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Failing to Fit In As an Adult

Why does my adult life still feel like high school?

As a child, I liked to think of my shyness as a kind of precociousness. No one ever knew what I was thinking, and I liked it that way — it was like a big secret that I was keeping all to myself. I gave up on fitting in with my peers by the time I reached the 10th grade, and led a lonely childhood composed of myself, my secrets, and my time alone reading books.

It wasn’t as though I chose not to fit in. I’d tried time and time again to make friends, but my role as the quiet girl always prevailed. Back then, this worked for me because I was a solitary person to begin with. Now, as an adult, I can’t help but feel entirely strange and misfitted when I fail to assimilate in every workplace and social environment that I’m introduced to. It’s okay to be different, but it doesn’t feel okay to settle into the role of the quiet girl for the rest of my life. How do I (and people like me) find their niche in the social world despite years of never fitting in?

For some input, I began asking people for advice outside of myself. I reached out to my therapist, Carolyn*, and her perspective was clear and concise: my goals and values are different from those around me and that’s what sets me apart from them. I took a good, hard look in the mirror and thought about her lecture to me about deserving to feel valid and avoiding the pitfalls of trying to fit in.

After trying for years to live by the template of How to Win Friends and Influence People, I stopped myself and thought about my two jobs, one where I don’t seem to fit in well and the other where I blend in just fine. At the job as a school teacher’s assistant where I didn’t fit in, I was the only one who was educated and working on my higher education. Whereas the women at that job liked to chit chat about their husbands and kids, I’m unmarried with no kids. At the job as an SAT tutor where I did fit in, the people surrounding me were of my education level and had similar goals and priorities.

Did being cordial, kind, and socially graceful not matter when the people I was trying to fit in with were just too different from me? I even considered the fact that I was significantly younger than my coworkers at the job where I didn’t fit in so well. Those people were at different stages of life than I was. Our prerogatives didn’t match.

To reflect even further, I thought about the friends that I had gained as an adult compared to the quiet I’d sustained as a child. My once friendless existence had become a parade of friendships spanning over hard times and the trials and tribulations of young adulthood — friendships that were hardy and strong and loving. I had far more friends as an adult than I did as a child, and the friends I had in the “now” were of much finer quality than those fickle girls in middle school. If I was able to keep so many great friendships in my personal life, maybe not fitting in at work really wasn’t about me after all.

It did boggle my head a little bit when considering how different my friends were from me and how much older most of them were than me. Surely I was able to craft relationships with people who were different and therefore the difference between my coworkers and I wouldn’t stop me from blending in, right? I thought about how friendship is a mutual exchange of respect and trust and that things were more casual in the workplace environment.

For the longest time, I feared being unlikable. I thought that maybe there was something wrong with the way I dressed (too fashionable?) talked (too proper?) or carried myself (too low on confidence?). I blamed myself for the awkward silences in the break room and cursed myself for never being able to say the right thing to woo the clique of coworkers that I had to see and interact with every single day. I believed that there was something broken about me and that it was my fault.

Recognizing my therapist’s advice has been paramount in my newfound ability to not get too tangled up in the fact that I seem to be the only person who’s not in the “in” group at my job. The perspective that I just have different values than them has ultimately made me calm down and stop thinking so much about the entire situation and come to terms with the fact that I’ve committed no punishable offense by being quiet and reserved.

I know lots of other people who punish themselves for a failure to fit in, and if you’re one of those people, I want you to consider the things that you care about in life and juxtapose it to the things that the people you’re trying to fit in with care about. This will make all of the difference in making sure that you continue on your journey for happiness and fulfillment instead of bashing yourself for being different. Sometimes our differences make us more valuable.

If you’re anything like me and find yourself suffering from your introspection, my best advice would be to challenge yourself. Think outside the box and stop blaming yourself or wondering about what you’ve done wrong to be deemed different. Validate yourself and let yourself know that you deserve to feel good about the choices you’ve made, and that being yourself is a unique gift. Lots of things and people make us question ourselves, but at the end of the day we must search for answers both inside and outside of ourselves. We must discover confidence and remember that not fitting in can be a good thing, too.

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I write about all kinds of human experiences big and small.

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