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Child Development

On Being the Outsider

Being excluded has lasting effects.

“I’m always the kid, my nose pressed against the window, looking at everyone inside having a good time.”

“I didn’t belong in my family, so why should I feel like I belong anywhere else.”

“I may be included but I never really feel like I belong.”

These tales of exclusion, still holding the sadness of the original experience, are the voices of those individuals who have shared the deep loneliness and isolation they felt—and continue to feel—as outsiders.

There can be a number of basic scenarios that result in an individual being caught in a state of outsiderness but the experiences of not belonging in childhood have the most powerful and long-lasting effects. They can include:

The child who is physically and/or emotionally different than the other members of the family: Stacy was fair, blond and blue-eyed in a family where all the members had dark hair, dark eyes and heavier bodily frames. Emotionally she was independent by nature, an “I’ll do it myself” kind of kid, in a community in which the female members were docile and compliant, as was fitting their cultural norm.

The child who represented to a parent an individual whom the parent deeply resented: Jan had a strong physical resemblance to her maternal grandmother, a woman Jan’s mother had experienced as a rejecting and neglectful parent. Jan became the object of the deeply buried anger and resentment that her mother never expressed as a child, but was now directing toward her own child.

The child who is rejected by a parent because the emotional nature of the child, as it resonates to that parent, echoes the same emotional nature that the parent had rejected in themselves: Bill was consistently excluded in participating in family outings by his father for no understandable reason. Father, seen as a shrewd and ruthless entrepreneur, had been extremely successful in amassing a rather large fortune and owned a plane that represented his success. Although other members of the family were invited on the plane, Bill was blocked from being one of them. This unusual dynamic took a twist when the father became very ill and turned to Bill for support and comfort. The father, needing to be a “macho man,” had rejected Bill because the son reminded the father of that emotional part of himself that was “soft and vulnerable—the girlie part.”

The child who is physically and/or emotionally abandoned because the parents blame the child for being born. Bevin was increasingly a problem in school and referred to therapy. His acting out behavior became clear when his parents were asked about their marriage and why they had decided to get married. Both turned toward Bevin and, with anger and resentment in their voices said,“Him." Fifteen years after the mother had gotten pregnant at seventeen, both parents were still blaming him for their having to get married.

Other possible scenarios include: ones’ family being different from the economic and cultural norms of the community in which the family lived; family secrets that require family members, particularly the children, to be guarded against revealing the secret, resulting in being experienced by others as an outsider; the child who is caught in the merry-go-round marriages of the parents; the effects of long-term bullying during school years which tend to ostracize the bullied child.

Regardless of what caused the child—and ultimately the adult—to feel like an outsider, the emotional cost is one of deep loneliness and of never belonging. I was moved watching a recent video of Pete Townshend of The Who on CBS Sunday Morning talking about the deep hurt he still feels at being abandoned by his parents.

The poet, Mark Strand, captured these feelings in the opening lines of a poem called "Keeping Things Whole" that begins: “In a field, I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am, I am what is missing."

The psychological importance of belonging is a theme that runs through much of psychological literature. Evolutionary theory places belonging to a group as an essential factor in survival. The power of the tribe is well documented and the past power of tribal living is still evident in many parts of the world.

Early theorists placed strong emphasis on stages of human development. Erik Erikson saw the stage of basic trust vs. basic mistrust as a necessary development in a child’s ability to establish a sense of identity, supported by a sense of belonging. The key is the quality of the maternal relationship, the ability of the mother to project a sense of trustworthiness and a bond of true connectedness. Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, suggested that belonging was a necessary human need, a factor for human development, and a major source of human motivation.

Donald Winnicott, in his paper “On The Capacity To Be Alone,” postulates that a child develops the capacity to be alone when allowed to be alone in the presence of the mother. The mother acts as that crucial other that the child is still attached to, even as the child begins to develop the capacity to be alone—an antidote to loneliness.

A more current theory that develops a similar theme is attachment theory, associated with John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. According to this theory, the quality of the attachment bond between the mother and her infant acts as the basis for the child’s ability to form future attachments. Those children who experienced secure attachments as infants are more likely to deal with episodes of not belonging in ways less injurious to their sense of self.

You’ve now read examples of being an outsider, read the importance of issues relating to how you were treated as a young child, and probably feel the feelings you had if you had ever experienced being the one with your nose pressed against the window looking at the happy group inside. Now is the time to begin to learn what you can do to start breaking free from the long reach of your childhood and how it had impacted your ability to feel a sense of belonging.

Spend some time going back to what the issues of your family were and how they might have affected you. Recognize that, as a child, you might have been unable to understand the adults in your world and thinking in egocentric ways as children do, assumed the negativity and/or confusion in the interactions were due to some failure in you, not the other. Do you sense that you experienced a major wound because of a failure to connect to an important attachment figure? Ask yourself if you continue to approach those situations offering belonging with caution and even fear which can result in the experience of belonging continuing to remain illusive and another potential future disappointment, reinforcing then your original disappointment.

Do you feel that you might have been caught being the outsider because of some limitation in developing the capacity to be alone—that capacity Winnicott wrote about that develops when a child experiences aloneness in the presence of a supportive “other?" It may be valuable for you to examine this idea as it relates to your life. And equally important would be for you to develop positive, supportive “others” who could offer you a sense of “presence.” In this regard, a trusting relationship with a therapist can be a valuable assist.

Take stock of what you really enjoy doing, what your passions are, what your interests are, what kind of people offer you a “goodness-of-fit.” Then give yourself permission to pursue the activities and the people to find the place and group that offers you a true sense of belonging.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever, including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And I hope the feelings of being the outsider fade and you move from outside the window to the center of the room.

More from Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.
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