5 May 2018

What is wrong with fitting in?

When I had been in New Zealand for about five years I was compared to another English migrant who “didn’t fit in as well as you do.” This got me thinking. I had worked hard at fitting in. I had listened more than talked with my husbands' friends and family, I had stopped telling jokes that had shocked, but still  laughed at jokes I didn't understand, I could even name most of the beloved All Blacks rugby team. I had tried to fit in as much as possible. I had  completed all the requirements possible to be an acceptable New Zealander. And yet I wasn’t. I felt like an observer, the polite guest who could only share my opinions in a guarded manner.  I had been trying too hard to fit in. I feared being a perpetual outsider.

A few years later I decided I am not nor will ever be a New Zealander. I am an English person who is enjoying living in New Zealand. I was different. I was an outsider, but that was okay. 

BrenĂ© Brown, one of the world’s greatest influencers in the realms of leadership and change, studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her TED talk is one of the five most-watched TED talks in the world. In an article Brown wrote for Oprah.com, Brown explains the difference between fitting in and belonging:

"In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.
Many of us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, (Take it from me: I'm an expert fitter-inner!) But we're not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking."
Many communities have a quirky member. In You don't need to fit in to belong Jenny Lind Schmitt describes a member of a Swiss village that is different to the rest of the community, but adds a colour and vibrancy to the community. Madame Cardozo doesn't fit in, but does belong. It was suggested by Schmitt that it was time that made Madame Cardozo belong.

It took time for me to feel a sense of belonging. The belonging came through work, the contributions I made to my community, reaching out for a support network where help was able to be given and received, being a parent of children growing up in New Zealand, volunteering in my children's schools, sharing life events with friends and my husband's family, being part of a church. Anywhere where my contribution or potential contribution was valued, that was where I felt a sense of belonging.

As a migrant, you will be different. It is likely that you will try to fit in, especially in the early years. This may be for survival mentally or physically. What is wrong with fitting in? There are levels of fitting in that are unhealthy. You need to be aware of the uncomfortable feeling that you are over-compromising yourself, 'twisting yourself into a human pretzel' just for the sake of fitting in. Will you feel a sense of belonging if you haven't been revealing your true self? Brene Brown thinks not.
Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.-Brene Brown

There will be a time when you will be accepted into your community. It will be the time when you, and your differences are recognised as providing a positive aspect to the community; the food you bring, the volunteering, the fresh insights, the comparative opinions, the acknowledgement that there is another way of being or doing that is not wrong, your artistic talents. (See a previous blog 12 Reasons why migrants make good artists.) At this time you will feel and enjoy the sense of belonging in your host country. Enjoy that feeling and be glad that you didn't sell yourself out too much when trying to fit in.