I suspect most people have had a moment like this: Something happens and, for whatever reason, you suddenly realize that you just aren’t like other people. For some, that moment comes in school when long-held friendships no longer make you happy, or when the bullies single you out for being different. For others the moment comes later, after painful soul searching or tragedy. Or, you simply wake up one day and realize that the things you used to think and the people you used to hang out with no longer “fit” the person you truly are.
However it happens, that moment when you realize you are unique is terrifying. And freeing. I now know that it’s a moment to welcome, even wish for. It’s not something to be feared.
So why am I writing this post? Partly it’s born out of some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. Brain vomit. But mostly it’s in response to a young reader who confided her fear that she was different from others and would be bullied because of it. What makes her “different” isn’t important. What’s important is that she understands that difference is celebration-worthy, not a weakness or failing.
My own “moment” began in high school, although it took a few more years for it to crystalize. Up until high school, I’d gone to a small private school. As high school loomed, I wanted a larger environment. I wanted a school that had things like football and homecoming, proms and varsity sports. In other words, I wished for the traditional high school experience. Well, be careful what you wish for.
The school was huge. And there were bullies. Lots of them. At my small school, the headmaster kept bullying in check. If he found out it was going on, there were serious repercussions. Growing up in such a sheltered environment, among people who were almost exactly like me, left me completely unprepared for the hammering I received in high school.
All of my hobbies and interests were bully-worthy. (Sci-fi, comics, writing, board games, RPG’s, Lego, fantasy, reading, etc. were not the hits they are today.) My academic success brought out the bullies, as well. Everything was wrong with me. My clothes, manners, religion, and even preferred foods came under fire. I’d always assumed that I was kind of cool because all of my friends were similarly “odd.” But I was, apparently, far from cool.
You can guess where this is going. I tried to fit in. I revamped everything in my life so that I would be acceptable. Hobbies, clothes, mannerisms, all were up for change. I also started dropping my academic level. Being smart wasn’t cool, after all. And, shockingly, it all worked. By my junior year I was actually hanging with the semi-cool kids. (The really cool clique was unreachable. But I was solidly second tier.) I should have been happy, but I wasn’t.
I missed all the things that made me happy. But I stuck with the “normal” path. I wrongly believed that I had to change because, evidently, you weren’t allowed to be unique in the real world. So I stayed “normal” all through college and into my working years. And things weren’t so bad. But my first boss was a bully and a sexual harasser. He was worse than anything I’d dealt with in high school. Worse, he controlled my income so I had to suck it up until I could find another job. (Try graduating in the middle of a recession. There are no options.)
That’s when the lightbulb went on. “I’ve done all this to become the person the world wants me to be. And I’m still getting bullied and harassed. If this is the way life is, screw it. I’m going to be who I want to be. If I’m going to get bullied anyway, then I might as well be myself and own it. I might as well have fun.”
It sounds defeatist, but it was really a liberating moment. The realization that bullies are everywhere and that they will always find something to torture you over was freeing. I could be the most mainstream, normal person and the bullies would still find something “wrong” with me.” The knowledge that there was literally nothing I could do to stop these people opened me up to live my real life. My thinking was, “Life is short and these people suck, it’s true. But I’m not going to waste my life catering to them. I’m catering to me.”
And I did. I re-embraced my hobbies, passions, clothes, hairstyle and everything else. Instead of running from my upbringing, I made peace with my religion and went back to being the sort of person that my parents raised me to be. I re-evaluated my occupation and decided to go for what I wanted instead of staying safe. Gradually everything shifted into focus. I became the person I am meant to be.
It didn’t happen overnight, but now I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been before. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed in that private school through graduation. Would I have achieved this place that much sooner, or would that sameness have eventually stunted me? Would I have stayed true to myself, or would those first experiences in the “real world” have crushed me, coming at a much later age? Who knows. The point is that being forced to discover that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, ever be popular, mainstream, or cool, forced me to come to terms with who I really am. And to love that person.
So while most people would say they don’t want to discover that they’re odd, nerdy, uncool, or whatever for fear of having it pointed out and being made fun of, I think, in some ways, it’s the best thing that can happen to you. Having that moment where you realize, “I’m unique and that’s okay because I’m happy being me,” is freeing. Sure, it’s scary as hell venturing into a life that a lot of other people won’t understand, but it’s worth it.
The moment when you realize that you’re different and you start working to make the most of that (and find your tribe of people who like you for you) is the moment when your life really begins. Embrace your uniqueness moment and the go out and be you. The world needs more people who dare to be different. It doesn’t need more of the same.