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It’s natural to want to be accepted by others.
It’s also natural to want to stand out as unique.
But it’s a fine line to walk between holding onto your individuality and feeling like part of a collective. Too far in either direction and you’ll either lose touch with others, or lose touch with yourself.
Sometimes, when we decide to choose to follow our own path, we’ll look back at the amount of people who stayed behind to pursue nearly identical routes and feel as if we’ve done something wrong.
This feeling can grow into a baseless guilt if you let it.
Guilt over choosing different, thinking different, being different.
I say baseless because there’s no real foundation to justify feeling this way. Other than the fact that your path simply isn’t the same as those around you, there’s no real reason to think you’ve somehow chosen wrongly or it’s in any way “bad.”
Yet, those who choose unique paths in life do so because they understand the benefits of figuring things out on your own. To them, it’s a matter of personal empowerment and individual growth. The crowd can be stifling for people like this and only serves to comfort hem when they need a break from their own pursuits.
Empowerment is found through remaining true to yourself through the onslaught of outside influence and evolutionary desires to want to fit in. This can have a paradoxical effect on us, though. We want to feel good about ourselves by standing out from the crowd, but in standing alone, we eventually end up feeling alone. And when we feel truly alone, we can feel just as bad as we did when we were drowning in the crowd. So, we seek the validation and approval of others, only to slowly feel suffocated by it all over again. Rinse and repeat.
Some people might not think they feel that bad when they’re alone. But solitude is entirely different than feeling truly alone.
When we set ourselves that far apart from the norm, it can feel as if our subconscious is telling us that we must have done something wrong to be cast aside from the safety of the tribe. There’s this lingering sense of guilt there, however small, that makes us feel drawn into changing who we are, so we’ll once again fit in and be “safe” from the danger of surviving by ourselves.
It’s akin to the different feelings of walking into a room full of strangers and walking into a room full of loved ones who are thrilled to see you.
Although we may be perfectly confident walking and talking among strangers or can always withdraw into our inner world if we have to, we all have to admit that it feels good to approach a group of people excited to see you, especially if you were craving interaction.
No matter how introverted or opposed to social interaction you may be, simply knowing and seeing there are people who care for you and want you around is enough to feel supported and safe. It’s enough to validate your desire to set yourself apart, because you know you have the approval of the small “crowd” you’ve decided to call your own.
It can be hard to remind ourselves that these feelings of unease and uncertainty about our decision to stand apart aren’t legitimate threats to our actual survival.
It’s simply a symptom of growth.
It’s a psychological signal in our minds that your environment is changing, therefore you must activate the parts of your mind that are capable of handling a potentially chaotic atmosphere.
The more we feel this way, the more used to it we become until it feels fairly normal to have low-level anxiety at all times. We’ve acclimated to the environment of change, but our bodies and minds still feel as if there may be danger lurking nearby.
If you’re the sort of person who is constantly trying to improve and learn and expand your experience, you may know the feeling I’m talking about. That excited nervousness of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Once you get used to it, you understand the benefits of mastering that state of mind as it can only help your personal growth in the long run.
However, this anxious feeling can turn on you if you don’t properly maintain it. It can bring a sort of guilt into your life that you may not have seen coming. It sort of hangs out in the background of your daily life and nags at you that you’ve done something wrong and should stop trying to be so different.
This is what happens:
- You decide to take a path in life that isn’t taken by many others
- You feel nervous and excited about your choice to be different.
- After making enough progress to feel confident in your decision, you check back in on the people and parts of your life you may have been ignoring.
- You see that you have a hard time relating to the same sort of things everyone else can relate to while you were busy with your personal journey.
- You question your decision and the path you’ve taken because it makes you feel alone.
- You don’t work as much towards your previous goals because of this lonely feeling.
- Eventually, because you’ve started slacking, you aren’t getting as much positive reinforcement from your personal goals as you once were, and also don’t feel as if you can relate to the people around you who aren’t doing what you’re doing.
- Guilt for your decisions grows.
- Shame even makes its drunken holiday appearance.
- Cue the existential crisis.
It may seem like an easy fix to simply find the people who you do relate to, whether on the internet or in real life, but it may not always be so easy for some people.
Feeling separate, alone, and isolated has a compounding effect. The more you get used to it, the more you gravitate towards more of it. Anyone who’s ever had depression can attest to this. The more depressed you feel, the more depressing things you tend to do which only adds to fuel to the fire actively burning all motivation for positive change.
I say all this because I’ve experienced it all before. I’ve felt isolated, felt separate, felt alone and depressed all while being surrounded by people who cared about me. All because of my decision to do just that — to be distinct, be unique, to be recognized in some notable way. However, along with these seemingly negative feelings, I’ve also gained a sense of strength, confidence, and resiliency due to the nature of going solo.
Although you may achieve the sorts of distinct traits you so adamantly seek, you also get the side effects of feeling cut off from the crowd. While this may induce some anxiety about our decisions, like I said in the beginning, it’s also empowering. It’s this empowerment we need to lean into and recognize as the main benefit of your decision to chart your own course.
You don’t need to dismiss or ignore the fact that at times you feel a bit uncomfortable or even guilty for making the decision to take a different path. Just because the feelings are there doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Setting yourself apart is purchasing the life of a True Individual: Anxiety Included.
It’s a package deal. You can’t have the growth and empowerment of forging your own story without also feeling the nervousness of uncertainty and occasional guilt over not doing what’s “normal.”
The thing I’ve found works best for alleviating some of this existential dread and paper tiger shame is to lean into the differences.
Don’t make a little progress on yourself and then just sit around feeling different and eventually bad about yourself for being so different with nothing to show for it. Keep going, keep building yourself. Keep finding out more and more that sets you apart until the things which once gave you so much anxiety about yourself are the things which give you the strength and confidence to handle the unexpected and chaotic.
Your differences are your strengths against the storm, not a conduit for the lightning bolt of loneliness.
When you lean into the things that set you apart and develop them beyond what you think is possible of yourself, you become a beacon for others.
Instead of feeling isolated from the comfort of the crowd, they now look to you as a source of inspiration and influence. They see someone whose resolve stood the test of time and whose unique nature allowed them to evolve into a new level of personal experience.
People gravitate towards that kind of personal power. It’s not something to be shunned, but revered.
Revere yourself. Revere your differences.
Fully lean into what sets you apart and let the rewards of your effort empower the very best parts of who you are.
In doing so, you’ll also be setting an example for others to do the same.