Sometimes, we grow up and look at the family we came from and we are filled with fondness and a sense of likeness, and there is a spirit of camaraderie and similarity – and we looks at the faces of our people and know that with them, we are home.
Sometimes, we have a person in our family who we connect with better than others. A sibling or parent who really “gets” us, and we look at them – and in spite of maybe not connecting quite as easily with other members, we know with this person, we are home.
Sometimes, we look at our family and find this fondness and affection and similarity in all but one person. The majority of the family may share a lens and a way in which they experience the world, and then there is the other. In spite of the differences with that one person, with the rest of our family, we are home.
And sometimes, we look at our family and see something we don’t recognize. People who act or think or explore and experience the world in a way that seems entirely foreign and not at all familiar. We see these people we share roots with, and yet feel as though we are an entirely different species. We look around at our closest kin, and we are lost.
Sometimes the last category of folks finds their way to a counselling office. I see a fair number of them. People who have grown up in families that don’t seem to quite fit, and they enter adulthood unanchored and in some instances – profoundly lonely.
Unfortunately not every person is born to parents who “get” them. Some of us happen to share a lot of similarities and interests with the people who raised us – but some of us are outliers, bucking family traditions and trends, pushing the limits of what is acceptable or normative, and being different in a way that can be socially ostracizing in our families of origin.
And this sucks. To feel like you don’t belong in the place you would ideally belong more wholeheartedly and unreservedly than any other, that’s painful. And it hurts. And can undoubtedly leave an outlier feeling like there is something wrong with him or her. For many who are markedly different in personality, temperament, or perspectives than most of their family there are reports of being punished, exiled, or shamed into changing as a result of the differences in ways of being. Being different was seen and felt as something negative, something bad, something to fix or change or avoid.
Let me jump in here to say to the outliers among us: there’s probably nothing wrong with you. It may be that you landed in a mixmatched family. Which totally blows, and it can be painful – and for some, even a traumatic experience to feel so chronically misunderstood and isolated.
To this end, I want to say a few things to parents who are parenting an outlier, and then offer a few points to those who may identify as one on the periphery of their family at this present moment.
- You are not owed children who live and breathe and think and engage in the same ways you do. There are no guarantees that your kid will like sports like your husband, or be artistic like your wife. You may be confident parents with an anxious, introverted kid. Sure, it’d be easier if your family naturally had a shared narrative and all loved the same stuff. But that’s not a right. You also don’t have a right to try and make them into miniature versions of yourself.
- It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in the same stuff as your kid. It’s time to get interested in it. A bit at least. And not because you care about Minecraft, or the Blue Jays, or the names of the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance. You need to get interested in it so your kid can know that you are interested in who they are. And if you have siblings who also struggle to connect with an outlier, this is super important – because you are teaching their siblings that you put work into relationships with people. You invest. You engage. Even if it’s not always easy.
- Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. If you are parenting an outlier it’s going to take some work to find ways to connect with them. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. We don’t have kids because we’re interested in leading comfortable lives. Shoot…waking up 34 times a night, getting doused in bodily fluids, dealing with temper tantrums…discomfort should ideally be our jam by now. Figuring out how to engage your outlier is going to take work, but so has the rest of parenting. It’s just a different kind of work. Don’t leave the discomfort all to your kid, and expect he/she to conform to your standards and expectations. Take initiative and step out into the uncharted and unfamiliar territory your person occupies and see what happens.
- Recognize that your outlier has likely lived with some level of pain because of the ways in which he or she is different than the family majority. It is quite likely that your loved one has created a story about their differences being undesirable, unlovable, and not okay. When we are disconnected in relationship, our brains can’t help but create narratives to help us understand why this might happen. Validating and acknowledging the distance and difficulties in connecting, and making space to be compassionate with the hurt and loneliness of that experience for your outlier can be a good starting point. As can owning your own piece in it – be it your ignorance, lack of effort, lack of creativity, or the ways that your outlier has triggered your own parenting shame. Please don’t blame your person for being different as a reason you couldn’t connect.
If you identify as an outlier…
- Please know that you are okay. Just because you may not fit in your family doesn’t mean you don’t fit somewhere. It has likely been painful and difficult to try and find a place. I’m sorry if it’s felt like there’s no room for you in a place that you on many levels are ‘supposed’ to belong.
- Recognize that different isn’t bad. It’s just different. Your family can’t help the way they are, just as you are uniquely you. Both are okay. But they just don’t seem to mesh. Resist the temptation to see the other as negative or bad. Make room to accept your own unique qualities – and the things about your family that make them different.
- Find common ground, and find your tribe. You typically only get one biological family. It’d be great not to write them off because connecting takes more effort than you’d like. Be gracious, and try with them to find some common ground and shared experiences that you can connect around. There will likely be only a few areas this happens; you won’t get total connection, but we’re simply shooting for some rather than none. Recognize that it may be your chosen family that most deeply satisfies your needs for belonging and where connection feels most natural. Finding communities where you feel seen and understood is important to ensuring that loneliness and disconnection don’t cause havoc in your life.
- Don’t do all the shifting. It can be tempting to be overly accommodating and to try and take the shape of others in your family, so you can fit in and connect in a way that feels better than utter loneliness. But it’s not fair that you do all the work of accommodating others; step out and invite others to shift towards you. Ask others to be uncomfortable and out of their familiar shape for once. It’s okay to have others bend towards you, and make room for your family to connect around things you find meaningful or important too.
Ultimately, connection is work. In friendship we can gravitate to those we most closely resonate with and with whom the least amount of effort is required. We often find a tribe that is relatively easy to be with. But family is different. We don’t get to choose, and so for some of us – that means more effort is required.
Hopefully with some intentional work, and perhaps some honest conversations and apologies, a new expectation around connection can be forged – and slowly steps towards the other can be taken in such a way that the circle expands so that all members of a family can feel like they belong.