How to Be Happy Being Different
Much of my life, I struggled with the dilemma of wanting to be unique, but also wanting to be like everyone else. I wanted to be my own person and express my individuality, but I also couldn’t bear the thought of not being accepted or standing out so much that I risked people commenting on it. This tug-of-war manifested itself in every way possible, right from my teens to my mid-twenties.
Hiding My Identity
At heart I was a bit of a rock chick. Ever since the age of six, I’d wanted to own a Harley Davidson, some ripped-up denim shorts and a leather jacket.
But growing up in a conservative area was difficult and when, as a teenager, I finally got the chance to express myself more, I struggled with it. I wanted badly to give myself a makeover to fit what I felt like inside. But when I walked into school with my new leather jacket and a skirt, rather than the boring coat and tatty old jeans I always had on, everyone made a big deal of it.
Not wanting to go through that again, I was stuck with my probably-too-short skirts and leather jacket for years. I didn’t dare change my jacket so I wore the one I had even when it was falling apart. And then I’d really got myself into a trap. My long-standing “look” became a trademark and now I could never change it.
From then on in, I always opted for the middle route rather than risk ridicule or being stared at. When I wanted to dye my hair bright red, instead I went for a shade of burgundy, so hopefully no-one would notice that much.
It wasn’t just a matter of how I looked. I censored myself when talking too. I was as assertive as a doormat and basically agreed with what anyone said. I didn’t dare go against the general grain for fear of being rejected. I said “yes” when I wanted to say “no” and let other people walk all over me.
Whenever I was listening to music or watching TV, I would turn it off if someone else came into the room, worried that they would criticise my taste. I didn’t let anyone get too close to me and basically lived a double-life. I kept an “acceptable self” to show to others, and kept my real self tucked away inside.
In the end, my problems got so bad that I developed Social Anxiety Disorder. I dreaded going to the supermarket, because I was scared that people would judge what was in my basket. I wouldn’t eat in front of other people, worried what they would think of my meal. I ended up being scared to go outside the house, feeling that everyone I passed would judge me in some way.
After living like that for so long, I didn’t know who I was. I genuinely struggled to make choices of my own. I tried to get help from several sources. One thing a psychoanalyst said really hit home: “You act like you have no rights”. It was true. I was placing and prioritising everyone else’s potential judgements, feelings and rights way above my own.
Although he didn’t get me better, it was a great insight with which I could work. Why did I feel such a need to be accepted at the same time as wanting to express myself? It’s a struggle that many people go through, though most luckily don’t end up as much of a mess as I was.
In tribal times, you would literally be ejected from a tribe if you did not fit in with them. In that case, you risked starving to death in the wilderness. We have carried that need to conform with us in our genes. In the modern world, if you are different, you run the risk of being bullied as a kid, but rarely the risk of death. And yet our brains still react as if being rejected could kill us.
If you come from a family where there was some perceived rejection (i.e. adoption, parental divorce, violence, emotional or physical abuse, or parents who never seemed “there”), that fear of rejection later on in life is likely to be even stronger, because we also carry childhood experiences with us as unconscious indicators of what the world is supposedly like. So, even as an adult, you may act like the kid who is scared of being rejected; passive and conformist and afraid to be you.
When you know where some of these feelings come from, it is easier to break away from them. If you can get into the habit of expressing yourself and being more assertive, then the fear starts to drop away every time you realise that it hasn’t killed you after all. You can change every habit bit by bit, until it feels normal and natural to be yourself.
Everyone has the right to be who they really are. And, fundamentally, no-one has more rights than anyone else. We are all human beings, no more, no less. You don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head, so stop worrying about what they might think (you don’t actually know) and remember they are a human being just like you.
A nice strategy I tried whenever I encountered anyone and felt anxious was to say to myself in my head “human”. In this way, the person was no more or less than I was – they were equally human.
This is a good way of stopping yourself from comparing yourself with others too – another trap that leads to insecurity, anxiety and low self-esteem. If they are human, they will have a mix of weaknesses and strengths, just like you. Don’t siphon people off into “better “richer” “nicer” “more attractive”. It’s all relative. Just think of them as “human” and leave it at that. Then you are equal.
Expressing Your True Self
Once I acknowledged that we are all human beings, I realised that although we are equal, we have different tastes, opinions, likes, dislikes and varying paths in life. We’re like jigsaw pieces in the same puzzle, and without all those different pieces the jigsaw wouldn’t be complete.
So it is not only your right to express your individuality, but an important part of what makes up the world. If we were all doctors, there would be no art or books. There would be no shopkeepers to run shops and no facilities other than healthcare. If we all wore the same clothes or liked the same food, it would be a less colourful and varied world. In short, it would be boring and unsustainable.
Stop thinking of yourself as “different” – because everyone is different. Instead, consider yourself an individual, as we all are. If you don’t express yourself, then you aren’t living your life authentically and you won’t be happy. You have a right to all the quirks and characteristics that make you you.
Dealing With Discomfort
Maybe people won’t understand what sort of jigsaw piece you are. Them not understanding is a symptom of who they are, not who you are. While it may feel difficult making the transition from trying to conform to expressing yourself fully, comfort yourself with your best qualities. If you always act with kindness and integrity, the people who may judge you for having blue hair or liking Rockabilly or wanting to become a taxidermist have missed the point. You haven’t. The people you really want in your life will not care what you like or don’t.
It is only fear that holds us back from changing, and that fear is largely unfounded. In fact if you constantly live in fear of not fitting in and try to conform, you are constantly dealing with that worry that you’re not doing it right. You have to watch every move you make. However, if you just go ahead and change to who you want to be, who you truly are, you’re only facing fear once.
It’s an enormous relief to not stifle yourself and it’s much more fun being you than worrying what people will think about you. And the more you let your true self shine through, the more you will realise that. There is no-one more content than someone who is good-hearted and genuine. The ultimate question is: Do you want to have a happier life or not?