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  • Danusia Atkinson

The real pain of not fitting in; how do I cope with being left out?

Ouch, ouch, ouch. Not fitting in, whether you are seven and trying to find someone to sit with at lunch or in your forties watching friends meet up without inviting you, is painful. It comes up in therapy with everyone- teenagers who are desperately trying to fit in, with adults who have always felt like they were on the outside looking in. If you have children, watching your children being left out is a whole other level of parental difficulty.

So why does it hurt so much and what can we do?

First, it hurts because it is supposed to. Humans are connection-seeking, relational people. Our relationships with each other are of supreme importance and you won’t have to look very far to find research showing the huge impact of loneliness on mental health. Our brains still process being left out as a dangerous experience and it would have been in the past. From an evolutionary standpoint, being left out by our tribe and not having a secure group would be dangerous- those individuals would have been unable to survive. We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to find this hard, and not only that, but every human being will have and will continue to struggle with being left out. It’s the way that we are built.

However, what our brains aren’t used to is social media. Many painful experiences have been related to me as a therapist of experiences on social media- the blue tick is there but they haven’t responded, my friends were on holiday together on Instagram, all the more we are having to manage evidence of our being left out on our phones and in our faces.

Fitting in is not the same as belonging.

As connection-seeking humans, being part of a group may well signal safety but will it fulfil our need to belong? Brene Brown defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us” (Daring Greatly p231). We all want to belong, belonging feels safe and secure. Brown suggests that belonging plus love is how we experience worthiness. However, she points out that belonging and fitting in are entirely different. Fitting in is about working out what the other people in the group value and changing ourselves to fit that model. Belonging “requires us to be who we are” (Daring Greatly p233). We need to be reflective and think about our own responses to others. If we value connection, and our mental health, we should, the only way to truly experience that is to be ourselves. By being ourselves, we will be vulnerable and then connect with the people who are the ones who make us feel that we belong.

How do we manage this with our children?

Some say that watching our children being left out, feels more painful than when it happens to us. What can we do in that moment to help our children? First, a helpful concept to remember is the concept of containment. Containment is what therapists do in therapy, we hear and validate feelings, we endeavour to understand our client’s perspective but we hold space to think about those feelings. We aren’t overwhelmed by those feelings but can be alongside someone in the feelings. It can be really easy to overreact to our child’s pain as if it’s ours- if we panic when they tell us that they don’t have any friends, they may not tell us again- they may think their feelings are too much for us. We don’t endeavour to solve it (whilst protecting our child from abusive/bullying behaviour) or take away the feelings but we can hear and empathise with their feelings (whether that is sadness, shame or anger) and we can even share our own experiences.

Glennon Doyle explores this concept in the most recent episode of her podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things”, ( She suggests that we add shame to an already shaming experience by communicating to our child that it is so shameful to not fit in, that mum has to fix it now.

We can, however, challenge some of our children’s assumptions about what might be happening. We can teach them to catch the thought spiral of someone not wanting to play means that they don’t like me, means I have no friends and onwards down, and challenge it. We can remember that often the fear of being left out may well be behind many actions that we interpret as us being left out. We can make sure that our child does feel some belonging, not least with us but with other people. Glennon Doyle suggests a Friendship tree- we may have many different branches, school, work, clubs etc- we need different branches and can find connections at different times, on different branches.

If you are interested in this topic, Glennon Doyle’s podcast episode 241 explores this in detail and Brene Brown’s wonderful book “Daring Greatly” really explores this concept of belonging in all parts of life including parenting.

If you find that these experiences are really painful, counselling can be a great place to start. Painful experiences in the past or present, not spoken about and deepened by shame can be carefully and supportively unpacked and thought about in therapy. The more you know yourself and your experiences, the more you can think about how you experience your life. You can contact me for counselling, online or in person in Sevenoaks, Kent via the “Contact Me” section of this website. To find out more about the therapy that I offer, please look at the rest of my website.

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