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Fitting in: Enough is Enough

You are probably expecting me to say that “fitting in” is a myth, that what matters is being yourself and not sacrificing your values and your authenticity for the sake of gaining approval. But before I offer that advice, which I inevitably will, let’s pause and acknowledge that we are in some sense wired to “fit in.”

Human beings are profoundly social creatures. We crave affection, admiration, and acceptance from others and this is not a bad thing. Our capacity to cooperate, coupled with the depth and complexity of our emotional lives is perhaps the essential evolutionary advantage that has carried us from our hunter-gatherer days to the days of Facebook and LinkedIn.

Furthermore, developmental psychology describes adolescence as a time in which the key learning and growth opportunities occur in the context of group identity, alienation, fidelity, peer pressure, and experimenting with new roles. In other words, asking oneself again and again, “Who am I? And do people like me?” I offer these frames of reference as a way of saying it’s perfectly normal to want to “fit in” and it’s perfectly normal to want to stand out. Between these poles of carving out a unique identity and finding our “tribe,” we come to an understanding of our own truth. It is truly a life’s work.

So what is fitting in? Is it being accepted by others? Do we have to be “like” other people to “fit in” with them?

Contemplating these questions brought me back to my own high school days when I wondered if I was popular (enough), attractive (enough), smart (enough), talented (enough). It’s that implied “enough” that captures one aspect of what “fitting in” means. But it can be hard to pin down exactly for whom we hope to be “enough.” For ourselves? Our parents? Our peers? Society?

When I read student essays, I often see this word “society” pop up as though there exists a set of monolithic standards, imposed on us all by a jury we call “society,” or sometimes “culture.” But the way I see it, who we hope to be and who we are change in the course of a single day, as we relate to others through our different roles: student, daughter, friend, wall flower, psychologist, stepmother, breadwinner. In other words, the jury is always changing. It changes many times in one day and infinite times throughout our lives.

Though the roles you play in life will evolve, you will always crave the acceptance, love and admiration of your peers, family, and colleagues. I can honestly say that at my age I do not worry about “fitting in,” but I do care about feeling connected, cultivating community and feeling a sense of belonging in myself and in the world. Experiencing a sense of belonging– to loved ones, in a chosen profession, within a community, whether that community is large or just a few close friends you can count on one hand, imbues life with a sense of purpose. The key is, to arrive at this place, to experience belonging as I have described it here, we have to cultivate compassion, not only toward others, but more importantly, toward ourselves.

This is why I have resisted the temptation to advise you to simply “be yourself.” I worry that even “being yourself ” becomes a new yard-stick against which we do or do not measure up. The best advice I can offer you is not to “be yourself,” but to be kind to yourself. You will change, you will make mistakes, you will wake up some days and feel confident, you will wake up other days and feel insecure, you will at times succumb to peer pressure, at other times you will find in yourself courage, resilience and inner strength that you did not know you possessed.

You can choose to look at these experiences through the eyes of an internal critic, who asks even of your accomplishments, “Are they enough?” Or you can choose to listen to the voice that says, “You are enough,” or as my own mother used to say to me: “You are perfectly imperfect just the way you are.”

Which brings me to the role that parents can play in helping children to navigate the minefield that is adolescence. Let me start by making an important distinction: helping your child cultivate self-acceptance is not the same as being a permissive parent. It is possible to have high hopes for your child and at the same time maintain an awareness that these hopes will not always come to fruition and that our own dreams for our children are not always the same dreams our children have for themselves.

In my role as an admissions counselor, working primarily with Cupertino area schools, I have to be honest and say that, more often than not, I see students who at this crucial juncture in their lives feel incredible pressure to become something that they are neither suited for nor deeply passionate about. They also feel compelled to apply to a long list of colleges with names that will impress rather than a short list of schools that represent the best fit for their personalities and interests. It has happened that I’ve seen a few students who are so focused on their future profession that I have no doubt they will be both successful and fulfilled in their careers, but it is understandably rare to encounter that degree of focus in a 16 or 17-year-old.

And the truth is, the indicators of future success that make me most hopeful about a particular student are not test scores, GPA or college admissions profile, but the student’s attitude toward life, toward set-backs, toward the influence of their peers, an ability to keep things in perspective. They are the students who have the capacity to listen to the voice that says, “You are enough.” And they can hear that voice because it is the internalization of a voice that has echoed throughout their lives, since the moment of their birth.

If I get really honest, brutally honest, I can also say that as a stepmom, I find it incredibly challenging to let go of the high hopes I have for my own beloved stepchildren. I know the deep urgency to protect and shield one’s child from the pain of failure. I know the shame and embarrassment of wondering what other people will think if my own kid doesn’t get good grades, or get in to school X —after all, it’s my job!

I also know that much of this fear has less to do with my children than it does with my own struggle to be kind—not to them—but to myself. What I can least tolerate in myself, I can least tolerate in others, including, and perhaps most intensely felt, in the others with whom I share my home and heart.

So my advice is both simple and incredibly challenging: be the voice of compassion for yourself and be that voice for your child, so that when peer pressure comes knocking in one of its many disguises, your child can say, “I don’t need to ‘fit in,’ I already belong and that is enough.”

Thank you for joining us for Wellness Month. Please check back next week for more information and advice from our Insight Counselor Sarah de Sousa. 

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A version of this blog post was first published in Lynbrook High School’s truth publication, Aletheia, Vol. 2(7)

Additional Resources:

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. This book was given to me on my 16th birthday by a mentor and has been a constant companion in my life ever since.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. The story we usually tell about childhood success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score high on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.

The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers do the Things They Do, by Lynn E. Ponton M.D. In The Romance of Risk, Dr. Ponton refutes the traditional idea that risktaking is primarily an angry power struggle with parents—so-called teenage rebellion—and re-defines it as a potentially positive testing process whereby challenge and risk are the primary tools adolescents use to find out who they are and determine who they will become. For adolescents, the powerful allure of the adult world is equaled only by the fear of failing to find a place in it. Parents can ease that transition into adulthood, however, by promoting healthy risk-taking so that dangerous options will be avoided.

Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson Ph.D. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and an Advisory Board Member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.

Greater Good Science Center http://greatergood.berkeley.edu The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. This website is full of educational and parenting resources, free webinars, links to many bay area events and excellent resources for teens.

Stanford School of Medicine Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) http://ccare.stanford.edu CCARE investigates methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society through rigorous research, scientific collaborations, and academic conferences. In addition, CCARE provides a compassion cultivation program and teacher training as well as educational public events and programs.

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