in ,

How I stopped trying to fit in and started embracing my true self

Who knew that as an adult I’d still be thinking about what it means to “belong” or to “fit in”.

It’s amusing even writing about it.

When I was a kid, it was very uncool to desire to “fit in”.

Coming from a country town, being alternative was cool. Being indifferent was cooler.

Conformity was a dirty word. It signalled insecurity or worse:

A compliant nature (Sorry kid – you’re bully-fodder).

Ironically, the peer-pressure to be a non-conformist meant that “fitting in” simply took a different form. In fact the whole group was trying to “fit in” back then. Conformity masquerading as apathy.

The thing was however, for me:

… it was actually really important to fit in.

Whilst on the surface I appeared a well-adjusted kid with lots of friends, on the inside I often felt like I didn’t have a place in the world.

Like I didn’t really belong anywhere.

I was born in Manila in the Philippines but came to Australia when I was around 3 years old.

My mum is Filipino and my dad was Australian.

Me and my Dad.

I grew up in a surfy, beach town in country Western Australia called Geraldton. It has a population of around 30,000 people. Its primary industries are cray-fishing, mining services and agriculture. It is a predominantly Caucasian community with a small indigenous population and very few non-European migrant locals.

As an adult, I know that having a diverse cultural background means that I am uniquely placed to straddle two worlds.

But when I was growing up, it felt much more like I fell between the cracks.

When I went back to the Philippines, they would see me as a foreigner. A Western Asian. Not truly one of them.

But in Australia, I was also seen as a foreigner. An Asian Westerner. Not truly one of them.

Not “fitting in” for me (and many other migrant kids) carried social penalties beyond the subtle jostling for position commonplace in the schoolyard. I fielded racial abuse on a daily basis and endured the well-meaning casually racist comments from friends who sledged me because they loved me.

In my case, the desire to fit in was anchored in a need to feel safe in my own environment. My anxiety levels would spike at each reminder of my effortless non-conformity (ha!). I can readily admit now that back then, I wanted nothing more than to “fit in”.

To me, the search for belonging was an existential need.

And to be honest. I used to hate that I felt that way. Because for a while, I thought that it was something wrong with me.

But I don’t believe that anymore.

The problem I have with the conventional definition of belonging is that it assumes belonging is found in only one place. That people are one-dimensional and they fit neatly into one box.

That is simply not true.

When I pivoted out of my legal career into a commercial and strategy role – one that I suited strongly by the way – I was asked in the interview: “You’re a lawyer. Why would you want to move into such a different role?”.

My instinctive reaction was “Why on earth not?! Why wouldn’t I want to express myself in many different careers and apply my mind to multiple domains?!” (I didn’t say that of course, I said something about how it was a natural extension of my strengths, and an exciting new challenge, and a bunch of other keywords you learn to say in those kinds of interviews).

The default assumption was that I was just one thing.

But how many of us are just one thing?

Just a football player? Just a nurse? Just a farmer? Just a mum?

When did our magnificent and awe-inspiring humanity suddenly get smoothed down to That One Neat Label?

And when we want to break outside the mould, to not live up to the expectations of That One Neat Label society has graciously decided to burden us with, why do we suffer the social penalties for not fitting in?

Why does a fitness model always have to write about squats to sell product – when what they really want to do is help people overcome limiting beliefs about their mental health?

Why do we tell our talented specialists and professionals that they don’t have the cognitive agility to switch careers later in life – as if they don’t have the intellectual horsepower to handle such a shift when they’ve been demonstrating aptitude to handle complex problems their entire career?

Why do we tell our little boys they can’t wear pink or play with dolls, as if it compromises their humanity (instead of broadens it) to indulge in every colour and experience the playground offers?

Source: Best Kiddy

Why do we keep telling our little girls that pretty is better than smart? And why do we tell everyone else that smart is better than character?

Espousing different traits is a strength, I know this now. And there is nothing more delightful than meeting people who confound stereotypes.

What I’d love to see is a new definition of “belonging” and “fitting in”.

One that understands that people are multi-layered, inconsistent, sometimes contradictory and can belong in multiple domains – not just one.

When the effortless non-conformity that we are naturally born with doesn’t have to be manufactured and passed off as cool to be acceptable.

When society has matured enough not to be threatened by people who don’t fit the mould, who slot imperfectly into many boxes, and where belonging means free to be yourself – and loved because of it.

Irrespective of which group you happen to be part of at the time.

Have I given up the search for belonging? Not yet.

But as I work with Ideapod each day I get closer to finding it**.

And instead of fitting in:

I’m finally free.

Notable replies

  1. I just came across this article today and it was nice to read…

    In your case, @katdunn, it seems you’ve been on a path of understanding and transcending the expectations of others, particularly coming from society. I think you’re an incredibly compassionate person. Your compassion means you have an instinct to “fit in” and please other people, so it’s doubly hard for you to find this connection with yourself and take the first steps to leaving those expectations behind.

    I’ve been privileged to witness your journey over the last few years, creating a new life for yourself with Grameen and also a new tribe in Sydney (and I suspect much further afield). It’s interesting to me that you have found the strength to stand up to societal expectations and in the process you’re creating a new kind of society or tribe.

    For anyone inspired by this story, I recommend following Kat on Instagram. She regularly shares inspiring moments mirroring the theme of this article:

    My own journey to embracing my true self came from letting go of this notion that I’m special and unique. This may be controversial to some people, as there’s a real theme in Western society that we need to embrace our individuality.

    I won’t deny this is important. I’m just sharing my own experience, and I have found that this constant need to be so special and unique ends up emphasizing how separate we are, as opposed to how connected we really are in reality.

    What is it that connects us? I think it’s the human story, which is made up of our common challenges, issues to face, problems to overcome… And also the shared celebrations, the very many beautiful moments that we participate in together.

    Here’s an article I put together a while back on this experience:

    For anyone else here, I would love to know your own story of embracing your true self. Let us know in the comments here.

  2. I was pretty special from the get go, so much so that my mother found me both unacceptable and unlovable. In the end I lived a life deeply in depression, most of the time, and achieved significant success in several fields of Science and Engineering (in two I was known internationally, to the experts in those fields). Throughout it all, I felt all Alone and coped with depression by working 70 hour weeks; that destroyed several marriages.

    After retirement, I went though five heart attacks, several mini-strokes and the second of two out-of-body experiences. It was the latter that led to my change of attitude and understanding.

    Although I wanted to write textbooks on Science and Engineering after retirement, I ended up becoming a reluctant guided writer (being told what to write, at times), with a string of self-published books on the meaning of life (available on Amazon). The third and fourth books were about why feeling Alone is an illusion; but one taught to us so that others can control us so that they can ‘feel’ safe. I often write in pairs of books, one from the bottom-up perspective and one on the same subject from a top-down viewpoint (top-down being the arena of my technical expertise in eight different technical fields). In essence, I helped others find better questions to ask.

    The third book was entitled “Alone?: No One Can Be Separated From God” and the fourth “You Are In God: God Is In You.” Both use a definition of God that is way beyond what most people understand about their god; who is not the Real God at all.

    These, and most of my 24 books and mini-books so far, emphasize that we are all in a very connected, interactive universe that is more Pure Information (we tend to call that spirit or even Spirit) than Energy/matter and we are like that as well. Although almost all of Society (even/especially our Religions) lead us away from this understanding of what really is, we all know this deeply inside of ourselves and have a very powerful need to connect. There is no real Joy or Peace, or even Love, in the separation that we are being taught to accept.

    In the end, it is the Destiny of all humans to not only learn to Love, do Love-focused ‘things’ and then become living Love (Love Personified or Love Incarnate if you prefer that wording).

    Hundreds of millions of humans now living are trying to live such lives, but our Traditional Press is paid to keep that information from us. No one can control a human who is fully living in Love; such are very dangerous to those who presently wield power or have scads of ill-gotten gains.

    Choose Love anyway and let them learn to deal with those who Love Unconditionally! LoL

Want to comment? Continue the discussion at Ideapod Discussions


Written by Kat Dunn

I like to connect Ideas & people. I talk about discomfort & inspiring failures. I'm trying to sleep more and shift to a growth mindset.

Former lawbot, pilot & leader in finance. Founder of F-OFF: Fear of Failure Forum & working with Ideapod to help companies leverage our collective intelligence & achieve breakthrough thinking.

Follow me on IdeapodIdeapod to see my latest ideas.

Ideapod’s Submission for the 2030 Strategic Plan for the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System

Alan Watts reveals how you can become a spiritual guru