Sometimes I feel like socializing is a foreign language. I’ve been studying this language for years and years, but I don’t think I’ll ever be fluent. I can speak without an accent a lot of the time, but I know it’s only a matter of time before I miss an idiom, before my native tongue slips out and I switch the order of the subject and verb, before people pause for just a moment to glance my way, tilting their heads ever so slightly, then continuing on with their conversation, one I’m forever trying to inhabit but never quite can.
I didn’t really fit in as a kid, but I was oblivious to this fact until around middle school, that beautiful period of life when life endeavors to teach you just how weird you truly are.
Or, more accurately, I knew I was different, but I didn’t know that it mattered.
Suddenly, my thrift-store style was no longer quirky and cute, as I had thought. I wore bright colors and crazy patterns and clothes as baggy as possible, because everyone else was getting boobs and I wasn’t, and I needed to hide the fact that I seemed to be the only girl who felt like bras were torture devices. (Once, my “best” friend at school went to snap my bra, only to find out it wasn’t there, and I discovered that the only thing more embarrassing than getting your bra snapped was having everyone know you weren’t wearing one.) I had a penchant for vests, because they hid my nonexistent chest quite well, and you can guess just how stylish vests were in the mid-1990s. Yeah.
All the other girls wore matching outfits purchased at the Body Shop at Miracle City Mall. Short shorts that showed off their tanned, athletic legs. Tight tops and push-up bras. One girl, who stopped eating and threw up what she did consume, wore a tight purple top that showed off her perfectly flat stomach. Everyone marveled.
What I learned in middle school was that it mattered very much that I was different. The in crowd mattered. And I was not part of it. I learned this lesson through the loss of my best friend (the aforementioned bra-snapper). It felt like this: One day, we were in elementary school and we were wearing those “best friends” necklaces. Her family was mine, and mine hers. I don’t think a week went by without at least one sleepover. We went everywhere together, shared every secret, and loved each other like sisters. And then, we were in middle school, and she disappeared. Stopped returning calls. Just cut off all contact, pretended I didn’t exist.
I got it, pretty immediately. I knew why she had dropped me. She was part of the in crowd now. There was no spot there for me, and my presence in her life threatened her place on the inside. My lack of cool was tarnishing her image.
The lesson I did not learn then was that I wasn’t ever going to be part of the in crowd. So I did what any insecure, needy, anxious teenage girl would do. I set off on an intense, years-long self-improvement mission. Because something, clearly, was wrong with me, and I hoped it was something I could fix.
I dieted. I lost weight, got my own stomach flat (though I wasn’t allowed to wear midriff-baring tops, and I still wasn’t comfortable enough with my body to let go of the baggy clothes). I started wearing makeup. And then more makeup. I pretended that nothing bothered me. I got new friends, subsequently lost them, and told no one because I had no one to tell, just cried by myself in my room and doubled down on the project of Fixing Myself. I got straight A’s, until I got a B, and then I spent days crying in my room over my failure. I bought Readers Digest magazines at used bookstores for ten cents and poured over the articles about how to be a good conversationalist. About how to make people like you.
Flash forward. I’m in my early thirties and I’ve got a two-year-old who’s extremely sensitive. Sounds, people, smells. She notices everything, feels everything. And in reading about highly sensitive kids, I see so clearly that I was one, am one. I’ve always felt like I was a live wire, that I was missing some kind of outer protective shell that other people seemed to have. Because I notice things and feel things on a deep level, and I can’t ever seem to turn it off.
I’m reading The Highly Sensitive Person now (after having read The Highly Sensitive Child, of course). There’s this:
Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people—that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers.
(I promise this is going somewhere.)
The other day, I was at a women’s meeting at church, and I watched myself do what I always do, only now I felt I was watching someone else do it. It was so obvious to me who was in and who wasn’t in, who was in the “in crowd” and who felt out of place. The way people stood. The way they held their plates of chips. How they held their shoulders.
And then I did the next thing I always do. I shaped myself into someone who felt comfortable and at ease. I paid attention to my shoulders, to my smile, to whether I was holding tension in my face. I played the part. I switched into that language. I laughed, made other people laugh.
Because another thing highly sensitive people pick up on is what you want us to be, what it takes to make other people feel comfortable.
As the evening played out, I also picked up on all the in jokes of the in crowd, the shared memories they referenced, the way they so effortlessly seemed to click together. The warmth in the hugs they gave one another. I knew I wasn’t speaking my native language here. And they were.
I’m not sure where this goes from here, honestly. I’m trying to make friends in Charlotte, but it’s not easy for me, and it does not come naturally. As a mom, I’m supposed to be having play dates. But I don’t know what that means, or how to do it. What does one do on a play date? What do you bring, or wear, or talk about? Where do you go? What’s supposed to happen? I’m exhausted just thinking about all the things I don’t get about play dates.
But I’m also trying to learn to give myself the love, acceptance, and grace I was always looking for from other people. Which means giving myself permission to be just exactly the way I am—the quirky, weird little girl who doesn’t always know what she’s supposed to say and do, who has no sense of style, who isn’t cool and never will be. And that’s okay. Because, sweet girl, there’s more to life than being cool, and there’s more to you than being popular, and you don’t have to be someone you’re not. You don’t have to earn love. You don’t have to earn love. You don’t have to earn love.
I repeat it to myself. I love you. Funky little weirdo who doesn’t always get the joke but laughs anyway. Sensitive little thing, I love you. I love you.
I repeat it to myself because it’s true and I repeat it to myself because I want it to be true.