Confessions of a Recovering Conformist

In Lola Shreveport, Payton Denney by Lola Magazine

Last fall I ordered a sweater pill shaver to revamp several of my favorite over-worn outfits. The Amazon package arrived before I returned home from work, so it was opened in my absence. That evening, I found the device sitting next to my toothbrush. The following day both my husband and my youngest child, on separate occasions, asked me if I had the opportunity to use my mustache trimmer. Neither understood why I was offended by the question. Apparently, my self-awareness level needs some work.

The trouble with me is that I have never worried about how I look or pressed my weirdness down so that it’s hidden from sight. I tried it a few times in an effort to fit into a socially desirable group, but my true self weighed too much to be held down. She’s always back there, peering over my shoulder, involved in the conversation at hand. We’re like conjoined twins, I guess. I don’t recall having a choice in the matter. She’s stronger than the outside shell that the world sees, therefore she gets to call the shots. Sometimes that’s embarrassing.

My middle school years were rough. There was a bully. He said ugly things—out loud; other people laughed. I’m sure that killed my mother emotionally, but she never gave it any energy. She let my sister deliver the advice.

“Alright, Payton. What is it about him that is goofy or weird?”

Me: “I don’t know. Nothing really.”

Shayne (annoyed): “Oh please. There HAS to be something about him that’s embarrassing. Think.”

Me (sheepishly): “I guess he does have large ears that stick out.”

Shayne (victoriously!): “YES! That’s it. Next time he makes fun of you, call him Dumbo. That’ll shut him up.”

Shayne is four years older than me. I believed that she had the magic I needed to fix this situation. A few days later, the insult came. People laughed. Dumbo was rightfully addressed. People laughed harder. The bullying stopped. And so, I survived middle school understanding that people who feel badly about themselves seek out perceived weaker people to deflect the negative energy toward. Dumbo had underestimated me. Worse, he had underestimated my support group. It was his mistake. In hindsight, it is apparent that this was the time when my conjoined twin decided to wake up.

By the time I got to high school, my “give a damn” was busted straight down the middle. I never subscribed to the drama of girl groups and settled for hanging with the boys. They were less complicated, and I liked the fact that I didn’t have to gossip in order to hold a conversation with them. My membership in their group was not popular with my female classmates, but I was too busy having fun to care.

My first group of girlfriends adopted me in college. They helped me through some of the ugliest trials of my life. They also taught me what healthy female relationships look like. So when I became an adult, assembling a girl tribe to help me raise my babies and vent about spousal annoyances was easy.

My true self and I have made it this far in life with some incredible friendships. I won’t say that I’ve run with the popular crowd or have been invited to all the parties I’ve wanted to attend, but my life is authentic and full of joy.

My middle school bestie sends me greeting cards monthly even though I never send her any. She’s an Anesthesiologist in Lexington, Kentucky. If anyone doesn’t have time to send handwritten greeting cards, it’s her. But she sends them anyway, understands that I’m the jerk who won’t respond, and reaches out for a meeting when she’s in town. There’s no agenda with our friendship.

After college, the prom king decided he liked me enough to put a ring on it. And despite my mustache, he still decides to come home each night after 17 years of marriage.

My girl tribes check in periodically to determine whether my mental health needs an intervention. My sister still secretly hates Dumbo.

With all this history and support, you would think that I would never get hijacked by the urge to belong, but I do. It happens most often when it involves my kids. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I don’t need everyone to like me, but I need my kids to be accepted. I need them to be happy and feel self-assured because I know how fantastic they are. It’s painful as a parent to witness the self-doubt caused by exclusion from groups in which they desire to belong. Daily, many of us fight the urge to interfere in the engineering of our kids’ friendships. But each time I get the urge, I think back to my mother’s reaction to my middle school experience. There wasn’t one. She let me fight my own battle, and I won.

When we interfere in the natural process of friendship selection, we are robbing our children of their ability to cope with rejection. We are encouraging their urge to subdue their true self. The tragedy in that hiding is that the most beautiful elements of who they are live in that space. They need to learn how to safely show that beauty to the world. And as much as I hate it, rejection is part of the process.

True friendship doesn’t need a social media presence. It doesn’t require an entry fee. It doesn’t ask what your parents do for a living. It doesn’t save embarrassing photos of you. It doesn’t ask you to compromise your morals or subdue your goofy laugh.

True friendship notices your absence from school and calls to check on your well-being. It discretely notifies you that your lunch is stuck in your braces. It brings your favorite candy to lunch to share from her Halloween stash. It thinks twice about posting pictures on social media that would make you feel excluded.

In this social media obsessed world, it is easy to feel self-conscious or left out. It’s as easy as picking up your phone. But social media can also be a place to find answers as long as you ask the right questions.

When I inquired about fitting in and why we feel that it’s so important that we are willing to compromise our true selves to attain it, my friend Casey answered with this.

“I feel like the best way to deal with feeling uninvited is to invite. Excluded? Then include. If that doesn’t work, then maybe the circle from which you feel left out isn’t for you.”

She goes on to say that it’s important to pay attention to the people around us already. Perhaps we are overlooking the ones who really care and are actually “our people.”

Lastly, if that doesn’t work, she suggests getting involved.

“It’s easier to make friends over a common interest, so sign up for stuff. Keep putting yourself out there and keep being yourself. Some people will like you, others won’t. That’s ok as long as you like yourself.”

I couldn’t help but notice that she never mentioned any parental interference. The journey to lasting, authentic relationships cannot be engineered by an outside party. It’s created solely by the people involved. That’s solid advice for kids and adults alike. Quit trying to hide your twin because she’ll show up eventually, and she’s fabulous.

Reality is what my mama taught me from as early as I can remember. She said, “you can count your true friends on one hand.” That has been my life experience. Conforming in order to fit into a group of conformists won’t create lasting friendships because the group is comprised of people shells. Dare to be yourself and then step back to watch your tribe emerge. In the meantime, I’ll be consulting my sister about this mustache.