How to Belong Where You Don’t Fit In
Belonging may be one of the oldest, most fundamental needs of human beings. Dating back to the times when being part of a tribe was necessary for survival, our need to fit in and feel accepted is paramount to our well-being. I recently started a new part-time job and I’m by far the oldest person who works there. In terms of education and work experience, I’m way over-qualified for the position. I don’t fit the typical mold of the part-time server. No one really knows why I’m there. At this point, no one has bothered to ask.
I’m convinced it’s not because they don’t care; they’re just busy with their own lives and their own concerns. It’s going to take a few weeks for the staff to fully accept me and for me to feel like I belong in their midst.
Not feeling like you belong can sour a potentially great job position. Taking on a new work position, entering a new school, moving to a new area, or just joining in any new situation will inevitably place you among people who already have history together. Friendship circles have already formed and it may take a while for them to let you in. It’s important to know that this is normal. It may be tempting to feel frustrated or angry at the way you are treated early on. We often tend to take that treatment personal when it’s really not.
We tend to think that belonging just happens. Or sometimes it doesn’t. We might even think that not fitting in instantly prevents us from feeling like we belong. But the truth is, we can learn to belong in almost any group, in any circumstance if we know how to navigate the introductions. Belonging is an experience that actually happens in our minds before it manifests in actual experience. You might not realize it, but you can actually talk yourself into or out of belonging with a certain set of individuals. It all comes down to how you handle those first few weeks in a new group.
Learning how to belong with people that you may not really fit with is an important skill to have and one you should learn early, before your career takes off. It seldom occurs that we fit in with every group. We have to learn to feel comfortable being unique among others. This is how belonging really happens.
Here are some do’s and dont’s for how to belong even when you don’t fit in:
Exercise patience with people. Maintain your acceptance of others even if you’re not getting a warm welcome. Be polite and kind and patient. Everyone needs time to warm up to others and you need to give them something to warm up to. Don’t develop a chip on your shoulder toward others if they don’t greet you with open arms. It will only make you seem less approachable when they are ready to reach out.
One at a Time
Befriend people one at a time. Don’t try to be the life of the party, seeking approval and acceptance from everyone at once. This tends to make you seem desperate and inauthentic. Singularly find things in common with individuals who will then spread the word that you’re okay. Never talk about the others with the friends you do make. Be honest and be authentic. Cherish the different types of friendships you can have with individuals when you learn about them one at a time. This will make you a valuable friend anyone can turn to over time.
Don’t gossip or create drama to separate or divide the current group. This almost always backfires, leaving you even more on the outside than before. Respect the integrity of the group and don’t interfere or get involved in conflict there. Belonging requires being on most people’s good side and initially you won’t know anyone well enough to take sides. If anyone tries to pull you into that, you may be tempted to comply, just to feel included. But don’t. Excuse yourself for whatever reason and they’ll get the message that you can’t be manipulated so easily. This builds trust.
Don’t un-belong yourself. We often tend to keep ourselves from belonging by one of several subtle tactics. We compare ourselves unfavorably to those we want acceptance from. We put ourselves down in front of others. We look for differences instead of similarities. Become aware of the ways you make yourself unworthy. That will be your personal work with that particular group.
Learn from them, but don’t try to become them. People who have been on site a while can show you the ins and outs of how things work on the social as well as practical levels. Watch for clues. Ask for clarity when there are contradictions. Adopt whatever is necessary to follow the rules, but don’t change who you are to fit in with a group. You have unique gifts and strengths to share. You don’t want those swallowed up by the group’s dynamic. Maintain your authenticity even though it might make you “different.” Initially it might feel weird, but your uniqueness is what they’ll ending up liking most about you.
Don’t assume anyone’s mood or actions are about you. We make snap judgments about people early on when we feel uncertain about their moods and signals. It takes time to learn another person’s communication habits. Taking offense when someone isn’t kind to you can lead you to reject them. They might just be having a fight with their spouse or dealing with children’s issues. I try to assume first that I don’t know what’s going on in the background of someone’s life and whatever they are dealing with is probably big and hard for them. Allow people you’re getting to know a wide berth for a while. Ask calmly if there’s anything you can do to help and they will let you know if there’s a problem on your end.
The ability to belong anywhere is in your head and in your hands. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not out of your control. Be ready to infiltrate slowly. Get to know people one-on-one and allow them time to figure out why they should and can trust you. Belonging doesn’t happen immediately. In our culture acceptance takes time. Unfortunately it has to be earned. The more you maintain your authentic self, the more the group will see the value in having you be a part of it.