From John Holt, author, editor, and education reformer:

[F]rom the age of 11 I felt left out, and never more so than when I was in school. I think that for most children in our society the experience of growing up is an experience of being left out, partly because of our worship of beauty, wealth, power, athletic skill, etc.

Being an outsider was somewhat tough on me during my growing up, and I think I would have been better off if I had felt, and been, somewhat less left out than I was. But it gave me the independence and moral courage I needed to do things in my adult life that most people weren’t doing, to follow work that seemed important.

Did you feel left out as a child, an outsider, because you thought too much, cared too much, daydreamed too much, felt too much, were too much?

Do you see your children or children around you going through the same feelings and experiences? Does it make you ache for them, and does it dredge up old aches that you never really understood… until now?

The authors of Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure remind us that being “talented means, by definition, to be different. There is no way to escape the implication of this fact. Most parents hope that their gifted children will grow up without problems and with many close friends, passing smoothly through adolescence into adulthood. But this very natural expectation is not very realistic.”

Being an outsider can be extremely painful. For highly intense children, their differences are often internal rather than external, so adults may not notice their feelings of isolation nor understand why they can’t just “fit in” and be team players. Dr. James T. Webb explains in “Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults” how existential questioning of life’s big mysteries—life, death, suffering, happiness—leads even very young children to begin to feel the distance between themselves and others:

As early as first grade, some gifted children, particularly the more highly gifted ones, struggle with these types of existential issues and begin to feel estranged from their peers. When they try to share their existential thoughts and concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. The very fact of children raising such questions is a challenge to tradition and prompts others to withdraw from or reject them. The children soon discover that most other people do not share their concerns but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others’ expectations.

As hard as it is to watch children learn to accept their differences, whatever those differences may be, we can think about ways that our own experience as being an outsider led us to be more compassionate, more focused, more creative, more independent, or more courageous. Or, if they instead led us to bitterness and despondency, we can ask ourselves what we can do now to begin to grow in a different direction, not just for ourselves, but to be good models for our children.

Do you have a story of being an outsider? How does it affect who you are today?

First published at Everyday Intensity on May 13, 2010.

Photo credit: Cris Matei