy being an "outsider" to recognize the simplicity of it.
Fear as an Ally
I realized that my 'shyness' and aversion to social situations was not something bad or something to be ashamed of - it was the natural and logical defense mechanism for the kind of childhood I grew up in. I had abusive parents and did not establish communication or sharing skills at home. I did not spend my time with other children to learn/practice socialization skills. I did not participate in the things that the 'average' person would have participated in - and yet I was COMPARING myself to other people as though I had lived the lives they had.
I also realized that FEAR is simply a lack of understanding or relevant skill. It is a defense mechanism where we are trying to prepare for anything and everything because we do not know what to expect within a new situation, or when we are in a situation that involves things we don't understand and/or have not yet developed enough skill with. So within FEAR we try to compensate for our lack of awareness or skill by heightening everything - making everything MORE than what it is in case we miss something.
So when I looked again at the social situations where I find myself staying in the back rows, making myself scarce and barely present, but yet still wanting to be "part" of something and "contribute" something, I realized that what is holding me back is not fear itself, but what the fear was showing me: that I did not understand how certain things worked within social situations. And the reason I did not understand how certain things worked in social situations was because I did not have as much experience as others have - and simply had not developed the skills or learned the techniques due to my rather isolationist lifestyle and early childhood development.
BINGO! So I realized that I spent so much time comparing myself to other people who have had totally different lives compared to my own, and then judging myself for not being like others. All that I lacked was the will to go out there and DO it - the same way that my much younger childhood self simply decided to GO outside, play with the other kids who I wasn't able to communicate with, and just have fun and figure it out as I went rather than already shooting myself down for not being able to already do something I had not learned or practiced.
So - these days when an opportunity to do something new with a group or with new people in general, I make it a point to push myself and remember the young child version of me that was fearless - because fear was totally unnecessary - and yes now and then certain social situations are still uncomfortable, but I do it regardless and each time I do, I become more natural, more skilled, and understand more how those particular social dynamics work - and you know what? The fears subside. And the plus side of it is - all of the depth that I had developed over the years now has an outlet, and boy have I got things to tell you.
For now, if any of you relate to my story of being an outsider or isolationist for experience fears or nervousness or even if like me your body/hands shake visibly and other people can see it - what I can tell you is that NOBODY ever judges you as much as you judge yourself. Seriously you might be offended at how little space you take up in other people's minds. Get yourself out there - slowly but surely. Start showing up at meetings. Then start participating a bit. Then keep doing it. And once you see that you have survived this horrifying socialization, SEEK OUT opportunities to express yourself and participate and come out of your comfort zone - and prepare to be surprised at how helpful people can be if you simply ask for support or spend some time to get to know them.
And for those who know of people who are isolationist but you can see them hanging around, kind of lingering, just barely there, know that it is very likely that they really really want to participate more but are not yet equipped with the skills to come out and engage with you. Sometimes they just need you to reach out to them first so they can see you aren't going to immediately judge them, and it takes the pressure off of them to have to break down the walls that they have been living behind for potentially many years - and be patient! These people can be very deep and like any deep body of water, it can take a while for things to surface - but when they do you may be surprised at what treasures and richness these deep people carry inside.
For more perspective, check out these interviews from EQAFE: