Learning to not fit in.
I have a really hard time with this. My first inclination is to want to blend into the background like a nondescript coat of paint. Like at work yesterday. I’m part of a working group tasked with developing a Marketing and Communications Playbook for the company I work for. Thing is: I’m new. I’ve only worked for this company for 9 months and never received formal training in the role I currently fill. That’s OK; I’m used to learning on the fly. But it’s NOT OK when suddenly it’s my job to make it seem like I know what I’m doing. Because I don’t.
My approach in life has been to pretend I know what I’m doing until I actually do know. But one thing you can’t fake is confidence. At least, I really struggle with this. For a writer, I’m really bad at expressing my opinions, backing them up, exposing myself to the criticisms of others. I just want my co-workers to like me. And it’s like I think they will if I just hold a really low profile and work hard.
It’s the conditioned South African girl in me.
Learning to live out loud. To justify your actions. To sound informed. On the conference call yesterday in which we discussed the first draft of the chapters we put together for the Playbook so far, I fell silent. I felt lost. I didn’t want to critique any one else’s contributions. I didn’t want to be critiqued. My comments were bland. I retreated into my tortoise shell.
One of my co-workers told me once that I need to learn to ‘bite, don’t nibble’. But I’m a nibbler. Biting is violent; it’s scary. I don’t like feeling scared.
I’ve developed so many skills over the years that have helped me survive but that no longer serve me. In fact, it hinders me now. My ability to blend in, for example. To keep my head low. I used it to great effect when my family uprooted itself and moved to South Africa. I was eleven years old and wanted nothing more than to belong. But what do you do when fitting in means losing your identity? All I had truly known up til then was Canada. And I missed it terribly.
I loved the snow and what it represented – freedom. The Rocky Mountains were etched into my heart, as were the dense pine forests, the smell of them, where my father took us camping each summer. I loved my time in Canada – it was all I knew. But I wanted to be proud of my South African heritage too. Cognitive dissonance. I coped by holding onto a few small Canadian details – my accent when I spoke English, for instance. These became integral parts of the identity I was still in the process of constructing for myself.
But mostly I pretended that it wasn’t hard at all, making new friends. The teachers seemed nice, overall, but scary. They had rulers they used to hit us with when we disobeyed. They saw in me a malleable, smart little girl and they expected me to perform well in school. And I did, for the most part. Except, strangely, in Art. The art teacher and I just didn’t see eye to eye about anything. I used to love to draw pictures of the Rocky Mountains and the sun’s rays beaming across the ocean. She had no use for my drawings; said they weren’t realistic.
Look at the sun, she said. Can you actually see rays coming out of it? The answer, I knew, was no. Then stop drawing what you don’t see, she said.
I can appreciate the poetic truth of what she was saying now, in my adult age. It’s a powerful lesson in seeing: to capture what you see rather than spew what you’ve been told to see. But as an 11 year old I felt crushed. Because I loved my drawings and used them to express my moods even if they weren’t factually accurate. It felt like she was telling me that my feelings weren’t valid. What she said: paint what’s real. What I heard: don’t dream, don’t imagine, don’t be you.
Learning to not fit in? What it means to me now is to be comfortable with my strangeness. To embrace being wrong at times. Oh how terrified I have always been of being wrong!
And it’s learning that what motivates me, isn’t what motivates others. Like the other members of the Playbook team. One fellow in particular, Nick – he’s ambitious, opinionated, and has a high opinion of himself. He also happens to work hard. I need to let go of the need for him to like me. Because he clearly doesn’t respect me. That’s OK. I still am allowed to have my opinions. I still am allowed to draw my mountains, my sun the way I damn well please.
Even if isn’t totally realistic. We need more freedom to imagine anyway.