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When You’re an Outsider in Your Family

You may think you’re the only one, but many people don’t think they fit in with their families, feeling as if they’re on the outside looking in. You may have had this sense since childhood or developed it later in life as you’ve grown emotionally healthier. Either way, a sense of not belonging may be disturbing, but it’s normal and even healthy.

When we’re children, our families are our mainstay of acceptance and nurturance, all we have until we make friends and find other adults who can care for us. Oddly, clients who feel as if they’re outsiders with their families believe that there’s something wrong with them, although many are actually more mentally healthy than their families. It’s all in the perspective. Clients report that, unlike their parents or siblings, they were shy and introverted; creative or exceptionally serious; unconventional and non-conformist; curious, open-minded and inquisitive. When families aren’t accepting of members who are different, children grow up feeling as if there’s something wrong with them, that is, defective. Often, this identity carries into adulthood and they may continue to feel like an outsider with their families—and other groups—no matter how old they are.

Alternately, there are adults who felt as if they fit in fine with family as children, but who’ve changed so dramatically over time that they no longer experience that same sense of belonging. As mature adults, they even may wonder how they ever could have felt close with parents or siblings. We really cannot expect that just because we change, family members will change too. They haven’t lived our lives and had our experiences. Moreover, we may seek emotional enlightenment and growth and they may run from it, perfectly content as they are, just as we are happy in the directions we’ve grown. This shift, however, may leave us feeling sadly beyond the fold.

Not belonging can be especially difficult at family gatherings when we yearn to feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. We may wish for it because we used to have it or still long for what we never had. And we may eat to fill our sorrow, aloneness, and wrongly perceived sense of defectiveness. In truth, not fitting in may mean there is actually something very right with us. In terms of mental health, children who move away from their families often are more functional and emotionally healthy. Unrestrained by family norms and attitudes, these individuals have spread their wings and grown,. Away from family, they’ve created a way of life that suits them well and found friends and communities that share their values and opinions. So don’t worry if you no longer fit in with your family. Did you ever think that maybe it’s a good, even a great, thing?

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