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When You Don’t Fit In: The Value of Being Different

Accept Yourself

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

When I was ten, my blonde, blue-eyed best friend gave me a label.

“I never thought I’d make friends with anyone brown,” she said. She was clearly embarrassed by her revelation and had summoned the courage to own up.

I was dumbstruck for a moment. I never really thought of myself as brown, or indeed, as anything. I was just me.

Then, wanting to get us both out of this awkward situation, and thinking of how my Sri Lankan mother would compliment my beautiful golden brown skin, I blurted out, “Well, I’m not really brown, I’m golden.”

Immediately my friend collapsed into laughter, as she imagined me with bright orange skin. I suspect she was glad to divert the shame away from herself.

And I did feel ashamed. Ashamed of being labelled as something I didn’t particularly identify with, but also ashamed of denying my brown skin, of unwittingly playing along with this casual racism.

Over the years I have discovered that it’s not unusual to be judged as different.

I still encounter many situations where people make incorrect assessments of me based on my looks.

The question “where are you from” is sadly very common, as if the origin of my ancestors will give people the most important clues about who I am.

My kids and I have picked up some Sri Lankan characteristics (age four, my third generation daughter called her little brother “darling” with a decidedly Asian lilt), but on the two occasions I have travelled to Sri Lanka, I was definitely a foreign tourist.

Of course, my family history does partly define me, but mostly not in the way that those people think.

Instead, it defines me as different.

Being mixed-race is only one of the factors that make me different. I tend to be more outspoken than my peers, less religious, more bookish, more alternative… Apart from being married with two kids and a mortgage, there are plenty of things about me that are not “normal.” 

Being different is a self-definition I struggled with for years, which I now deeply appreciate.

Although it is not always an easy path, I hold my differences as precious. Conformity would be stifling. I want to be me, not some mythical “normal” that only exists in my imagination.

Being different has tremendous value. Here is how.

1. Being different is a source of connection and belonging.

I find shared experiences when I speak with people who know what it is like to feel different—people with disabilities, migrants, creative people, gay people, introverts, recovering addicts, and many others.

Though we don’t share those particular characteristics, our mutual understanding of what it is like to be different connects us, powerfully.

We know what it is like to be judged because of who we are. We know what it is like to feel like outsiders or freaks. We know what it is like to try and hide our differences to fit in.

But fitting in is the opposite of being yourself. It leaves you sick inside.

What we really crave is to belong. When we are accepted despite or even because of our differences, we have found true belonging.

2. What we have in common easily trumps our differences.

We have empathy built into our brains. Mirror neurons mean that when we hear someone tell a moving story, we feel what they feel.

Heck, Tiny Buddha is built on our ability to care, learn from and identify with the experiences of others!

We all want to be understood. And science has proven what we instinctively know: we are more alike than different.

So, take the risk of hearing and being heard. By telling your story you invite others to understand you, and to understand themselves better, too.

3. My differences are a source of motivation.

Looking back on the life choices I have made, I can see how my desire to help others feel they belong and are valued has influenced my career and relationships.

One of my favorite jobs involved providing careers and business guidance to refugees, amongst the most stigmatized and stereotyped people in our society.

These were often highly qualified and had been doctors, lawyers, and businessmen and women in their country of origin. Having left that behind, they found themselves without the respect, financial security, and social standing they had previously known.

They were portrayed as scroungers, while being excluded from working by regulation, discrimination, and lack of confidence. I found a vocation helping them navigate these obstacles.

Many of my colleagues were refugees themselves, who, having found their own way, wanted to pass on the learning to the next generation. Our differences motivated us to help others in the same boat.

4. Being different is intensely creative.

As I began to take more pride in what made me different, I began to research other people who went against the social norms.

I discovered that artists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and other world-changers were always different from the people that surrounded them. Like me, they had often felt excluded from the “popular” kids group at school.

They thought differently. They made connections (with other people, or between ideas) that others had not previously made.

And they had the courage and resilience to put those ideas out into the world—the courage to take the risk of being judged, and the resilience to try again when they were.

In the process, their ideas were tested and improved and tested again.

Some made it big (think Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama) appealing to a mass audience with their new ways of seeing; others appealed to a niche with similar tastes. In every case their creativity was rooted in their differences.

You, too, have value hidden in your differences.

Though we may never escape all judgment and discrimination, we can learn to value our own unique perspective.

Then at least we can stop judging ourselves.

Photo by Hamad Al-Mohanna

About Devi Clark

Devi Clark is the founder of the Outsiders’ Network [www.outsidersnetwork.com/tb], a community where people transform the pain of feeling different into the courage to change the world. She also runs NewLeaf, for people who want to make an ethical career change into the non-profit sector.

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  • Guest

    Differences are what make people so special and distinctive! The most important thing is to be of yourself and accept you for who you are. 🙂

  • Theresa

    Hi Lori!! I totally love this post! As a black person ( I went to write coloured there like I always do) but as a black person, I have always said to people how I didn’t feel any different to others but its always been a lie, sometimes I’ve been so scared of how people might perceive me and my differences that I’ve opted to to speak out about something or not react to anything….I have always loved the certain family bond that lies between black people and have thought it to be something very special that links us all and you’re right…it definitely makes talking to other people of diversity much more easier and enriching.
    Reading your post has showed me something I’d never really seen in myself, or have seen and ignored them ( like some of my unjust prejudices) and I have/ want to overcome them…thank you!
    -Theresa

  • CJ Engelbrecht

    Welcome to the revelation of a conscious point of view.

  • Theresa

    Sorry Devi, I don’t even know where hi Lori came from hahah, I’d also like to say, that quote at the top is also a favourite of a lady I know

  • Theresa

    Sorry CJ i wasn’t quite sure if you were talking to me, but if you were, THANK YOU!! I like it :’)

  • Thanks Theresa. Really glad you liked it.

    We all have prejudices. But we can learn to notice them and let go of them, especially the ones where we judge ourselves. I find that whenever we speak to people properly – take the risk of getting to know them – we find things in common.

    And to be honest, I wouldn’t want us all to be identical. How boring would the world be!?

    Warmly
    Devi

  • Very true. sometimes we can forget to do this. When we remember we are worthy of love it helps.

  • No problem, Theresa. I am accustomed to people getting my name mixed up. It is one of the ways in which I am different :-). But on the other hand, there is only one of me.

  • DE

    Devi,, well written, Recently I went to Japan for a visit and during a bus tour, I was sitting beside a young lady, she is from Australia ( Chinese origin, second generation) and the Japanese tour guide was asking everybody about nationality . Before she could say her nationality, the guide said, you are Chinese. She said, no Australian. The guide was go on saying——-., when it came to me I said I am from India, but live in USA and I am an US citizen. He did not ask me any other questions.

  • En En

    I think people tend to mix or misunderstand Nationality & Race/Ethnicity together. The Japanese tour guide was probably referring to the Australian Chinese lady’s race/ethnicity as that’s the most evident from appearance. Whereas I think the Australian Chinese lady probably misunderstood and thought the Japanese tour guide think she was a Chinese national?

    I’m a Singaporean, born & bred in multi-racial Singapore but my race is Chinese. So when people assume I’m ‘Chinese’, they’re technically not wrong since that’s what I look like. So why the evidently-chinese-looking lady from Australia would say “No, Australian.” seems like a miscommunication/misunderstanding.

  • Thanks for your comments DE and En En. You are right that a few additional words can help to clarify. And of course it is inevitable that we make assumptions about people based on what we see. But we also need to be able to let go of those assumptions because most of us don’t conform to the stereotypes. And if we are the one being stereotyped, it is easy to hide our differences in case we are judged. how much richer to find we have new perspectives to share?

  • CDJ

    Thank you! I needed this today and i hope to pass it on by being more empathetic to others (and myself)!

  • Eva

    This is such an interesting article. I am a quarter Spanish, a quarter Malayan and half Filipino if we are going to split hairs….but despite being born in the Philippines, I was raised in the UK and emigrated to Australia – I have dual nationality – British and Australian but have mixed looks so what does that make me? 🙂 Having said that, I have always believed that it is all in the heart no matter what I look or where I come from or what my nationality is. In my years I have learnt that as long as I do good and never hurt myself or others intentionally then I’m okay…

  • Lovely, Eva. What does it make you? It makes you who you are, unique, perceptive, human. 🙂

  • Wonderful CDJ. Your empathy is a gift.

  • kddomingue

    Hi Theresa! I wanted you to know that your comments sparked a memory for me that elicited a giggle. Let me preface this by saying that, as far back as I can remember, I have been considered an ” odd one “. I was the child that noticed that the Emperor was wearing no clothes….. and said so out loud. I was the child that was confused over things that were taken for granted by everyone else or things that were ” obvious “. The memory that surfaced due to your comments had to do with a conversation about “”colored ” people not being called colored any more, that they were now to be called black. So my three year old self pipes up and says “But everybody’s colored! We’re all colored different colors just like my box of crayons. Right?” Well, in my mind, no-one was truly black or white. I had those colors in my box of crayons and (in my limited three years of experience) had never seen anyone who was TRULY white or black. I was so confused by the answers I got! They simply made no sense to me. I have to laugh because I am now 54 and I still have never met anyone who is truly white or black and I still think we’re all “colored” in a breathtaking array of tones and shades! So I guess I am still an”odd one”! Oh, incidentally, I am of Scottish, Irish, English and American Indian decent but looked almost full blooded Indian as a child. I heard my fair share of hateful remarks. My Grandmother (all European heritage) taught me that we judge people by who they are on the inside, not by what they look like on the outside. She also taught me not to judge anyone until I had walked a mile in their shoes. The lessons that I learned as a very young child from her are the ones that have stayed with me and the are the ones I passed on to my children. Thank you, Theresa, for bringing back a lovely memory for me…… sitting on my Grandmama’s lap while we glided back and forth on the porch swing on a summer evening, my head on her chest, hearing her heart beat as she told me I was right and everyone WAS colored all different colors and that they WERE all pretty. Thank you.

  • TruthIsBeauty

    I think that your response to your friend’s racial clumsiness/insensitivity was beautifully done. You acknowledged the difference and upped the ante all while reframing it for yourself and the other person. We are all the product of our upbringing which varies considerably and not all of us can break free without some stupidity along the way.

    I am one of those folks that asks where people are from, because people are *interesting* and have interesting stories. I use that information to apply some cultural relativity to my interactions and I think it helps to build positive interactions and relationships. Like the co-worker who’s Japanese and Colombian, but carries the illustrious Japanese surname–locked in her story is a part of history that I would not otherwise know about if I had not asked about hers. I hope that when I ask people can hear my genuine interest.

    It’s also good to know which of my South Asian colleagues are Hindu or Muslim. I can then wish them the appropriate holiday greetings, be compassionate and gentle during fasts, and make sure that their dietary needs are met when I order food for meetings. My experience is that when you are organizing these and take into account others’ needs that it is very much appreciated. It also makes me sad if someone does not assert their dietary needs and cannot eat at lunch because I did not know.

  • Truth is Beauty, I can really hear that you are acting out of generosity and a desire to understand. And a genuine desire to learn too.

    Being on the receiving end of this can be hard, though. It can make me feel like a curiosity, rather than being the same as other people. It is a difficult, nuanced, situation. But generally, I feel that I’d like people to get to know me as myself first, before they seek out how to define me by my country of origin, religion, skin colour etc. Others are proud to claim ownership of a particular culture or religion.

    So often we think that these things are unimportant, but as you point out, there is empathy in ensuring people’s holidays, dietary needs, etc are accounted for.

    Personally, I long for the day when, as someone said, we can talk about skin colour with the same lack of hidden meaning with which we speak about eye colour, or what the weather is today. When we can neither avoid nor make it pointed, we will have arrived.

    Now, when people ask if I am a vegetarian due to some connection with my religion (I am agnostic, but they assume I must be a Hindu or Buddhist because I look a bit south Asian) I feel irritated. It is acutally because my husband, who is white, British and male, has been a vegetarian since his childhood, and it is easier to be one too! Nothing to do with ethnicity, culture or religion at all!

    Can we let go of our assumptions with grace? Perhaps one day.

  • My life has been a tug of war between the desire to fit in and the desire to be different. It wasn’t until I turned 28, after much agonizing and internal suffering, that I found peace with myself and my skin and decided to throw away my veil of normalcy.

  • Tina

    If people ask you about your origin, it doesn’t mean they label you or think you are a different kind of a person. I am a “foreigner” in Germany, but I do get more interested in people when I notice they speak a different language than German, since I love meeting people from different cultures. So my point- you are not always being judged. 😉

  • Mister Pidot

    As much as people online tend to support each other, I think most people in the real world would shy away from most of us that are looking for truth and kindness in reality. You see it on the roads all day long how people treat people who they don’t know. It’s constant bullying – cutting people off – rude behavior. That’s the true nature of human beings to beat on those they don’t know, meanwhile they cuddle with their family and friends. God forbid the day they cut those same people off on the roads while driving, or strategically take over their jobs at work :0. The compassion of most people is very shallow and weak.