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“Only recently have I realized that being different is not something you want to hide or squelch or suppress.” ~Amy Gerstler
I grew up during the traditional times of the sixties and seventies. Dad went out to work and earned the family income, while Mom worked at home raising their children. We were a family of seven. My brother was the first-born and he was followed by four sisters. I was the middle child.
I did not quite know where I belonged. I oscillated between my older two and younger two siblings, feeling like the third wheel no matter where I was.
I was the one in my family that was “different.” I was uncomfortable in groups, emotionally sensitive, intolerant of loud noises, and did not find most jokes funny. Especially when the jokes were at the expense of someone else. Oftentimes that someone else was me.
Yes, I was the proverbial black sheep. I stood on the fringes of my own family, a microcosm of the bigger world.
Life felt hard and lonely. I felt isolated and misunderstood. Too frequently I wondered what was wrong with me and why I did not quite fit. Others appeared to be content with the status quo. I never was. Others didn’t questions the inequities I saw in life. I did. Others did not seem to notice the suffering of others. I epitomized it.
Being different did not exactly make me the popular one. In fact, quite the opposite. Who knew what to do with my awkwardness? I sure didn’t.
As a result, I was depressed a good part of my life. That was not something that was identified or talked about then. Too often it still isn’t. A disconnected life and feelings of loneliness and isolation will lead to depression, among other things.
I hit my teens and did what too many do: I looked for ways to be comfortably numb. My choice was alcohol. It gave me an opportunity to “fit in” or at the very least, not care about the fact that I did not. I rebelled. I self-destructed. For years.
As life will have it, I grew up, feeling my way in the dark, wondering when the lights would go on. I turned inward looking for the comfort I could not find from the world. I hid my pain and lostness. At times, I prayed that I would get cancer and die.
A heroic exit was not to be my path.
Do you know what I am talking about?
Maybe you feel what I have felt. Maybe you know the pain of chronic isolation and what it means to be different in a culture that prefers sameness. Do you wonder if you will ever be okay? Do you wonder if you will ever fit?
Well, let me tell you:
First of all, you fit. You have always fit. You belong. You have always belonged. You are needed—more than you know. These are truisms.
Others do not have to think you belong in order for you to know you do. Others do not have to treat you as insider in order for you to know you are.
Knowing, intellectually, that you belong is one thing. Feeling like you belong, now that is an entirely different thing. That is an inside job. In other words, that is your work to do.
So, I did what I had to do to bring change, in order to get the life I wanted. I stepped up to the challenges in my life, which came through my work world and my personal relationships.
I often ran into conflict with authority figures, changing jobs frequently. I didn’t know how to let others close to me. I was afraid of being rejected, so I used anger and avoidance to distance those that mattered to me the most. I was not happy, content, or at peace. I felt that more often than not.
So, I faced my pain and hurt instead of numbing it.
As I got more honest with myself, I began to consider that maybe there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe there was something wrong with the world or the system that wants to tell me there is something wrong with me.
So, I began to view myself through different eyes. I began to make some noise. I got out of the bleachers and stepped into the ring. I chose to participate in life as I was, not as others thought I should be. I started to push up against the boundaries that others had set.
Yes, I faced rejection. I dealt with disapproval. It was hard. Really hard. It hurt. I cried. I stomped my feet. I cried again. I gave myself permission to feel angry.
In spite of the internal chaos, in spite of the hurt, in spite of my turmoil, I would do it all again.
When we are trying to make changes, when we are owning our own lives, when we bump up against the expectations of others, it frequently gets messy before it gets better.
DO IT ANYWAY! Because it does get better. For every person who rejects you another will embrace you. But you can only meet those people if you first embrace yourself. Because you need to accept yourself to be able to put yourself out there.
When you feel afraid to move forward, move anyway.
When you want to quit because it feels too hard, rest. Do something nice for yourself. Then get back up and keep moving.
There is light. Even when you can’t yet see it.
There is hope. Even when you can’t find it.
There is love. Even when you can’t feel it.
Work at finding your voice by getting quiet and paying attention to your feelings and inner nudges. Learn to trust yourself by acknowledging that only you know what is true and best for you. Know your worth by recognizing your intrinsic value as a unique person with an abundance of admirable qualities.
Start caring more about approving of yourself than waiting for others to approve of you. Own your life and take responsibility for your well-being and happiness. No one can do that for you.
Figure out how to forgive yourself for the mistakes you will inevitably make. Learn how to love yourself more than anyone could ever love you.
Accept yourself—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then get about changing the ugly as best you can.
This is what I have done. This is the hard work that brings transformation.
In the process of all of this I made a phenomenal discovery…
What a discovery! I have gifts to bring to the world. Gifts that will leave this world better than I found it.
When I was younger, I didn’t like how sensitive I was to the energies around me, how I felt things to the core of my being, and how I hurt when I saw someone else hurting.
Those around me seemed playful and fun, though, I could see the hurt in them. Life did not feel playful and fun to me. It felt serious. People were hurting. Why didn’t anyone other than me notice?
I was hurting. Why didn’t anyone notice?
I gravitated to the heavier side of life, fully identified with the suffering around me.
I wanted to be anything other than what I was.
I now understand these qualities to be empathy and intuition. Two things the world greatly needs.
I learned to trust those qualities. They led me down a road I could never have imagined. I now have a thriving counseling practice, helping others to heal. I get to watch them discover their gifts. Better than that, I get to watch them go from hating who they are to loving and embracing who they are.
Then they go out and find ways to help others do the same.
But this story is not just about me. It is also about you.
There is nothing wrong with you. You are amazing and beautiful, just as you are. Flaws and imperfections included.
Don’t change yourself for a world that wants to tell you who you are.
You tell the world who you are. Let’s change this place together and allow difference to be the norm, because our beauty is in our diversity.
I invite you to take the journey inward to self-discovery. Then bring what you’ve learned and share it.
Bring who you are and let’s change this world, one person at a time.
About Sandra Cooper
Sandra Cooper is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Delaware. She has a BS in Nursing, which was her first career. While practicing as a hospice nurse, she found her true calling, returning to school to get her MS in Pastoral Counseling. Sandra now brings her personal experience to her practice, having spent her life resolving her own trauma. She thrives on helping others to become their best self while learning to accept their whole self. Sandra recently published her first book, Trauma to Triumph: Lessons Learned Along the Way.