“I’m always the kid, my nose pressed against the window, looking at everyone inside having a good time.” “I didn’t belong in my family, so why should I feel like I belong anywhere else.” “I may be included but I never really feel like I belong.”
These tales of exclusion, still holding the sadness of the original experience, are the voices of those individuals who have shared the deep loneliness and isolation they felt – and continue to feel – as outsiders. The experiences of not belonging in childhood tend to have the most powerful and long-lasting effects. They can include:
The child who is physically and/or emotionally different than all other members of the family: Stacy was fair, blond and blue-eyed in a family where all members had dark hair and heavier bodily frames. Emotionally she was independent in a community in which female members were docile and compliant as was fitting their cultural norm.
The child who represented to a parent an individual whom the parent deeply resented: Jan had a strong physical resemblance to her maternal grandmother whom Jan’s mother had experienced as a rejecting and neglectful parent. Jan became the object of the deeply buried anger and resentment that her mother never expressed as a child, but was now directing toward her own child.
The child who is rejected by a parent because the emotional nature of the child, as it resonates to that parent, echoes the same emotional nature that the parent had rejected in themselves: Bill’s father was known as a shrewd and ruthless entrepreneur and was extremely successful in amassing a large fortune. He was overly generous to family members – but consistently ignored Bill.. This dynamic changed when the father became ill and turned to Bill for support and comfort. The father, needing to be a “macho man” had rejected Bill because the son reminded the father of that emotional part of himself that was “soft and vulnerable – the girlie part.”
The child who is physically and/or emotionally abandoned because the parents blamed the child for being born. Bevin was increasingly a problem in school and referred to therapy. His acting out behavior became clear when his parents were asked about their marriage and why they had decided to get married. Both turned toward Bevin and, with anger and resentment in their voices said “Him.” Fifteen years after the mother had gotten pregnant at seventeen, both parents were still blaming him for their having to get married.
Other possible scenarios include: ones’ family being different from the economic and cultural norms of the community in which the family lived; family secrets that require family members, particularly the children, to be guarded against revealing the secret, resulting in being experienced by others as an outsider; the child who is caught in the merry-go-round marriages of the parents; the effects of long-term bullying during school years which tend to ostracize the bullied child. Regardless of what caused the child – and ultimately the adult — to feel like an outsider, the emotional cost is one of deep loneliness and of never belonging.
The poet, Mark Strand, captured these feelings in the opening lines of a poem that begins: “In a field, I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am, I am what is missing” (Keeping Things Whole).
If you have felt that wherever you are — you are always what is missing – spend some time evaluating what were the issues of your family and how they might have affected you. Recognize that, as a child, you might have been unable to understand the adults in your world and, thinking in egocentric ways as children due, assumed the negativity and/or confusion in the interactions were due to some failure in you. Ask yourself if you continue to approach those situations offering belongingness with caution and even fear which can result in the experience of belonging continuing to remain illusive.
Take stock of what you really enjoy doing, what your passions are, what your interests are, what kind of people offer you a “goodness-of-fit.” Then give yourself permission to pursue the activities and the people to find the place and group that offers you a true sense of belonging.