Fitting In and the Development of Self

Many people have anxiety about fitting in. What this means varies with each person: being liked, accepted, acceptable, or some version of what you think will be attractive and pleasing to other people.

Looking at fitting in this way requires that you try to be just like the members of the group you want to fit into. You might think you have to put aside your own needs and desires and accede to the wishes of others. It can feel risky to express your thoughts and feelings.

Experiences where you don’t fit in can have a serious impact on how you think about yourself. As you try to make sense of those experiences, you might ask yourself the question, “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want to hang out with me?” Trying to answer that question can lead to ruminating, obsessive thinking, and focusing on your negative thoughts and feelings. Fear of rejection can further erode your concept of self and increase your anxiety about reaching out to others.

The anxiety of fitting in uses up a lot of energy because you have to work so hard to go along with what others seem to want. When you spend so much time trying to shape yourself into someone you think other people would like, you neglect the time and desire to develop your own unique self. As a result, there is little opportunity to develop what you think and feel.

Trying to Fit In Can Backfire
It makes sense that if you feel vulnerable and bad about yourself, you would want to be cautious about revealing who you are. But when you do this, you don’t offer other people anything, or anybody, to relate to. It’s funny, but feeling badly about yourself and being timid about letting people see your true self can actually increase your chances of being ignored or not seen at all. Because of this, timid, anxious people often end up feeling rejected even when there are no negative feelings directed toward them. This can affect your self-esteem and self-confidence and become part of a vicious circle that prevents you from reaching out to others.

If you can learn how to be a fuller person—someone with your own ideas, thoughts and feelings, who can express their wishes and desires, say what they want, and express what they are feeling—then other people will finally have someone they can react to. This means that you have to learn what you want, think, and feel and become more willing to express yourself.

It also means that you have to tolerate the possibility that someone will not wish to include you in their social circle. When you are no longer seen as invisible, people will react to you, for better or worse. Even though you open yourself up to negative reactions from other people, being present increases your opportunity for real dialogue and interpersonal connection. When you can learn to tolerate the possibility of rejection, you greatly increase your the chances of developing yourself and a social network that welcomes you.

Learning from Dave’s Story
Dave came to see me for psychotherapy because he felt depressed and lonely. After graduating from college, he felt like nobody wanted to be his friend or hang out with him. He felt like his college friends never really cared about or reached out to him, either. In college, he thought people might be more interested in him if he was more like them, so he would observe carefully to try and figure out what people liked and what was important to them.

He was continuing the same patterns now, but it wasn’t working with his coworkers either. He tried hard to please them, like buying them all tickets to a game (and pretending he got them for free) because he knew they liked baseball. They accepted, but didn’t become more sociable with him. He tried to organize a get-together at a bar they liked, and while a few people from work did show up, they still never invited him when they went out.

Dave couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong and why people didn’t respond more positively to him. “I try to do all the things I think they will like, but no one ever invites me anywhere,” he said. I asked Dave what kind of things he would invite them to that he cared about. He looked puzzled by my question and said, “I guess I don’t know. I never really thought about what I want or like. It’s always seemed like the way to be liked and get people interested in me was to do what they liked or be like them.”

I pointed out to Dave that this wasn’t working, and asked him if there had ever been a time in his life when this did seem to work. Dave said that he thought he had some friends in elementary school, but recalled being worried that nobody wanted play dates with him. He also remembered his mom telling him that if he wanted the other kids to want to be with him, he would have to do the things they wanted to do. Dave remembered that he loved to draw and paint and do art projects, but his school friends were into action figures and sports. He said his mom encouraged him to put away his art stuff and get more involved in the activities his friends enjoyed.

By fifth grade, other kids seemed less interested in him even though he kept trying to figure out what they liked to do. I asked him what he enjoyed doing in the later grades of elementary school, and he said he couldn’t remember having any interests after stopping his art work. He never thought about what he wanted to do, just kept trying to figure out what he should be interested in so that his peers would want to be with him.

I could see that Dave had developed a pattern of neglecting the development of his self. He was not familiar enough with his own thoughts, feelings, and desires to feel good about himself or to feel self-confidence and self-worth. Dave needed to allow himself to discover his unique self and begin coping with the anxiety of revealing that self to the world. I believed that as he did this, he would find that people would start responding to him in positive ways  and wish to develop social relationships with him.  I felt that Dave’s depression would lessen when this occurred, and that he would continue develop greater self-esteem and self-confidence.

© Copyright 2011 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Suzanna Hoang

    Suzanna Hoang

    August 8th, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    This is exactly how I feel. I’m a high school student, and although I have friends, they never seem to want to be around me. They like to talk to me (when i can actually think of something to fill in the awkward silence with), but if there was someone else in the hallway, it would be them over me. And I would stand on the side and watch other people together. They would never ask me to hang out after school, and i would always see group pictures of my friends on facebook, and I would feel so left out. As if I wasn’t good enough. I tried to be like my friends and like what they like, but it doesn’t seem to work.

    My siblings always ask me why I don’t join a club or do anything after school. After seeing how high school works, students go with their friends and sign up with them. I have no friends to sign up with. I’d feel isolated if I did walk around at the club fair all alone.

    When you watch tv, the main character always has a friend he/she hangs out with during and after school. Life’s not a television show. It’s rough. Some people reminisce about high school, others like me will just be happy to get through it socially alive.

    I don’t understand it. I have friends whom I always sit with at lunch, but they never hang out with me outside of that. Even the people who also seem lonely at school are very active on facebook and everything. I dont get it. They have people to talk to and now its too late to find that one friend who will always be there for me. I’m two years into the school and everyone has already found their group of friends. I just need one true friend, just one.

    Maybe it’s not that simple and maybe it is. The only thing I can do is pray for the best. Life seems to like picking on me. Putting the weight on my shoulders while others stroll along. I don’t understand how life works. Nothing makes sense.

  • michael

    michael

    August 8th, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    these sort of issues can happen at any stage,be it a new school,college,workplace or even a new neighborhood.but it’s important to remember that nobody was born with friends,we all make friends.and if you are not able to find people like you then that is fine.but changing yourself to be accepted by someone is definitely not.

  • C WALTERS

    C WALTERS

    August 9th, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    Changing yourself and adoring to newer things and people is good.We all change throughout our lives.But when you forget who you are just to please someone else that is not healthy!If they don’t accept you for who you are then they definitely do not deserve the efforts from you to change!

  • Pauline

    Pauline

    August 9th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    Suzanna- you sound so sad! Too young to be this sad! Please talk to your parents or a counselor at school. They may have some suggestions for you on how to get more involved and to assure you that you are great and special just the way you are!

  • Sharlen

    Sharlen

    August 9th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    @Suzanna:Try and stick with people who are welcoming you for who you are. If these people do not give you importance then they don’t deserve any from you either. You need to be strong. It’s not about what they want all the time. No, friendship does not work that way.

  • Beverly Amsel

    Beverly Amsel

    September 24th, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    HI Suzanna

    I’m just back from vacation and read your post. Your experience sounds very painful and I agree with Pauline that it would be good to seek help. First speak with your parents if you feel they will be receptive. Second, find a counselor at school or if your parents will help, seek out someone in your community. I suspect you have a lot to offer to friends and you need help believing in yourself.

  • DC

    DC

    December 30th, 2015 at 8:35 PM

    This is actually the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I have to be *more* like myself, not less, if I want to be known and loved. Yikes. No wonder I got so depressed the moment I started thinking I had to “play well with others…” I was playing a game nobody actually benefits from. I also really want to give Dave a hug right now.

  • DC

    DC

    December 30th, 2015 at 8:37 PM

    I also don’t know if anyone else has read “Grover Goes to School”–I think it’s a readaloud on youtube. It’s this same story with muppets and kindergarten. I always cry when I listen to it now.

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