Fitting In

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

We all need to fit in and belong. When you start a new job, you want to fit in. When you join a new group, you want to belong. When you arrive at a dinner party, you want to feel welcomed. This is normal. We all need to feel part of our communities.

But why do we often feel like outsiders? Perhaps from childhood, you too know the feeling of not being picked for a sports team, or not being asked to a school dance, or not being invited to your friend’s birthday party. These moments make us feel out of place, alienated, and rejected. They make us feel invalidated.

These past experiences influence how we socialize today. For many of us who grew up gay and know what it’s like to be on the outside, fitting in as adults can be challenging. I know many gay folks who cringe at the thought of mingling at parties. They find parties just too stressful and anxiety-provoking – as do I.

A couple of months ago, I went to an art opening and started feeling a bit anxious in the crowd. I attempted to chit-chat with others but found myself forcing the situation, lacking anything of real interest to talk about. The problem is that I really don’t care about Demi and Ashton’s divorce or to hear about an action-thriller movie I’ve never seen or to listen to some overly-confident, "successful" lawyer show off his shiny new watch while eye-fucking some other guy across the room. Who cares!

So instead, I decided to check out the hors d’oeuvres and distract myself with brie on crackers; I decided to eat! I loaded up my plate with little cheesecakes, carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing, and a few nachos, assuming I was going to retreat to a corner and pig-out in private. But instead, when I turned around there was this cute guy standing right in front of me reaching for the bruschetta. (Oh shit.)

I remember the moment vividly. I became a deer in headlights. Should I say hello or not or wink? Winking is so lame; it is so obvious I have no swag. Then right before I spoke out loud, I was overcome by a strong feeling of anxiety – my insecurities were hijacking the moment. I felt completely socially inept. Negative beliefs swirled around my brain. I considered ignoring him and walking away. But then I would miss out on this great opportunity! Maybe he’s my future husband. I knew I at least had to acknowledge him. So despite my struggle, I forced myself to take a risk. Awkwardly I said, "Those little cheesecakes look good." After speaking, I internally rolled my eyes at myself for saying such a stupid opening line. Then he replied, "Un-huh, I’m lactose intolerant." It was not a very sexy moment.

What followed then was a nightmare for me. As if under a great spell cast by the Faux Pas Gods themselves, I tripped while walking away. And as you can imagine my little cocktail plate went flying out of my hand like some hors d’oeuvre Frisbee, spraying salsa and ranch dressing in its wake. A piece of shrimp landed on my shoe.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a tiny little bit. But in truth, it was not my best moment because I was so nervous. Understandably in that moment, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles when she’s crying alone in the hallway outside of the gymnasium because hot, popular Jake doesn’t even know she exists. Not fitting in is painful and lonely, especially when romance is involved. All I wanted was to talk to this new guy and hopefully make a connection. That didn’t happen.

So do insecure moments like these happen to you also? What are we to do when anxiety gets the best of us? How can we manage our anxieties and experience a sense of belonging at the same time?

One approach is to consider that everyone else feels out of place just as much as you do. You’re not alone in feeling this way. In certain social situations, I like to think about an exercise I call Just Like Me. It helps me feel more a part of the bigger tribe and less like an outsider. Hopefully this exercise will help you feel the same.

Now imagine you are standing off to the side at a bar looking at all the attractive, fun men and women laughing and chatting each other up. In that moment, it might seem as if everyone else has 5 dynamic, exceptionally close friends except for you. Now instead of focusing on how you are different from the others, try thinking about how you are actually alike. Try saying these words to yourself as you look out at the crowd of people.

Just like me the people here have feelings. Just like me they know happiness, and sorrow, and doubt. Like me the man standing across the room has hopes and dreams for his life. Like me he has some regrets. Just like me others have hurt him. Just like me he has a favorite pair of jeans, or favorite sweater, or scarf, or shoes, or perhaps an evening gown. He too wants to be accepted and encouraged. Just like me this man is doing his best.

Similar to me the woman standing in the corner likes to be smiled at. Like me she is sometimes fearful of taking risks. She too is sometimes nervous about meeting new people in groups. Like me she wonders about the meaning of her life. Like me she wants to win the lottery or also feels just as good when someone surprises her with kindness.

Just like me the man sitting at that table over there has been moved by a powerful piece of music or a song, listening to it turned up on high-volume when driving in his car, lip-synching like he was some kind of glamorous superstar. Like me he appreciates a long vacation. Like me he has a body; he is sexual and likes to flirt. Like me he’s watched a porno DVD once or twice or at least has met someone who has. Like me he has a sense of humor and enjoys a really good belly laugh. Just like me, he needs friends in his life.

Just like me these people want to be understood. They wonder why after all these years they still sometimes feel alone in this world. Just like me they want to trust others and feel a sense of community. Like me they too want to fit in.

Now go out there and find people just like you!

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