Our ability to remember things only starts a little before most people start going to school, meaning our general idea of how the larger world works is formed at home. The struggle that will define our lives will often be formed when our personal reality goes to school to encounter and painfully intersect with other children’s personal realities.
If we’re Korean and our family and friends are all Korean then being and acting Korean is fine. But if the kids in the school happen to notice that the child has a Korean face or a Korean name, they can think the new kid is strange and someone to be avoided because the kid does not align with their own home-based idea of ‘normal’ which included no Korean kids.
All of these judgments are really just a hold-overs from an ancient reflex that sees all conscious creatures cautiously managing new things until their intentions are better understood and safety can be assured.
Virtually everyone has had this experience of clashing with other’s realities simply because even kids from the same culture would have quite different households. The differences that get attacked include everything from a kid’s weight, to clothes, names, lunches or even just a single relatively minor mistake in class.
These events happen when confused people meet in social and emotional territory that is largely new to all parties. That leads to clumsy mistakes that can lead to major insecurities that can last a lifetime even though there’s nothing really wrong with any kid, they just need to find the right context for themselves.
Eventually in school everyone does make at least a one or two friends if they make even the slightest effort. Even if we’re ostracized, there’s usually more than one ostracized person who could use our support.
Interestingly, the kids with the fewest friends are generally outcasts who are already functioning or appearing in some way that causes society to pass judgment on them. Nerds are cool now, but it wasn’t that long ago that being good in school and knowing anything about Dungeons and Dragons or comic books meant you’d be beat up and laughed at.
The strange upside to being ostracized is that it’s actually much more analogous to adult life. We can go through school as the most popular person but that still won’t save us from all of the judgments others will make about us behind our backs. Some of those judgments will be true, others will be entirely false, but we’ll lose just as many friends over the lies as the truth –likely even more.
Meanwhile, the teased kids eventually give up their self-hating and realize the issue is that other kids are making very shallow judgments. At that point those kids just start being themselves without apology because they get too used to the teasing.
This, it turns out, is one of the most important lessons a person can learn. Those kids gain emotional resilience and eventually become largely impervious to the opinions of others. This helps people be more assertive about their goals and it often contributes strongly to their success.
Being real and avoiding pretense also helps us to connect more productively with others, and that is a profoundly underrated thing.
One of the best advantages to being ourselves is that it helps our real friends find us in a crowd. Often people will connect with the wrong people because they think someone’s this or that way when really they’ve just been performing those identities to maintain their status with others.
The strategy above is always doomed, because our egos do this even though the real us will eventually show up and disappoint everyone who was taught to think that we were someone else. Meanwhile, a bunch of people who love the way we really are still exist, but they can’t find us because we’re in disguise as someone we’re not.
Compromise and genuinely enjoying the act of making someone happy is one thing, but it’s not a healthy or enlightened thing to make people happy if we’re spending that time performing actions or saying words that feel painfully unnatural to us.
Eventually we’ll get hangry or be short on sleep or we’ll have had a stressful time and then we’ll show our true selves. Then just watch a how people will desert us for nothing more than a few low days. But the problem isn’t us and human fallibility; it’s their inability to tolerate anything less than their idea of perfection.
Frankly, if we look back at our lives we can probably easily find people we’ve never spoken to again and yet if we looked at things fairly and from a less emotional distance, all they would have done is offend us with an opinion or approach that wasn’t one we’d personally use.
But look at how remarkably conditional our affections are; we see how people are so often that it becomes our idea of our own normal. That means we get to the point where we actually expect people to perform for us. They’re not supposed to be themselves, they’re supposed to be who we expect them to be so that things can be normal for us.
The Advantages of Being an Outcast
So how do the biggest outcasts in school end up better off? School may have hurt them more at the time because they found out before anyone else about how incredibly silly people can be with their opinions. But in getting used to it early, they get used to the adult world where people’s expectations just increase more and more and more over time.
As people’s expectations grow over time, eventually we can get to the point where an entire 20 year friendship can end over just one series of misunderstood text messages, as though those messages somehow unlock some secret identity that our friends have been hiding for decades.
When I work with couples and a text exchange is the ignition point for the relationship crisis, half the time people show me them and say, can you believe they said that? And I won’t even be able to find the offence they’re talking about without all of the history they’re loading the words with.
Even the word ‘ok’ gets seen as some sign of hostility. If people are going to be that finicky then the problem isn’t any person, it’s our ridiculous standards.
People aren’t here for us and we aren’t here for them. We’re all in this together and we either act like we know that or we pretend we can somehow survive without people that are different from us, disagree with us, or that do things we wouldn’t do.
Fortunately, by fifty most people have realized that their giant collection of school friends was really just a bunch of other insecure kids who were taught all kinds of unrealistic expectations different from our unrealistic expectations.
Those same expectations cause people to desert or blame others and over time, and before we know it, everyone’s left with just their true friends; the people who will accept us, warts and all. But the outcast had that already in school. It was the rest of us living in a fantasy, not the nerd playing D&D.
We owe no daily performance to anyone, and we should avoid asking others to perform for us. Our problems aren’t out in the world they are within us. We simply have resistance to other people’s ways of being just like they have resistance to our ways of being.
In life we’re looking for the security of unconditional love. Along the way there’s a lot of people sitting on the gunnels of ours boat and almost no turbulence will knock many of them out. A lot of people never intended to stay in the first place, so they get on and off at various ports of call. And still others really needed some serious storms to get knocked out. But…
A precious few will cling to our boat extra-hard during the storms, and those are the people who are willing to tough out the hardest parts of life with us. That’s our tribe and those are the most valuable people we’ll know.
As that process happens, we shouldn’t see it as losing friends as we age. In reality it’s simply that the daily friction of life very naturally wears through our less solid friendships to eventually to expose our foundations –the very best friends we have. Far from a process of losing friends, this is much more like finding our way home.