People at work - small business (11)

Overcoming the social costs of being different

“From now on, I’ll connect the dots my own way.” – Bill Watterson

Goodness knows I’ve put in my share of being different than most people. I’ve had to explain myself more times than is believable, and I’ve dealt with people avoiding my company because of my differentness.

And yet, despite the hassles and the isolation, I wouldn’t want to give up my differentness.

It’s who I am. And being like everyone else would be less authentic.

One way sign

by Leo Babauta

How am I different? Here are a few examples:

  • I’m vegan.
  • I unschool my kids.
  • I’m a minimalist (and wear the same clothes over and over, have very little).
  • My family and I are car-free.
  • Recently I haven’t been eating eat sugar or flour or fried foods.
  • I meditate.
  • I don’t have a “real” job (people don’t seem to understand what a blogger does).
  • I mostly live without goals.
  • I don’t eat fast food.
  • I don’t have debt, nor own a home (nor do I plan to anytime soon).

None of that is to brag — I don’t think any of those makes me any better than anyone else, nor do I think I’m the first to do any of these. They’re just a part of who I am — and in fact, I’m different in many less visible ways.

I’m also similar to most people in many ways — I fail, I hurt, I get scared, I get angry, I am shy, I doubt myself. I am human and imperfect.

But the differences stand out when I socialize.

The social costs of being different

My differences isolate me and make me have to explain myself and make me have less in common with other people.

For example, when I socialize:

  • If we’re eating, I always have to explain my vegan-ness. I always have to answer questions about protein, and what would happen to the animals if we didn’t provide for them (before we slaughter them), and isn’t soy bad for you, and so on. My veganism becomes the focus of conversation, making me feel a bit weird because I don’t eat like everyone else.
  • If everyone else is eating fast food or desserts, I abstain. They seem to love it, but I can’t agree, so I’m not a part of it.
  • Being different means some people don’t know what to talk to me about, because the normal topics don’t apply to me. It’s harder for them to relate.
  • People get defensive about my differences — unschooling makes them feel like bad parents if they send/sent their kids to school, and veganism can make them try to defend their way of eating, and so on.
  • I get teased (usually in a good-natured way, but still) about eating rabbit food or having an empty house or c’mon, wouldn’t you just love some of this delicious meat (not really).
  • People judge me, or if they don’t judge, they just see me as different.
  • Sometimes family members actually get mad at us for being different than them, or for being bad parents (as vegans or unschoolers).
  • Some people refuse to eat our food, which means they are less likely to visit.
  • Sometimes I just don’t feel like hanging out with people who are being unhealthy or going through life not caring about what they do or who just want to get drunk or stoned. I don’t think they’re bad people, but it’s not that fun for me.

That’s just the start of it, but you get the idea. Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you’re different, do you feel social isolation from many people? You might not have the same differences as me, but maybe you see some commonalities here.

What’s a person to do? I have some strategies.

Dealing with the social costs

I might have painted a negative picture above, but actually there are lots of ways to deal with these challenges, and also lots of positives:

  1. Embrace your differences. While being different can be a bit hard, it’s not a bad thing. Being different is who makes you who you are. It means you’re daring to live your own life, on your terms, with your values. It means you have courage to stand out from the mainstream. It means you’re interesting. Hug those differences, be grateful for them, own them. Be proud of them.
  2. See the teaching opportunity. Part of why I live my life differently is to be an example, to show that there are alternatives, that we don’t have to be consumerists or buy into the system or support factory farming or be unhealthy or give our responsibility to educate our kids away (for example). And so when people have questions, as tiring as they can be, actually I am grateful for the opportunity to educate, to share, to explore interesting ground with people. I actually love talking about unschooling, for example, and while I know people have objections, I had those objections too once, and I have explored answers to them that I’d love to share. It can be tiring, but it can also be a wonderful thing that someone else is curious. Curiosity is a gift.
  3. Find company in yourself. You can be at a party, in the middle of a crowd of people who don’t connect with you, and be perfectly OK. It’s not necessarily lonely if you like your own company. But you also don’t have to be isolated — see the next item.
  4. Be curious. If you’re isolated at a party, there are ways to beat this. For example, don’t think just because people are different than you that you don’t have things in common. Be curious about them, and instead of thinking, “They don’t understand”, realize that maybe you don’t understand. Get to know them, see the beauty in them, find things that you love, understand why they live the way they do. Listen. Look.
  5. Find friends who understand. The above notwithstanding, there are people who will embrace your differences, even think you’re awesome because of them. They might also be vegan (for example), or they might just be very individualistic people who think your radical-ness is cool. You share stories about your lives, find them fascinating, want to hang out. And in this exploration, you meet some fascinating open-minded people you can connect with.
  6. The nay-sayers drift. While I love my family and old friends who don’t understand my differences, if they constantly attack and get angry and talk behind my back, I probably won’t want to hang out with them as much. They tend to drift out of my life, because they don’t really want to engage in an open discussion, and that makes it hard to have a relationship.
  7. Turn your different-ness into an advantage. While there might be costs to being different, actually there are huge benefits too. Being different means you stand out, which is a good thing in a world where everyone is trying to blend in. It means you’re interesting, because you’re different. It means you are less restricted by what’s comfortable, able to explore new ground, not afraid of things because you don’t know about them. It means you’re learning more than most people. These are huge advantages, if you use them to build a business, make friends, and live the life you want to live.

I’m not going to pretend that being different is easy. But it is the only way I would live.

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