Individualist: How do we embrace being weird?

Sh#t Your Ego Says author James McCrae says embracing your weirdness gives you a new perspective, and the world needs a new perspective. Innovation does not happen within the status quo. Innovation happens when outsiders challenge the status quo with weird ideas.

So if you are a bit of an outsider, how do you harness your weirdness?

Check out Episode 18 on being an introvert!

Here are some of the resources from the show:

‘The Atlantic’ staff writer Olga Khazan introduces her new book, ‘Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.’

The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga shared insight into gaining one’s freedom & ultimately living a healthy life.

Five high school students, all with different mindsets, face detainment in their school library on a Saturday morning. As time passes by, their egos fade and they become close buddies.

Books looked at this week:

Olga Khazan: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga: The Courage to be Disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 47 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Being an individual apparently means that you are a unique person. You have your
own values, beliefs, likes, dislikes, and anything else that makes up who
you are. But why is it important, what are the consequences and how do we harness our uniqueness?

Our first book is from American journalist Olga Khazan, who has been writing for the Atlantic since 2013. Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World looks at why some people are perceived as different, and explores how they experience life as outsiders. Here she is

OLGA KHAZAN

As a Russian immigrant who grew up in a small city in West Texas, Khazan knows firsthand what it’s like to be weird, and how painful it can be. But, through dozens of interviews with nonconformists, loners, and oddballs, she’s also come to realize that weirdness is an incredible gift – if you know how to use it.

Many people if not all feel weird at some point in their lives. And it’s a phenomenon that’s growing in the US. According to the author’s research, 54 percent of Americans have had the feeling that no one knows them very well. 

But even if you’ve never felt weird, there’s an increasing polarization of American society – and it reflects the fact that lots of us are very uncomfortable when we feel out of place. We don’t talk to our neighbors anymore, and we definitely don’t make friends with people who have different political views. 

As mentioned in episode 44 on bias, the human brain likes familiarity, which is why we seek out people who look and think like us. In fact, according to one researcher, friendship groups tend to be so similar that if you ask questions on a hundred different topics, the group will agree 86 percent of the time. This can feel cozy but it stops you from growing and developing.

Evolution is another culprit. Part of the reason we naturally lean toward prejudice is down to our hunter-gatherer past. When social relationships were our only defense against extinction, we had to maintain them or perish. But when we started farming, all that began to change. 

It was when hunter-gatherers began cultivating the land that we started seeing our fields as ours, rather than as a space shared by everyone. At the same time, we began caring about things that signaled difference – because different might mean dangerous. 

Our brains evolved so that when we see faces that don’t look like our own, we read them as a threat. The same is true of how someone sounds or the clothes they wear. Difference activates the brain’s threat center. So unfortunately people suffer both professional and personal consequences.

Arguments with both friends and strangers can be destabilising. Studies show that being ostracized by strangers starts to take an emotional toll after just three minutes.

The social stigma doesn’t merely affect your mood either; it also has a terrible impact on your physical health. And the worse someone is treated, the worse the impact becomes. Whilst introversion is our of choice, sometimes loneliness is an involuntary consequence.

Our bodies react to loneliness as though preparing to fight bacteria. It triggers inflammation, which leads to plaque buildup, which in turn can lead to heart attacks. Lonely people also have worse cancer outcomes, and are more prone to viral infections. One researcher found that lacking social connections is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Whilst I’m trying not to be a downer on being unique, it’s also important to look at the other side. Being actively discriminated against is also an issue. Minority stress is the pressure that marginalized groups feel due to constant microaggressions at a societal level. Researchers believe it’s one reason why Black Americans are more prone to health problems than white Americans. Black women, for example, are about 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely than white women.

People suffering from minority stress are also more likely to suffer mental health problems. According to the author, transgender people are particularly vulnerable. Take a 2019 study, which reports that up to 35 percent of young trans people in the US have, at some point, attempted suicide.

Whilst the author herself has suffered from social marginalization, it hasn’t been all bad, and there have been wonderful advantages to being different. Scientists find that people actually like being part of exclusive groups. We want to fit in – but just enough.

Unique traits make us memorable – whether it’s physical, like having a prominent beauty mark, or an aspect of our personality. Part of the reason we like people who are a bit different is that they tend to be more creative. 

But feeling uncertain about yourself can also inspire you to come up with innovative solutions to your problems. Research suggests creativity is higher among people with better adaptive resources. These are what we call on to help us overcome trauma – innate characteristics such as grit and tenacity, steadfast support from our community, or even having lots of money.

Another thing to remember is that getting used to being different makes it easier to stay true to your values, even in difficult circumstances.

For example, Leslie Wagner-Wilson was part of a religious community when she was young, but realised when she was older that it was actually a cult. It was led by the sociopath Jim Jones. When they were moved to the Jonestown settlement in South America in 1977, she realised something was wrong. She managed to escape with her young son strapped to her back.

On that same day, Jones forced over 900 community members to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, killing them all. Leslie and her son would have died too, had she not followed her gut instinct. 

If you’re a nonconformist trying to survive as the odd one out, you’ll be happier and healthier if you learn how to transform your weirdness into a superpower. But putting your unique qualities to work takes effort. 

So the first person you need to convince is yourself – so cast yourself in a positive light to build greater self-confidence. Psychologists recommend changing the narrative about yourself. So you weren’t bullied in high school because you were a bit of a nerd. You were bullied because the cool kids were threatened by your inherent awesomeness! Secondly try and help others like yourself.

Another strategy that experts have found is improving parts of your personality such as, if you want to be a great public speaker. Forcing yourself to sign up for public speaking opportunities, and telling yourself you love doing it, can reportedly make you into one.

Finally, something that can help you cope better when life as an outsider seems tough is your support network. If you have a good one, lean on it. A supportive family and group of friends can do a lot to reduce the price of difference.

Khazan says in the end the community you end up in should be somewhere you can let your weirdness shine. There’s also a shared weirdness even if of different kinds, which creates a bond. Don’t try to hide your true colours.

The final book is The Courage to be Disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness, by bestselling Japanese author Fumitake Koga and psychiatric counsellor Ichiro Kishimi. It takes a look at the psychology of twentieth century Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler who argued we should care less about what others think. Here is a summary of some of their points.

COURAGE TO BE DISLIKED

Koga and Kishimi suggest that as humans, we tend to believe our own past determines the future, but, in reality, we are always able to change. We make a lot of assumptions about people and apparently we associate a lot of this as trauma-related. So for example, a recluse living in a house. Some may automatically assume there is a psychological issue at the root of this.

In reality, of course, this type of deterministic thinking is for the birds they say. We’re actually free to do whatever we want. This was the view of twentieth-century Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: we don’t have to be defined by trauma.

After all, children who have suffered abuse have not all become social outcasts as adults. In other words the condition isn’t fixed. Reasons for action can be changed and the freedom to transform is always available.

No matter whether we’re talking about tendencies to be cheerful or happy or moody, we’re made to think that there are various types that we all fit into. Adlerian psychology doesn’t take that approach. The term lifestyle is used in Adlerian psychology to describe what traditional psychology refers to as character or personality.

This change of terminology highlights the fact that people’s moods are not fixed by some deep-set constitution. Rather, they are articulations of their individual outlooks on the world. In other words, if your vision of the world is negative, pessimism will rule the day.

Adler claimed that we actively choose our lifestyles and worldviews around the age of ten. This decision is based on previous life experiences, both positive and negative.
For all the talk of changing outlooks, it nonetheless remains true that we are exceptionally intransigent in letting ourselves do just that. However, change takes courage, because for many it’s better the devil you know than risk getting hurt.

One of Kishimi’s students once revealed that he disliked himself, he had low self-confidence, he was incredibly self-conscious and said he always felt awkward with others. He believed if he could fix his personality he could fix the issue.

Kishimi felt as the student talked more and more about what he perceived as is his flaws, he had effectively created “good reasons” for isolating himself. The authors believe people who retreat into themselves often do so because they don’t want to be hurt by others. The irony is that by distancing themselves, they often come across as aloof and arrogant.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You have to accept that pain and exclusion are as much a part of life as joy and inclusion. Those that choose to retreat as some sort of tactic will solve nothing: they’ve created the wrong solution for a problem that they have ultimately misidentified.

Koga and Kishimi also say that competitive societies are destructive especially for your mental wellbeing, so just remember not to let external worries to get in your way.

A competitive outlook encourages us to think of people as either winners or losers. And of course, nobody wants to be a loser. Consequently, the tendency is that we start seeing our fellow humans as rivals, as threats and impediments to success. Needless to say, living in a world packed with rivals is highly stressful.

People who “lose” or who have low self-esteem are going to suffer in such a system. But it’s also bad for the winners: they’re under relentless pressure to drive on to the next success and not lose their winning position. This explains why highly productive people can still be deeply unhappy, despite their success.

There’s a logical consequence to freeing ourselves of a competitive attitude: You shouldn’t ever feel that anybody else is holding you back. The authors say actually most of the time, others aren’t even noticing you but thinking about themselves in the same way.

It’s all too easy to create a fantasy world filled with judgmental and scornful faces. But it is just fantasy. The moment we realize that nobody cares about our appearance, our life choices or anything at all, then we can learn to accept freedom. After that, nothing can hold you back from doing what you really want, other than your own attitude.

The authors also stress that you should live your own life, and don’t try to fulfil the expectations of others. They say there is a risk to the dynamic of seeking approval. Just think of our education culture. It’s almost entirely based on ideas of reward and punishment. Ever since we were very young, we were taught that if we did something well we would be rewarded. Equally, if we did something wrong, we would be punished.

It’s actually a very destructive way of thinking. It means we might find it difficult to motivate ourselves as adults, unless under duress or with the promise of the reward of recognition.

We can break this cycle by realizing that we’re under no compulsion to live up to the expectations of others. If that’s what guides you then you may make all kinds of choices – such as your job or your partner – based on what other people might think.

That means you have to be ready to disappoint everyone, including your family, if you’re going to make the life choices that really are best for you. And it goes both ways. Meddling in other people’s lives get you nowhere. That’s because each and every one of us has to learn to take responsibility for our own actions in life. It’s good to give others freedom and the support to live that life. The key is to learn to empathize without trying to exert control.

Even though you may feel isolated, all humans are inherently part of a broader community. According to Adlerian psychology, community is of central importance to humans. Adler advocates what he calls a global community. This encompasses everything and everyone: any plant, mineral or animal across the entire universe.

I guess this is the more Buddhist aspect of the book but the idea is that humans should be able to find fulfillment through developing themselves as part of this massive community. As soon as we realize how we might fit into this grand scheme, we’ll start to act differently. We’ll begin to pay more heed to things around us and begin to care a little bit more.

Change occurs partly because we’ll each realize we’re not actually the center of the universe around which all else revolves. Basically you can be whoever you are because we’re part of a wider jigsaw puzzle that all connects. Self-obsession leads to loss of perspective. It’s a world of warped subjective realities where negativity is allowed to dominate.

So to sum up:

Khazan says in Weird that feeling out of place is a growing trend in the US, and it can be emotionally and physically debilitating. To understand how to process feelings of otherness, author Olga Khazan spoke to dozens of nonconformists about how they deal with discrimination and hurt feelings. Ultimately, she discovered that weird people will find contentment if they can adopt simple strategies that transform their weirdness into a superpower.

Kishimi and Koga say in The Courage to be Disliked that according to Adlerian psychology, if we want to achieve happiness, then we have to make some subtle changes in our way of thinking. First off, we need to become more independent, reduce competition and worry less about others’ approval. Conversely, we need to learn not to place ourselves at the center of everything, think about how we can contribute to the community at large, and stop selfishly self-obsessing. They recommend living in the moment.

I’ve always felt like an outsider, due to my past experiences, but that’s not always a terrible thing. I’ve learnt a lot, including embracing my weird self especially as a metalhead, tattooed, British Asian female guitarist with a disability to boot.

This reminds me of that classic 1985 film The Breakfast Club, where five high school students, all with different mindsets, face detention in their school library on a Saturday morning. As time passes by, their egos fade and they become close buddies. Here’s how it ends and if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe!

BREAKFAST CLUB

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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