Feeling different and out of place? How to overcome feeling like an outsider


Belongingness is a basic human emotional need that can be traced back to prehistoric times when our ancestors lived in tribes; back then, fitting into a tribe made the difference between survival and death. We may not live in tribes anymore, but we still have an inherent need to fit in, to feel accepted within a group, whether that’s family, friends, co-workers, or a religion. These modern groups are the equivalent of tribes and, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, feeling like we belong to them is a major source of motivation. Along with physiological needs and safety needs, belongingness is at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


When it doesn’t happen, when we feel different, out of place, isolated, and outsiders, that can take a heavy toll on our mental health. It can affect our self-esteem, and the way we interact and connect with others, and limit our opportunities in life.


If this sounds familiar, you may wonder: Why do I feel different? How can I stop feeling like an outsider?

Why do I feel different?

Quite often, people who feel different from their peers are not as different as they imagine. The feeling of being “the odd one out” usually starts in childhood, when certain experiences made you stand out. For example, maybe you moved home multiple times, you were always “the new kid”, and this prevented you from making lasting emotional connections. Or maybe your family came from a different cultural or religious background, which made you stand out. 


Childhood emotional neglect is another reason why you may experience feelings of isolation and inadequacy in adulthood. Growing up with parents that did not meet your emotional needs can lead you to believe that your feelings do not matter and that you shouldn’t bother anyone. But while this can help the child survive in a family that’s not welcoming of emotional displays, it can become problematic in adulthood, when expressing your emotions is key to making new connections. Being emotionally neglected as a child can give you the feeling that you’re on the outside looking in, and that you don’t quite fit in, not even when you’re with friends. 


This feeling of inadequacy can manifest in different ways: 


  • You feel isolated and alone. You want to make new friends and long for emotional connections, but when you try to reach out, you don’t know how to express yourself, which makes you feel awkward and self-aware. As a result, you end up isolating yourself even more. 
  • In social situations, you feel like you stand out in a negative way. For example, you may feel that others are talking about you behind your back and that nobody likes you. 
  • You try to avoid social gatherings as much as possible. When you do join them, you tend to sit alone in a corner and avoid interactions. 
  • You resort to drugs or alcohol to relax and feel more comfortable when interacting with people. 
  • Not everyone who feels different acts visibly uncomfortable around others. From the desire to connect with others, you can be a chameleon, moulding your personality depending on the person with whom you are talking, but you still feel empty and alone even though you have a large social circle. 

The Spotlight Effect – or why people don’t notice you as much as you think 

Having an emotionally negligent parent or moving a lot during childhood can intensify feelings of isolation and neglect in adulthood. These experiences can make you feel different from others, but that doesn’t mean you are different. More often than not, you have more in common with others than you imagine. You may even be surprised to discover that they shared the same hardships as you growing up or that, despite your assumptions, they find you to be quite an enjoyable person. 


So, why does your brain tell you that there’s something wrong with you and that you don’t fit in? It may come down to the Spotlight Effect – a cognitive bias and one of the primary factors behind social anxiety. 


The term “spotlight effect” was coined in 1999 and describes the tendency to overestimate one’s effect on others, especially by people who have social anxiety. The spotlight effect is a cognitive bias because, most of the time, people aren’t as fixated on us as we imagine. If life is a movie, we tend to imagine ourselves as the main character. We are at the centre of the story, so when we’re at a party, for example, we imagine that everyone pays attention to what we’re doing. However, those background characters in our movie have their own lives, and they’re just as worried about how we perceive them. If you’re still worried that people thought you were weird at last week’s party, chances are they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Or, if they did, they already forgot about it because they were themselves worried about how others perceived them. 

How do I stop feeling different and create meaningful connections?

The first step in overcoming the feeling of being out of place is to understand that it’s not grounded in reality and that you only feel different because of your experiences. Identifying the experiences that triggered this and processing your emotions will help you conquer your fears and see your feelings of being the odd one out as just that – feelings. 

People who feel different often end up isolating themselves and fulfilling their self-prophecy. After shutting others out, they’re alone, and that serves as evidence that they are, indeed, different. As uncomfortable as it may be, the most effective way to counteract this is to fight that initial instinct of distancing yourself emotionally and to put yourself out there. Talk to a loved one about your struggles and where they stem from, and ask them to accompany you to social events. Having someone you trust will help you feel more comfortable around others and socialising more easily. From time to time, even though you don’t feel like it, open up and say “yes” when you’re invited to events. You won’t immediately become a social butterfly, but things will gradually get easier, and you’ll discover that you have more in common with people than you think. Last up, talking to a therapist about the source of your feelings can help you identify negative thought patterns and limit their control over you.

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