Some of us are not mainstream. We have grown up in parallel with those who are mainstream, watching them and generally wondering why we aren’t part of their group. Eventually we decide that our differences are badges of honour. In a crowd of misfits, we often compete to see who has the biggest badge, which often turns to cruel competition. This is at odds with our striving to belong and I believe it is something we should strive to overcome.
History is full of people using symbols of stigma as badges of honour. A great example that springs to mind is the Society of Friends, who refused to go to war because it contravenes their principle of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. This society were said to be cowards, quaking in their boots. They took on the name of “Quakers” in honour. Of course, the whole story is more complex than that, but the adoption of a difference as a badge of honour is still fairly accurate.
When we receive a stigma label like “mad”, “nerd”, “autistic”, “geek”, “homo”, “intelligent” and so on, we either crumble under the pressure, or we take it on as a symbol of our greatness in this specific area. Once we have redefined this stigma as good, we define the difference between us and the normal people as good. We then run into the common problem of accentuating the difference so that the difference appears greater, thus we are greater because of the perceived difference. While we are isolated, this is a good tactic to find some kind of worth. The more others reject us because we are different, the more we feel validated that we are different, and therefore better than normals.
Eventually we grow older and join larger and larger groups of people. From these larger groups of people, the ratio of our kind is often pretty much the same, or in some cases higher. In my primary school, there were about 80-200 children, and only a few of us, perhaps 10, were identified as nerds, fewer of us struggled with mental health, and so on. When I went to high school, the number of kids was increased to 1500, which elevated the number of nerds to 25. This is still pretty low. I had two different incompatible nerd circles that I bounced between of roughly 5 students in each, one group having multiple year groups. The rest of us rejected the rest and stayed isolated. I never did find anyone who was going through similar psychological and emotional issues as I was, but then again, you didn’t exactly advertise those kinds of differences, do you?
When I went to university, the ratio shifted a bit, as more and more nerds from many schools went on to higher education while many non-nerds didn’t. Still, the nerd clubs were fairly minimal in numbers. There were no mad clubs, there was a homo club and some other specialised groups. In effect, there was encouragement to participate in these groups to find like minded people.
Recall that part of the ego bolstering from our youth was to exaggerate the difference between ourselves and normals, that is, the bigger our difference, the more we are worthwhile in our niche? Consider what happens when all of these over inflated egos collide in a club. Someone has to be the biggest nerd, someone has to be the oddest one, someone has to be the gayest, someone has to … you get the point.
My introduction to such clubs was often an introduction to conflict. A competition to find out who is the “real X”, the “best X”, and who should just go away and stop pretending. Some of this conflict was from hazing, but mostly it was psychological bullying by individuals or groups of individuals as they tried to make you admit that you were worth nothing. Those who made it in, would then complete the cycle by ensuring that the next group of new entrants would have to battle the same to get accepted.
What strikes me as odd is that we go to the groups to find like minded individuals, to finally belong to something and instead we are often attacked and forced to prove that we do belong to that elitist group. Shouldn’t we embrace our lost brethren and sistren with open arms, welcoming them home and providing a place of safety? Clearly that wasn’t my experience of these groups.
When I found myself in a group the second time I went back to high school, I adjusted the group to accept anyone who wanted to be part of the group. Wanting to belong, to participate was enough evidence of like mindedness for us. It worked very well. So far as I can tell, no one was rejected by us, only by self exclusion. It certainly took me by surprise that this open policy is not what was being practised by the members of these clubs.
It isn’t just university clubs that tend to do this, and it certainly isn’t an artefact of club life. I hung around the alternately gendered club at my second university and found nothing but inclusiveness. I spent most of my lunchtimes there for the last few years of my university. It took some of my friends from there quite by surprise when I introduced my girlfriend when attending a party – they hadn’t realised that I was straight. Beyond a surprise though, there were no issues with my continuing to take part in their club.
Yet differently gendered people aren’t universally accepting either. I counselled some lads who had come out and started to hang around gay clubs. They found the scene very ferocious, ripping them to shreds and destroying their confidence and ego. I asked some of my gay friends about this and they admitted that this is common. When I asked why it was done, they justified it as “well darling, if you can survive us, you can survive hets”.
This reminded me of one of the justifications that my brother had for being mean to me. He felt that I was too soft and so needed to toughen up. If he was mean to me, and I learned how to survive him, then surely normal people couldn’t make a dent on me. It wasn’t him that made me strong though, it was me. I was the one who realised that other peoples opinion was only a point of data, and not what defines me. When I realised that I am the one who chooses to feel and act, then another’s issues are not what defines me. This is what made me strong, not the punishment and survival process.
When you run a group for people who are different, who are nerds, geeks, homos, lesos, intelligent, depressed, and so on, then consider how to make the group inclusive, welcoming and non-competitive for the “I am the most different” award. Consider how to coach new people into an environment where who they actually are is more important than the stigma they have taken on as a badge. Remember to make the group what you were seeking, not what you were running from.
Most importantly of all, remember to be yourself, not your difference from the normal.