The Upside of Being an Outsider

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

6 thoughts on “The Upside of Being an Outsider

  1. I had a wild imagination as a child so I’m sure I was a little different. Plus I am black & moved to a predominately white city. With the middle school & high school combined there were 3 black kids, including myself. So there were times were I defintely felt like an outsider.
    Great post!

    • Thanks very much for sharing your experience. I was talking to a friend recently, who is from another country, and she said that she is realizing that the feeling of being out of place that she had always attributed entirely to being an immigrant is also partly due to having been a gifted child. The overlaps are both complex and fascinating.

  2. I was always an outgoing kid, but that didn’t start to work out in the way you might expect until I was a sophomore in college. There was some disconnect between myself and most other kids.

    I remember that in fourth grade I was very fixed on the notion of the soul, particularly the separate nature of the soul and the body. All religious notions I’d been exposed to at that point, from the fundamentalist Christian perspective of the area to my own father’s explanation of reincarnation, had taught me that the soul and body were separate things and that the body was basically a pile of organs and meat carrying the soul around until you die. I remember wondering just how many variables fell into place to bring my soul into this body, in this place, at this time. It was possible, I thought, that my soul could have just as easily drifted into the body of a boy in Zimbabwe, or a girl in East Germany, or into a dog. It was a lot to take in, and nobody else my age wanted anything to do with it.

    • I know just what you mean! I remember spending a lot of time thinking about who I would be if I had been born to different parents, in a different place of time, and if I would be at all different. It would have been wonderful to have known then that other young people had the same thoughts. Thanks very much for your comment!

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