When I was seven, I was the little girl wearing dresses and climbing trees. I wanted to be adventurous and cute at the same time (can you blame me?). In middle school, I started secretly raiding my mother’s closet and borrowing her scarves, headbands and purses. I remember getting on the school bus, and as soon as it turned the corner away from home, I’d think, “Coast is clear!” Cue the classic nineties makeup routine (i.e., lots of blue eyeshadow).
My Caboodles kit felt like my own personal paint set: the options for hair and makeup were endless. I couldn’t understand why others would make fun of me for wanting to be my very own Claude Monet. Didn’t they appreciate that waking up at 5:00 a.m. to do my hair a different way every day in the fifth grade took a ton of creativity?
In sixth grade, a good friend of mine, Suzy, decided to morph into Regina George from the movie Mean Girls. She began spreading lies about me to all my closest friends, and as naive eleven-year-olds, they, of course, believed her. Suzy successfully had her army of mean girls.
They began leaving mocking notes in my locker written in pastel gel pens. When they saw me walking toward them, they’d run to the nearest wall and make grotesque sounds as if I smelled. They stopped inviting me to friend gatherings and birthday parties and sleepovers (the thing every eleven-year-old lives for). They refused to let me sit with them at lunch. Eventually, I befriended the only other girl in our grade who also looked alone, Mindy.
I didn’t really understand it at the time, but now I realize how painfully misunderstood I felt.
Being misunderstood wreaks havoc on our core human needs: to be seen, heard and loved as we are. I didn’t see anything wrong with my passion for fashion or my desire to be a teacher’s pet, but because it wasn’t tailored to what everyone else thought was acceptable, or maybe even because others were even jealous, I was shunned, judged, teased and ultimately bullied.
Being misunderstood can be painfully isolating. It can feel like you’ve been hit with a viral plague that everyone wants to flee from—à la COVID-19. As the pressure to feel accepted heightens, instead of holding tighter to what makes you unique, you begin to resent it. You wish it would disappear as you become desperate to do anything to just simply belong.
As much as I loved fashion and beauty, the pain and loneliness of being an outsider were too isolating to bear, and I certainly didn’t want to go into the seventh grade being bullied. I decided to take a page out of Cady’s book from Mean Girls when she tried to gain entry into the Plastics; I resolved to act like everyone else in order to be accepted by them (even if that meant being everything but myself ).
I remember buying those three-stripe Adidas shoes, wearing my hair the “plain jane” way (RIP to all my funky hairstyles!), and getting an L.L.Bean backpack all to feel like I was one of them. I tried to apologize to Suzy — though I wasn’t even sure what I was apologizing for — and attempted to flood her with niceties.
This is what the pains of feeling misunderstood can do. We long for even a small semblance of acceptance and often sacrifice who we are for the sake of being what others want us to be, and it’s destroying us in the process. We might silence our voice for fear of judgment. We might change the way we dress or the way we look to conform to the status quo. We might sacrifice our love for the arts because everyone else says we should have a high-powered career instead. We might stop eating the foods we love so we can start looking like the skinniest girls around us.
The desire to belong and be understood manifests differently for all of us, but the inherent messaging boils down to one core concept. Being misunderstood sends a giant signal to our brains that screams, “You need to change to be accepted.” The hard part about feeling misunderstood and desperate to belong is that in some ways, we are pretty helpless. Despite all our efforts, we cannot force someone to see us and accept us. We have zero control over whether others receive us for who we are.
But what if it doesn’t matter what they think of us? What if it doesn’t matter if people understand the things that make us different? What if the real power lies in being able to see and embrace that we are welcome just as we are?
Because isn’t it true that God created us all to be different? And isn’t it natural that there are things that make us, us? For instance, whether that’s being an introvert or an extrovert. Preferring to visit a museum over going to a sports game. Jammin’ to Lecrae or solely listening to oldies. Being perfectly neat and tidy or tolerating a little clutter. For me, being a girly girl is part of my personality. It’s in the inherent DNA of how God created me. (And to clarify, I in no way think that just because you’re a woman, you should want to be super girly. That’s just the case for me.)
What if there were a way to truly see and embrace that we are welcome just as we are despite feeling misunderstood and rejected by others?
I believe there is, which leads me to ask the following:
- How do we find the courage to walk in self-acceptance in environments where people choose not to fight against their preconceived ideas or get out of their comfortable bubbles to learn more about us?
- How do we feel loved even when we don’t feel as though we belong?
- Where do we really belong, and is it possible to find that place for ourselves?
- Along the way, how can we accept (and maybe even anticipate) the hard truth that sometimes we might be misunderstood?
Finding my own sense of belonging has been a lifelong trek for me, and I am still in the midst of it. But what I know for sure is that if we don’t find a way to true belonging, the environments where people misunderstand us will crush our souls and potentially compromise our identities. I don’t want that for you as much as I don’t want it for me. I want you to know your inherent value and true worth regardless of whether others do.
And I’m positive that our amazing, loving, perfect Father (God in heaven) who crafted us just as we are wants that for us as well.
This is the journey to discovering our own true belonging.