A six year old of my close acquaintance recently demanded to get her ears pierced. All tales of pain and suffering were brushed away with a vigorous “I’m very brave!”, and the hunt was on for child-friendly ear piercing shops. But then I thought to ask her why she wanted her ears pierced, and she uttered the words that left me transfixed: “Because all the other girls have their ears pierced, and I don’t want to stand out.”
The ear piercing train screeched to a shuddering halt. For a moment I flailed about in a sea made up of past insecurities, empathy for her desire to fit in, and a complete inability to articulate why her reason appalled me so much.
I completely understand the desire to fit in. There have been times when, in an attempt to fit myself into a group of people I wanted to be friends with, I struggled with how I should change myself to be accepted. I hovered on the outskirts of the group, never actually rejected but never quite invited in either, and wondered what was wrong with me. It was a lonely feeling, and I watch my kids struggle with it sometimes too, which breaks my heart every time.
When I was at school I realised that blending in with the other girls was not really an option for a girl who towered head and shoulders over most of them, but I kept trying. It wasn’t really until I reached Uni that I began to head for what interested me, rather than what I thought I was expected to be interested in, and I gradually realised that my personality and interests were almost as unlikely to fit in with the mainstream as my height. Now in my 40s I am much more comfortable in my own skin, but I still sometimes fall into that trap of trying to win acceptance by changing myself into something I think is expected of me, in whatever context.
Back in my academic days I used to give course advice at University open days. I winced every time I saw a student pushed into the chair by his or her parent. I’d ask them what they were interested in, and then listen as their parents overrode the answer, clamouring to know where the most jobs where, where the most money was to be made. I always told them that doing the subjects that interested them was the best way to be happy and successful, but those parents weren’t interested in that sort of fuzzy-wuzzy reasoning. They wanted me to show them the money.
Following the path that most interested and satisfied me led to precisely the right career for me. I was true to my heart. It’s only recently that I am starting to articulate what I think I have known all along. That being true to my heart – to who I am and how I feel – is also the way to be happy in my friendships. Trying to change myself to fit in is like trying to hammer the proverbial square peg. I might be able to cram myself into that round hole, but it’s unlikely to be comfortable or sustainable. And there is no doubt that I am very square.
I expect that my 6 year old will get her ears pierced one day. I hope she does it because she wants to wear dangly earrings, or sparkly studs that she can’t get as clip ons, not because she doesn’t want to stand out. Not standing out was never an option for me, and I don’t think it’s likely to be for my kids, either. I hope that they learn to be true to who they are, and spend their lives being themselves just as hard as they can. I hope they learn to celebrate their differences, because it’s their differences that make them stand out. And what is standing out if it’s not special?