The instinct to belong
Human beings have an instinctive need to be accepted by and feel connected to others. We are singularly unequipped to survive by ourselves, and working together as tribes was detrimental for our very survival as a species. Through most of human history, and occasionally still in the present times, being different or not fitting in didn’t only mean your tribe might abandon you – it meant they could straight up turn against you and murder you, such as in “witch hunts” or “honor killings”. Even pack animals are known to show hostility to pack members who look different, like albino cubs. Often, it’s not only people who stick out in “negative” ways who are rejected – many high quality people end up rejected simply because they are different than average.
So us humans developed a deep instinct to fear rejection, which makes us judge ourselves by others’ feedback – to question ourselves and form conclusions about ourselves based on what people around us tell us or how they treat us. This instinct is the strongest in a child, but adult people feel it too.
However, just like with any other personal trait and instinct, such as empathy, intelligence, need for power etc., the instinct to belong and to be accepted is not equally strong in everyone. Some people don’t seem to have much of it. Even as children, they don’t suffer as much as most when they feel rejected, and as adults they don’t care much about fitting in. Interestingly, this is often exactly the reason why many people admire them and want to be around them.
We do feel how restrictive and burdensome the need to fit in can be if tribal rules and expectations are rigid, and we secretly long to have more freedom. Thus, paradoxically, it’s often the people with the strongest need to fit in who end up rejected, dismissed, or even bullied, because their fear of others’ opinions makes them shy, awkward and tense, which others don’t appreciate. Human mind and human nature are full of paradoxes.
How will we deal with social exclusion as adults, primarily depends of our childhood experiences (besides the innate strength of our instinct to belong). As I wrote in the article “Children Need Challenges“, children who feel supported by their parents can much more easily cope with problems in the outer world, because parents are much more important to young children than the outer world.
But if we felt rejected by our parents, or were just not interesting enough to our parents, every rejection we experience outside of our family confirms our existing bad opinion of ourselves and cuts deeper. In fact, we are likely to not notice or quickly dismiss any feedback that doesn’t match the feedback we got from our parents – even when the external feedback is positive. This pattern can easily persist into adulthood.
The situation is worse if our parents themselves felt socially inadequate and feared what neighbors may say. What parents fear, the child fears even more, especially if fear drives the parents to punish the child. Thus some of our social fears and feelings of inadequacy might be cross-generational – not only coming from our own childhood, but from our parents’ childhoods (and further).
Feeling inadequate as children can drive us to overcompensate as adults, whether by imitating the ways our parents and wider community overcompensated, or by finding our own ways. Some people overcompensate by buying status symbols, hanging around popular and powerful people (including falling in love with such people) and following popular trends. Some people overcompensate by struggling to achieve more and more, to stand out, to gain status, awards and recognition. Some take the path of giving so that they would receive, perhaps ending up acting as victims and martyrs. Some give up and become social recluses, trying to convince themselves that being accepted by others doesn’t matter to them.
How to stay adult
Just like many other experiences of our adult daily lives unconsciously trigger childhood memories and childish feelings, so does the experience of not being accepted and included. When childhood memories are triggered, we are likely to start perceiving things in a childish way – exaggerated, generalized, self-centered, black and white. We may ignore rational explanations and focus on our childhood feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and self-blame.
It’s very important to first recognize that you are reacting to the past more than the present. You may mentally say to yourself: “These are emotions from the past” (or, sometimes, “This is my biology acting up”). Observe the feelings and ideas that come up and check what age they seem to belong to. When you are able to separate the past from the present, you might already feel much calmer and more objective.
Take a moment to calm down and comfort your inner child. Remind it that whatever happened in childhood wasn’t (all) your mistake. As soon as you have more time, use it to work on healing the relationship with parents. Try to achieve a feeling of being supported by parents. If your parents were truly toxic, you might even create imaginary healthy parents to support you in your mind. In our work, we have a range of adaptable methods of healing family influences.
Prepare yourself up front for potentially unpleasant social situations. If you are going to a gathering where you expect you might feel awkward, accept the possibility that people might not react to you the way you’d like. Imagine yourself comforting your inner child and reminding yourself of your qualities. Imagine yourself staying calm and adult and accepting of yourself. The more you can prepare up front to deal with such situations, the less they will surprise you and make you lose resources – and then if nothing else you won’t look and feel so awkward. A loner who accepts themselves is more relaxing to be around than a loner who is tense and uncomfortable.
Next, recognize that just like most people don’t have time and energy to be particularly interested in you, you also don’t have time and energy to be particularly interested in most other people. It doesn’t mean you dislike them and deem them unworthy, and the other way around. By adult age, most people have formed their “tribes” and are too busy with them to seek further. Once a tribe is formed, people find it more difficult (but not impossible) to accept new people into it. That doesn’t say anything much about yours or their personalities, it’s simply a fact of human life. Remind yourself of people who do like you and think well of you.
To find your own tribe, you need to search for people who are similar to you rather than trying to be accepted by most people. If you have an artistic mind, you are not likely to find much understanding among IT experts, and if you are an intellectual, you are not likely to fit in among sportspeople. Accept that you can’t be good in everything and fit in everywhere. Search for a smaller number of quality relationships, rather than being accepted by whole groups. Remind yourself that not having qualities one group of people demands, probably means you have other qualities another group might appreciate.
In a similar way, your personal traits which some people might dismiss and reject might mean having extra strengths in some other ways and other circumstances. There is a lot of duality in our human lives, and many traits that are advantageous in some ways turn out to be problematic in other ways, and the other way around. A shy and sensitive person might not be very stimulating in a big group, but can be very empathetic and a good friend in private, or very creative, or very insightful. A serious person might seem intimidating to many, but people are usually serious if they think a lot, or are responsible, and they are often responsible and think a lot because they care – and/or they have busy minds and rich inner worlds.
So, focus on your strengths and build upon them, rather than dwelling on your weaknesses. Perhaps you have strengths – warmth, gentleness, intelligence… – your early environment taught you to hide rather than express. Consider how you can let them show again. Keep in mind that most people will be impressed by your character and communication skills rather than technical expertise.
Of course, you might be rejected because you are objectively unpleasant – aggressive, arrogant or (borderline) narcissistic. Such people are not likely to come to my website anyway. But in case you are, consider where such behavior might be coming from. In my experience, most aggression, arrogance and narcissism compensates for deep unconscious sense of inadequacy or even self-hatred, which you need to heal. The more you learn to like and accept yourself in a healthy way, the more you can be aware of others, appreciative and considerate to others.
Try to take a look at yourself through other people’s eyes. You might find that they were simply too preoccupied with themselves to pay attention to you – or you might feel there was something about you they disliked – perhaps you miss on social cues, or overcompensate in too obvious ways, or they confuse your shyness with arrogance or your seriousness with covert criticism (both quite common!), or they feel tense around a person who feels awkward.
If you find something like this, avoid blaming and criticizing yourself (it would probably be an echo of parental criticism, which you can also work on healing). Remember, like I said in How To Overcome the Fear of Making Mistakes, that mistakes are the best way to learn. Consider what parts of your behavior you want to change and why, and what you don’t want to change and why. Keep in mind that some changes might be good for you, but too much conformism might make you lose some important qualities. Then explore how you can start changing the parts of your behavior you want to change. Take small steps, don’t fear mistakes but use them to learn more – and don’t overcompensate.
Learn from people who inspire you or with whom you feel good. How do they communicate with others? What non-verbal signals do they send? What do they do that makes you feel good? Perhaps you cannot become quite like them without changing yourself too much – but some small changes might go a long way.
Finally, take initiative. Learn how to use small talk and how to approach people – it’s easier than you might think! Present yourself as approachable, verbally and non-verbally. Seek people who look interested and open to communication, but don’t just wait for them to approach you. Be kind and show interest – people are the most attracted to people who show clear interest in them. Yet keep your sense of balance, use your intuition and don’t pretend you are someone you are not, or agree with things you don’t agree. In short, be your best self but be genuine. Show your passion, talk about things that are important to you, but don’t expect everybody to agree or show interest.
Seek new activities which are at least somewhat interesting to you, and which make it possible to interact with people directly rather than being a passive audience to something. Mountaineering, dancing, art classes, scientific gatherings, self-improvement workshops, volunteering, literary evenings… use your creativity. The website Meetup lists many meetings in bigger towns sorted by categories. Perhaps you might even want to organize something on your own.
Just like with looking for a job or a partner, you need to put yourself out there and check out many people to find out who suits you the most. Every experience is worth something. Even if you don’t feel at ease with most people, a small number of new friends is worth the search. Once you make a few friends, you might introduce them to each other – and then you might have your own little tribe.