If there’s one area of my work that I have a special interest in it’s working with people who feel like they don’t fit in or who find themselves rejected by the group. I wanted to start writing a series of posts on this subject because of the confusion and assumptions that we typically make in regard to outsiders and others who either isolate themselves or choose a more solitary path through life. The dynamics and tensions in our society that are at the bottom of the individual’s place in relation to the group are part of the foundation upon which we make choices in relation to others and, as such, is relevant to all of us.
Many of us at one time or another may have felt that we didn’t belong in a group of our peers: most often in adolescence when we are struggling to find our direction, who we are, what we stand for, and when others around us are wrestling with the same forces of social awkwardness; searching for where we belong before consolidating our worldviews as we find our chosen niche in society. But some people continue to search for their place long after others have managed to find theirs. They don’t tend to settle as others settle, instead questioning the choices, priorities and values adopted by others in the conventions of the social world or continuing to search for a group in which they can feel a sense of belonging or security.
Others have had their role on the periphery forced upon them through mistreatment or abuse and can often be labelled aloof or self-righteous with little or no justification. Some of these outsiders thus find themselves feeling unwelcome in groups that they might otherwise choose to be a part.
Many of the people I have worked with over the decades regularly experience society as aplace where they feel in jeopardy or if it were an exclusive club to which they don’t have a membership, or where the rules of membership are obscure and confusing. These people typically find it difficult to conform to the prevailing views and values of their time.
To some outsiders society seems to rely on codes of conduct, unspoken rules and group behaviours that feel foreign to their own way of being. Just as some of us might object to the values, compromises and behaviours required to succeed in the political, financial and marketing spheres of society, some individuals feel unable to find comfort in most societal groupings.
Outsiders can choose their role or have it imposed upon them. Here are some of the factors I have come across that seem to determine or characterise an outsider’s role, either by electing to choose such a role for themselves in relation to some or most groups of people, or as a consequence of the groups assigning the outsider role to them:
The Elected Outsider Role
- Early rejection by the child of the group’s scapegoating, shaming or neglect by family, school, peers etc
- Objecting to values, beliefs or normative behaviours of the group e.g. dissidents, whistleblowers
- Mistrust of group behaviour e.g. dissidents, abuse victims
- Socially phobic people (anxiety and fear around others)
- Genuine dislike of groups e.g. Charles Bukowski
- Unwillingness to submit to ‘authority’ e.g. independent, free-thinkers
- The need to rebel (define oneself by one’s opposition to something) e.g. teenagers, others in the process of defining their identity
- The need to feel ‘special’ or superior e.g. narcissistic individuals
- Low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness e.g. fragile, timid people or those with low self-esteem or poor self image
The Assigned Outsider Role
- Scapegoating, abuse or neglect by family, school, peers driven by an attempt to force conformity in the individual e.g temporary punishments, loss of priviledge or exclusions, seen in school, military and police culture
- Discrimination e.g. rejecting individuals based on race, colour, religion, physical and mental health status, age, immigration status etc
- Fear of changes to the group’s identity or status quo
- Exclusion via punishment of non-conformists e.g. dissidents, criminals, whistleblowers
- The dysfunctional group’s collective need to focus aggression, destructive envy or blame outside of itself via victimisation, bullying, harassment, sexual aggression, exploitation, social media etc
- The group’s reliance on a common enemy to ensure group cohesion and protection of group interests via the destruction of others e.g. military campaigns, police culture, political parties, social media etc
There can of course be a cross-over between assigned and elected outsider roles. Many people who have suffered abuse, neglect, bullying, harassment and other forms of ill-treatment end up choosing the outsider role out of a need for safety from further torments or risks to esteem. Others choose to ‘disappear’ in crowd conformity for the same reasons. I highlight the distinction between assigned and elected roles merely for the sake of analysis and discussion. Being able to clearly identity your role and the reasons and motivations involved in the creation of your roles – whether you chose them yourself or have them imposed upon you – can be a crucial first therapeutic step in liberating oneself from both the traps and pitfalls of group conformity and of an outsider role that may be limiting your ability to meet your needs effectively.
In Part 2 I’ll be looking at how we can evolve from this first step and its essential clarifications to developing more authentic and thus healthy ways of being in relation to groups and other individuals. Part of this development is consolidating one’s ability to consciously choose our associations or detachments, contact and withdrawal from others, rather than leaving it to chance or the whims of others.
Comments and shared experiences are welcome in the reply box below.