For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be popular. Well-liked. As early as kindergarten I was bowing to peer pressure, succumbing to borderline bullying in a desperate attempt to win approval and friendship.
The truth about chasing approval is that you can never get enough and the stakes always get higher. <Tweet that.>
I taunted a boy because my best friend told me to. I agreed to terrible dares in truth or dare because even then I knew that some people couldn’t be trusted with the truths I held inside. I was a great pretender, afraid to ask for explanation when I didn’t understand a word or phrase. I was ashamed to admit I still believed in Santa Claus when my friends’ belief had been spoiled by older siblings.
I learned the art of adapting to my environment. Afraid that everything I did was the wrong way to do things, I watched how my friends brushed their teeth at sleepovers, and ate their breakfasts. I laughed at jokes I didn’t understand and faked enjoyment of things I didn’t enjoy.
I wanted to be liked, accepted, approved. But I didn’t have a clue who I was or what that really meant.
Want to know a secret? Even the popular kids felt this way. Maybe they just knew how to hide it better.
In upper elementary school, I made a new friend. She was new to the school, shy to the point of crying, and brilliant. She’s one of the smartest people I know, and she carved a path through life that few would follow. She was not popular, nor was I, and we became fast friends. She was a faithful friend to me, far more than I’m sure I deserved.
Because even in friendships I was fickle. And if a group I wanted to fit in with was poking fun at someone I considered a friend, I would agree with their remarks. Or say nothing in my friend’s defense. Both are equal betrayals of friendship.
I wanted to be liked by everyone at the same time.
Want to know another secret? This is an impossible goal. To try to fit in with one group meant that I compromised another group. I could not have it both ways.
One day in junior high, I was given an offer. It was almost one that I couldn’t refuse.
I was waiting for my friend at our spot at the cafeteria table where we ate lunch every day. I don’t remember why she wasn’t there yet. Maybe she was buying hot lunch. I hated sitting alone–sometimes I still do–but it never lasted too long and a junior high cafeteria has plenty of opportunity for observation. From our spot in the cafeteria, I secretly pined for the cool table. That’s what we called it. It was loud with laughter and contained every person I thought I wanted to be my friend.
I wasn’t confident or secure enough to just sit down with them. If anyone had ever done that I would have considered them like a god. But this particular day, a girl from the cool table sat down next to me and asked me THE question. Did I want to come sit with them?
My dream was coming true! I was on the verge of saying yes when I caught sight of my friend making her way through the cafeteria. I asked if I could bring her, too. The girl hesitated. The offer was only for me.
Torn between my need to be included and loyalty to my friend, I made some lame excuse about why I needed to stay with her. It wasn’t anything like brave or loyal. It was weak and apologetic.
But I consider that moment a turning point in my life, as silly as it may seem. On that day, I chose to stay on the outside. Sometimes I wonder how terribly different my life would have been had I said yes. I would have lost one friend for sure. Even now, I wonder if the invitation was sincere or if I would have been the token butt of every joke. Undoubtedly, I would have compromised what I knew to be right.
May I confess something to you? Sometimes I’m jealous of my daughter.
She’s 6, wrapping up her first year of school, and currently has three bestest bestest friends. Twice last week she got off the bus wearing one of those crazy antennae headbands that two separate boy kindergartners who ride her bus had given her. Her current seatmate is a sixth-grade boy she can’t stop talking about. Her book buddy is a fifth-grader and to hear her talk, they’re tight.
Even before she went to school, she could make a friend on any given playground in a matter of seconds. Maybe it’s the nature of childhood, but I don’t remember it being that way. She’s confident, sometimes to a fault, outgoing and caring. She loves, loves, loves people. An extrovert if there ever was one. I hate to label her as such so early in her life, but we’re so completely opposite that I have no other explanation.
My hope, my prayer, is that she will always have friends without compromising who she is. It takes everything in me to not say a word when she walks out of the house dressed in 10 different colors and 3 different patterns. I remember the teasing for the clothes I wore, wounds that still sting occasionally when I shop. I know that teasing is probably inevitable but I don’t want to be the one to tell her she must conform in order to be liked. <Tweet that.>
There’s a chance she’ll be popular because of her nature, and IHAVENOIDEAWHATTODOWITHTHAT.
More importantly, I’m not really sure why it matters so much.
Can you handle another confession? I’m an adult and I still want to be liked. I still draw circles around groups of people I think are cool or popular and wonder what it would take to be inside the circle instead of standing outside it.
The tug is still there, to become someone else, to say and do the right things, to feel like I belong. Even in church I feel it. My husband and I have no roots here and though we’ve been in Pennsylvania for five and a half years, friendships take time. And though we each have a greater awareness of who we are and who God is, it is still difficult to let other people see those vulnerable places.
But here’s what I’ve learned since that day I declined the offer to sit with the popular kids: There is no inside. Not really. We’re all on the outside, even if we don’t know it yet.
I’ve made beautiful friendships with people I used to consider unworthy of my attention because I wanted attention myself. And because of that desire to feel included, to belong, to be accepted, I find myself drawn to the outsiders, even when I don’t plan it that way. There is still a real and raging need for acceptance. I’m still jealous when I think I’m being left out of something. I still hang back, waiting for an invitation to be included. I still convince myself I’m not cool enough or don’t dress the right way.
So, I remind myself that Jesus loves outsiders. The people He was most drawn to were on the outside of society for reasons of religion, morality or gender, among others. Jesus compromised nothing about who He is, and a week before His death, he was the most popular man in His day. That, alone, should prove how fickle popularity is–one day a king, a few days later a criminal.
The kingdom of God is built on the idea that we are all outside of it until Jesus brings us into it, and we, in turn, bring others. It is the epitome of belonging and acceptance. We are all on the outside, or we once were, and we are not called to create more circles but to ever expand the circle. To invite others to the table. To slide over and make room. To say, “Come, you’re welcome here.”
And I’ve found the best cure for outside-itis is to do just that. When I feel most excluded, I look for someone to include. When I envy relationships, I reach out to make new ones and cultivate the ones I already have. When I’m waiting for someone to notice me, I take notice of someone who’s not being noticed.
I’d love to tell you that I’m quick to do this and that I do it well every time, but it’s a lie. My first thought is rarely to do the hard thing of initiating conversation with a fellow outsider; I’d much prefer an insider come to me.
But I’m trying. And learning. And remembering.
What about you? Do you ever feel like an outsider?
What makes you feel like you belong?
How do you handle the need for acceptance?
And how do you reach out to others on the outside?