A Letter to the Misfit
When we mistake a system’s flaw for our own
“Time and again I tried to show up. I thought, ‘Surely they will include me at some point,’ but it never happened. I got tired of trying to belong, so I left.”
I’ve heard this three-sentence story many times in the last month, through conversations about women in comedy, women in technology, diversity and inclusion in organizations, and the immigrant experience here in the US.
The disconnect is so common, and so frustrating: “Hey, we hired them, we welcomed them, and we have no idea why they left,” versus, “I had my hopes up, but every day in a dozen small ways, I felt so ‘other,’ so outside.”
A female in a mostly male culture, an immigrant in American culture, a person of color in a world of white defaults, someone with physical or mental disabilities in a world that’s blind to them, a person for whom the heterosexual cisgender jacket never fit, a poet in a corporation, and so on: being “other” can feel isolating. Demoralizing.
So I thought I would write you a letter.
It sucks: let us count the ways
If you are different in a culture that doesn’t celebrate difference, it’s hard. Every human has a deep need to be seen, valued and respected. When we are brushed to the side, ignored, diminished or publicly shunned, it hurts!
You sit at a table with people you believe you belong with, but they don’t seem to see you. You feel left out, you feel lonely.
Others make plans that affect you, without consulting you. It’s demoralizing, as though you are a sturdy piece of furniture that supports the actors but can’t participate in the play.
You speak, but the conversation quickly drifts elsewhere. It’s painful. It’s as though the richness of your being wells up inside you like a wave, but with no beach to receive your words, they simply evaporate.
You offer ideas, but they are dismissed. It’s frustrating, like seeing someone push a porcelain tray off the table without noticing how it shatters on the floor.
You want to be seen. When this need is repeatedly negated, the feeling turns to anger. Anger pointed at “them” for not listening, anger at yourself for being unable to break the voice-dampening spell.
Because it sucks, you may start to believe you suck
As difficult as it is to be unseen and unheard because of your difference, there is a greater danger, a greater difficulty. You may begin to question your own worth, to believe that you are somehow deficient. This is an easy conclusion to come to. “If I am repeatedly disrespected, then maybe I am not worthy of respect.”
As a facilitator I hear this story from many, many people. Oppression is systemic, but the experience of it is individual.
Might it help if I tell you that your experience of rejection is what thousands of people are feeling in this day, not because they are broken, but because the culture they belong to has not learned to see and value difference?
What if you are really great the way you are? What if your work is not to convince them to see you, nor to change yourself into something they can see, but to value yourself and your contribution in the way that it ought to be?
But seriously. No. The opposite is true.
If I may, I’d like to remind you of a few things:
Your value is intrinsic. We learned as kids that our worth depends on outside approval. But ask the trees, ask God, ask your friends, ask the host of leaders and writers across the centuries: you matter because you are human. Learn to genuinely value yourself.
You are interesting. Especially because your interests lie beyond what the current conversations care for. Nurture your own curiosity.
You are powerful. You embody strength. Just look at how far you have come in a world that has so often treated you with hostility or dismissal. Keep your head high. You’ve made it here and you’ll keep growing in strength and conviction.
You are welcome in this world. No, you are needed. We need you. You, who thinks and acts outside the same old patterns. You, who sees the better world that is possible. Even if only a few have arms to welcome you, walk on, believe in your value and your work.
You are wise. Some hostility may strengthen your immune system, but an overdose can run you down. Discern your season, choose when you need to endure, act when you need to exit.
You are gorgeous. Just gorgeous. Everything about you thrills the people who have eyes to see you. May you too learn to revel and rejoice in this being that is you.
While we cannot always change the culture that we are steeped in, we can choose not to treat ourselves in the same way that the culture treats us. As we learn to approach ourselves with respect, kindness, curiosity and reverence, we can teach those around us how to treat us well. Truth be told, people who treat others with disrespect have probably never experienced the joy of really seeing and being seen. As Brené Brown says, “You can only give what you’ve got.”
I co-facilitated a workshop on women and gender minorities’ experience in the comedy world with anupama jain. One of the attendees left the stand-up world, fatigued by feeling like a misfit. After our conversation she said this: “I’m going to go back. I know it will be hard, but do you know what? The comedy world needs to hear my stories.”
She is damn right. Please go, walk tall and make yourself heard. Your voice and perspective are sorely needed. As you show up and speak, the people that need you most will be drawn to you like monarch butterflies to milkweed.