Lately the prospect of my high school reunion has stirred up some almost-forgotten memories. Like most girls I read the teen magazines and advice columns. A big issue then was popularity and all the articles said the same thing: “Be yourself.” That always frustrated me. I had no idea what it meant, no clue who I was.
Many of the most popular kids came from wealthy, socially prominent families. It seemed getting a new Corvette for your sixteenth birthday was a sure ticket. But since my family was barely making it, this way was closed to me. Several were very attractive and stylishly dressed, but some weren’t, so this wasn’t the whole story either. The one thing the “in” kids did have in common was social confidence. Most used this gift in positive ways, but a few couldn’t resist going for the “one up” feeling that undermining a peer’s confidence gave them.
I was morally idealistic and intellectually confident, but socially naive and insecure. I had the additional liability of having been traumatized by my parents’ divorce and my father’s death, and I was ill-equipped for dealing with anything other than the kindness and respect I had always received from my family. I found mean-spiritedness so confusing and appalling that I began to equate popularity with shallowness and callousness. Not wanting to be like that I stopped worrying about being popular and came to terms with living outside the inner circle. It was years before I understood that by honoring my values I was being myself. It was just that my self-doubt, self-consciousness and introverted tendencies made me difficult to approach.
Because of my inner-referential perspective, in college I joined the sorority that made me feel most welcome and comfortable. It was not one of the “best” ones. After marriage my husband and I didn’t join the church with the most status, but one whose uniqueness and diversity appealed to us. We bought a house in a fringe area instead of the “best” part of town. In those days we didn’t even know where that was! When friends were joining the Junior League I was getting my doctorate in Education. I didn’t think either direction was somehow better or worse; I was just following a powerful inner compass with little understanding why.
I taught college for ten years as an adjunct instructor, not a tenure-earning professor. When I finally accepted the truth that I didn’t love my job and wanted to write about the psychological and theological matters I found so fascinating, I had no professional credentials in these fields and belonged to no esteemed scholarly organizations. While this limited my range of potential publishers, it had the advantage of sparing me the in-fighting, criticism, and intimidation that so often characterize groups like this. As Carl Jung repeatedly pointed out, group membership requires a certain amount of conformity and nothing stifles authenticity and creativity more.
Humans are social creatures. We need families and friends who love us, and I doubt there’s a person alive who doesn’t enjoy feeling popular and sought-after. It’s just that we need to know who we are, who likes us for who we are vs. who just wants something from us, and when being “in” is beneficial vs. when it’s not. I have a sensitive, vulnerable soul and it’s very apparent to me now that the cost of youthful popularity could well have been devastating. When it comes to discovering my voice and following my passion, being an outsider has undoubtedly been one of the “best” blessings of my life.