Thank you so much for everything. I don’t show my appreciation for you enough, and I want to change that. This letter is a step towards acknowledging everything you’ve done, and everything I’m grateful for.
Thank you for always keeping creativity, writing, connection, and storytelling as a key focus and passion. Thank you for using your creative outlets as a way to not only connect with others, but connect with yourself on a deeper level as well.
Thank you for pushing past fears and stepping out of your comfort zone even when it felt impossible. So many amazing experiences have come from pushing yourself to do the thing you knew you wanted, even if it felt scary.
Thank you for having a caring, kind, giving heart and for always helping others and making an effort to understand how they feel and what they need. You sometimes see this trait as a negative, but it is one of your greatest strengths. It has allowed you to be a great caregiver for children, has allowed you to form strong, lasting friendships, and has allowed you to connect with new people on social media. So many people value your opinions and advice. You have helped so many people feel heard and feel less alone, and you will only continue to do so.
Thank you for remaining positive and optimistic even when everything felt like it was crumbling around you. Thank you for getting me through the dark times, always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and being able to daydream about a brighter future. Your ability to get back up after falling down has been such a lifesaver.
Thank you for being my best friend. My support system. The one person I know I’ll always have by my side, and will always be able to count on. I know I haven’t always shown it, and I can sometimes be incredibly critical and hard on you, but I always love you and see you for exactly who you are.
I recently listened to Brene Brown’s audiobook Men, Women, and Worthiness and she touched on a subject that really struck a chord with me. She talked about the difference between fitting in and belonging, and clarified that you really cannot truly belong if you are trying to fit in. “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.” The idea of fitting in is about assessing a situation or environment, and changing yourself to become who you think you need to be in order to be accepted. “Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
At 27 years old, I feel I have finally reached a point in my life where I am belonging. I no longer strive (at least not as much as I used to) to fit in. I make my opinions and beliefs known to my friends, family, and social media audience. Though I’m always learning and growing and trying to be the best version of myself I can be, I am doing that in a way that first acknowledges that I am enough. I am not attempting to change parts of myself, but rather to get better acquainted with the parts of myself I have kept hidden for so many years.
“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
I started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in December 2019, and in our first session he asked me a question that caught me off guard a bit. He asked me “When was the last time you really felt like yourself.” I hesitated for a few seconds, and then the honest answer bubbled to the top of my brain. This honest answer also answered another question: “When did you last truly feel like you were belonging rather than trying to fit in?” My answer? 8th grade.
In 8th grade, I was on the volleyball and basketball teams at my school. I had three best friends, and the four of us became inseparable over the course of that year. I was outspoken, silly, talkative, and a bit (or maybe a lot depending on who you ask) moody. I didn’t hold back. I was unapologetically me. I felt a sense of belonging from my group of friends, from the sports teams I was a part of, from the way I wasn’t trying to be someone I wasn’t.
Towards the end of 8th grade, something started to shift. Like I detailed in my blog post Finding My Voice, I started getting negative messages from my peers. That voice that has followed me through my teen and adult years started creeping in “you aren’t enough.” Or, perhaps, “you are too much.” I started to fear that my method of belonging was not the right move. That I needed to start fitting in. I had not yet heard the life-changing idea Brene Brown presents in her audiobook, that belonging is actually what we need to strive for, and trying to fit in will only hinder our ability to find belonging. I had reached that state of belonging without even trying in 8th grade, and the years that followed would set me back a few paces as I searched for answers in the world of fitting in.
The idea that middle school was the last time I felt like myself scared me at first. As I sat in that psychiatrist’s office, finding it hard to meet his gaze, I wondered if my answer was “typical”, if there was something wrong with me for saying I felt it had been about 13 years since I was truly myself. Of course, that was part of what brought me to his office in the first place. To see if medication might help me feel and act more like myself. I have felt more alive and more myself these past six months since I started on medication to help with my depression and anxiety. But I think something else has changed in these six months. I think something shifted inside me in that psychiatrist’s office when I realized I had been living in a state of inauthenticity, trying to fit in, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I realized I didn’t want to live that way anymore.
I made the decision (mostly sub-consciously) to startbeing more like Eight Grade Shelly. The Shelly I once thought I needed to fix, became the Shelly I admired, the Shelly I now strived to be more like. Eighth Grade Shelly was my new idol, my new muse. I was Eighth Grade Shelly’s newest, and greatest, fangirl. I’m smiling and tearing up as I write this, because I know that younger me would be proud. And she’d be so happy to know that someone thinks she’s perfect just the way she is. That she has achieved something, a sense of belonging, that many people spend most of their life trying to obtain. She has lessons I need to learn. She has the key to Present Day Shelly’s happier and more fulfilled life. Those voiced from her peers are the voices of people who do not yet understand that fitting in is detrimental. That being unique is cool. That standing up for what you believe in is important.
These past six months, something has shifted inside me. I’ve started being even more open on social media and this blog. I started a podcast called Vulnerable Views where we talked about, you guessed it, vulnerable topics such as dating and mental health. I’ve started being more honest with myself and others about what my true passions and goals are in life. I joined TikTok and post videos that are about as authentic as you can get. I’ve had people reach out to me to say my videos have helped them or inspired them or made them feel less alone. I really feel like I’ve found a sense of belonging on TikTok, where I’m applauded for being completely myself. I’ve found a sense of belonging in my friends and family, who allow me to be my imperfect self. I’ve finally come full circle back to being that outspoken, silly, talkative, and a bit (or maybe a lot) moody girl I was before. It feels good to belong.
I’d love to hear your experience and opinions on this topic. When was the last time you felt like yourself? Do you think you are belonging or just fitting in currently? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
When I was in middle school, I internalized a message I felt I was receiving from peers: you’re too much. Too loud, too hyper, too goofy, too talkative, too whatever. I started to feel like people didn’t like me. Like maybe there was something wrong with my personality. Even though I had great friends and family who I knew loved me, I started letting the opinions of a few dictate how I felt about myself.
After eighth grade, I switched from my small private school to a large public school. I remember thinking it was my chance to start over, to have a clean slate. I only knew one person at my new school, so I thought I could “reinvent” myself and become the type of person people liked.
I went into 9th grade craving validation. I became shy, quiet, scared to say much or show much of my personality, in case people didn’t like what they saw. I just wanted to “fit in.” When I look back at that time, I feel sad because I realize I had this wall up, too scared to truly let people get to know me for fear they wouldn’t like me.
When I got to college, I started to come out of my shell a bit as the years went by. I was still scared to share my opinions or show too much of myself. I was a “yes person”, always agreeing to what others said or believed. I was still stuck on the idea of being liked, and those old criticisms from my middle school classmates still rattled around in my head.
Starting this blog my junior year during study abroad was my first real step in being vulnerable and truly being myself. My first post shared a personal story I had never shared before, and it was the first glimmer of the personal nature my blog has now. When I graduated from college, I wrote a post about my post-grad struggles, and received a lot of positive feedback from other people who were feeling the same way. That was my first taste of how sharing your story can positively impact others! I liked that feeling. Maybe sharing my opinions, and taking up space, wasn’t so bad! Maybe those middle schoolers had been wrong.
Over the past few years I’ve seen myself open up even more, and slowly start to talk about topics I never thought I would talk about. I hardly recognize that scared, self-conscious young girl who thought she had to be quiet to be liked. I’ve finally realized that “being liked” is completely out of your control. All you can do is be kind and be yourself, and the people that are meant to be in your life and be supportive will find you! I’ve also realized that not only was I depriving others of getting to know me during the time when I had a wall up, but I was also depriving myself. It is so therapeutic to be vulnerable, to connect with people through storytelling and writing and sharing my truth. It can help others, but I think it actually helps me the most.
This path to self-discovery and finding my voice has been slow and painful at times, and I don’t think the journey ever really ends. I can’t sit here and say I feel 100% confident or 100% comfortable sharing my opinions in every situation, and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t think anyone ever reaches that 100%. What I do know is that I feel more myself today than I have for the past 27 years. I feel happy when I get to share my story through this blog, my podcast, and my Instagram, and my new TikTok account.
If you are someone who is still afraid of opening up, letting others in, or speaking your truth, it’s okay! It takes a lot of time and practice and patience. You’ll get there when you’re ready, just like I did.
I remember the first time someone told me I had “curves.” I was in eighth grade hanging out with my three best friends after an afternoon of shopping. We were all trying on the clothes we’d bought, and while showing off my new jeans my friend said “Shelly, you’ve got curves!” I remember immediately assuming it was a bad thing. “Is that…good?” I asked hesitantly. “Yes! I wish I had curves! I have no hips and no butt, my body basically looks like a boy’s still! You’re so lucky!” I was genuinely baffled by this. I thought my friend’s body was perfect. I wished I looked like her. To me, she was perfect. But evidently, to her, I was perfect.
In high school I started to accept, and even like, my curves. But I started to worry I wasn’t “proportionate” enough. I had big hips and a big butt and a tiny waist like J Lo and Kim Kardashian, but they had big boobs and mine were small. I remember reading magazines giving advice on “dressing for your body type” and I didn’t feel I fit into any of the categories they provided. The “petite” girls were shorter and skinnier than me. The “athletic” girls were taller and more toned. Even “curvy”, a word I had grown to accept for myself, didn’t quite fit. Those girls were bigger than me. Was there something wrong with my body? I just wanted to fit into a “body type”, to feel like I belonged, to feel like my body was accepted by society. The problem with that was a magazine could never tell me I’m beautiful. Society is never going to give me the validation I craved. And even if it could, it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t see it for myself.
When I got to college I started seeking validation from a different source: guys. I started dating and getting more attention from boys and I figured, “If all these guys are interested in me and wanting to date me, my body must look pretty good!” But then when I would experience any sort of rejection, I’d wonder if things would be different if my boobs were bigger or my legs longer or my hips narrower. Just like seeking validation from magazines, seeking validation from others wasn’t really working for me either.
Over the past couple of years I’ve gained a little bit of weight. When I see pictures of myself from college, I find myself thinking “Wow I was so skinny back then! I look so much older and bigger now. Why didn’t I appreciate what I had back then?!” I’ve spent so much time wishing I could look the same as I did when I was in college, even though I’m approaching 27 and I’m a completely different person than I was back then. I’m not the same on the inside, so why should I expect to look the same on the outside? It wasn’t until recently that I started to finally have a new perspective on my body. I started trying to appreciate it and love it for exactly what it is in this moment.
I don’t need my friends to tell me I should love my curves. I don’t need a magazine to tell me what kind of clothes I should wear. I don’t need some guy to tell me I have a hot body. None of that matters if I don’t love my body. If I don’t see it for what it is, which is more than an aesthetic object. My body is my own. My body allows me to pick up and hold and run and play with children all day. My body allows me to do yoga and go on walks and hikes and dance at weddings until my feet are sore. My body is beautiful for so much more than what it looks like. It may have taken me this long to realize it, and it may still be a struggle every day, but I am finally learning to love my body.