Having grown up in several different places and gone to many schools, I learned that no matter where I was, I did not fit in. My differences were problematic for manifold reasons: for being Asian in a white environment, for being not Asian enough for other Asians, for being too outspoken or even for being an academic achiever. One of my earliest conscious social experiences was the clear message that there was something fundamentally flawed about me. As a child I simply accepted the assessment that being different was basically the same as being less than others, and internalized a pervasive feeling that I could be better.
My social life was marked by repeated failures, ranging from the common, like being ridiculed for my hair, to more elaborate cruelties, like being stood up by my friends. When I was 10 years old, I was so excited to have a date to bicycle to ballet class with two friends. We were finally mature enough to get around town on our own. I anticipated their imminent arrival at the appointed time and place. Alas, 10 minutes after the rendezvous time, it was clear that I had to go by myself or be late. As I was pedaling up a hill, I glanced at the public bus making its way lazily along and saw those girls peering at me through the rear window. It was a crushing blow.
My parents added fuel to the fire by squarely blaming me for having inadequate social skills. They even predicted that I would never have friends. All this left me feeling that I was on the outside, looking in. I was somehow both a part of my immediate environment, and yet also inhabiting an entirely different reality in a parallel universe. There was a sense that the outside informed me who I was; the projections and expectations of other people dictated how I presented myself in public. Over time I took a defensive stance in all social situations and became my own hardest critic.
With each move to a new city or a new school, I became better practiced at adapting to new environments. There was always the promise of a new beginning, a potential for safety and feeling accepted, but the moves actually reinforced my fears and suspicions. I learned to be cautious with everyone, erected a fortress around my heart, and turned into a control freak. I firmly believed that if I could control the externalities, then I would create a life without pain. I found comfort in doing everything myself so that I could be sure that everything went according to plan. And if it didn't, then I only had myself to blame. I distrusted the mere idea of asking someone else for help. My compass was rooted inside.
Being completely self-reliant is often isolating and lonely. But I found out that the act of looking inward was one of my strengths. Through the process of self-discovery, I saw that the solution to feeling unlovable was inside of me. I learned that I needed to be my own best friend and that the core of this friendship is self-love.
I also learned first-hand that good teamwork can bring the talents of numerous people forward in a mutually beneficial manner. In fact, being a part of a supportive community allows you to be your authentic self. People don't respect you for showing up like a cliché. They are more comfortable with you when you are comfortable with yourself and your choices. What makes me unusual is what makes me special. My uniqueness is revealed as my assets, as opposed to my shortcomings. Discover your own uniqueness and ask yourself how it can play a pivotal role towards your most optimal future. Choose to honor your own integrity and your own needs. Live your truth.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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