When I was younger I wished that I could have brown hair, be called Sarah, and have a father who drove a Ford rather than a series of flash cars that made everyone look at us.
I also wished that one day all my freckles would join up so that I would, hope against hope, get a tan like my friends did.
‘How long would it take for it to happen?’ I’d ask mum. ‘If I spent a week on the beach? Or a month? Or a whole summer?’
‘Marianne, it doesn’t work like that. And anyway, we’re in Ireland. We’ll be doing well to get an hour of sunshine,’ she’d say, while we sat on Ballybunion beach in the wind and rain, eating sandy egg sandwiches.
‘But what if we moved to Australia?’ I’d beg. ‘Could it happen then? And would my hair go blonde? If I used lots of lemon juice? And could I change my name to Melanie, or Sarah?’
Melanie was very popular name at the time – as was Sarah. There were 5 Sarahs in my class – Sarah S, Sarah T, Sarah W, Sarah B and Sarah J. If you were a Sarah you were golden – you fitted in. You were normal.
And that’s what I wanted more than anything else – to be ‘normal’.
It never happened.
We didn’t move to Australia, my freckles didn’t morph into a tan, my hair remained stubbornly red, and my name stayed the same. On the upside skin cancer got me over the tan obsession and the big cars did go – but I never did get to that feeling of being like everybody else.
I went to university and felt more stupid than everyone around me. I got a job in a newspaper and pretended to be tough while going home and reading self-help every night. I went to weddings and smiled and danced while secretly knowing I would never have a day like this…
I never did get to the point where I fitted in. I might have looked like I did – but I never felt it.
It’s only recently that I’ve realised that actually a lot of people feel like this.
Last month my friend Marianne Cantwell gave a TED talk.
Marianne has built up a very successful online business, has written a best-selling book and made her name being what’s called a ‘digital nomad’ – someone who works from her laptop on beaches in Bali. She’s the kind of person I’d hate if only I hadn’t met her and found her to be lovely. (It’s the name).
But her talk was not about running a billion dollar business in between yoga classes in Bali, it was about The Hidden Power of (Not Quite) Fitting In.
In it she introduced me a new word: LIMINAL. Have you ever heard it before? Apparently it describes that state where you don’t feel like you ever fit into one group. Or one job. Or even one country. Again, you might LOOK like you fit in but inside you know you don’t.
And so you spend your time trying to iron out the kinks or hide the bits of you that don’t fit the mould. The bits that you think make you weird, or different, or weak.
But this is a mistake. A big mistake.
Marianne gives examples of people who have used their quirks and eccentricities to make them who they are, including the conference organiser who had no patience to sit through talks… a bit of a technical hitch, you’d imagine, to be a conference organiser who doesn’t really not like speeches…. but it turns out it wasn’t. This man created a conference where each talk could only be 18 minutes. That conference went on to become TED.
Marianne says ‘It’s always the pieces [of ourselves] that we are tempted to keep in the shadows that turn out to be our edge.’
And she’s right.
I’ve realised that all the quirks I wanted to iron out ended up being my best bits.
The crazy red hair I used to hate helped me stand out at work. The eccentric childhood made me think about the world which, I hope, has made me a better writer. The self-help addiction – well, it ended up with this, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done (minus the whole not washing/leaving the house/breakdown bits).
The older I get the more grateful I am that I never did find a way to fit in, or be ‘normal’ – because when you stop trying to do that you become something better – you become yourself.
If you want to be inspired please watch Marianne’s video.
And when you do – let me know what you think.
Mostly I’m wondering does ANYONE feel like they fit in? Or are normal? Is this a myth?
Sign up for sporadic updates from self-help land and life in general, including details on upcoming talks and events. Promise not to bombard you.