“When you feel like an oddball, it never really leaves you. Even now, I’m better around people who are uncomfortable with themselves – the misfits.” Chris Pine Have you ever felt like a misfit? Like you’re out of step with everyone else, somehow different? As highly sensitive people (HSPs) we often spend more time observing and absorbing than interacting and conforming. In groups it is generally easy to feel like we may not fit in because we have others to compare ourselves to. Have you ever thought “Geez, these people are so outgoing and chatty and I’m so quiet?” You’re not alone. Many HSPs feel this way and report feeling a profound sense of difference. In this article I will explore a few of the salient points that can make feeling like a misfit not such a bad thing.
What does it mean to be a Misfit?
Highly sensitive people have a personality trait that is considered non-normative in many Western societies. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a stable pattern of behaviors that is encapsulated in the DOES acronym.
• Depth of processing of all stimulation that occurs in the brain fueled by emotion.
• A tendency toward overstimulation in certain circumstances.
• High empathy and high emotionality.
• Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.
These factors alone make HSPs quite different from the majority of the population and stigmatization begins in early childhood for many HSPs when parents desperately wish for their child to appear to be “normal.” Interestingly SPS is largely heritable. Parents may be projecting their own sense of inadequacy or low self-esteem. Other parents may feel strong pressure to conform from their peer groups, relatives, or friends. Socioeconomic status may also have a decided influence on each parent’s tolerance of differentness.
You’re a Deviant!
The sociological definition of deviance is any deviation from societal norms. In that sense everyone is a deviant because most people routinely violate one or more social rules such as speeding, littering, or any of an endless number of small violations from “normal.” HSPs violate social customs quite often when we fail to interact at the level deemed “normal” by the group we are with, when we seek solitude instead of noise, and in fact any time we go against social norms of behavior.
This is not to say that being a deviant (a badge I wear with pride) is a bad thing. On the contrary American popular culture is filled with glorification of the deviant. Most action movies portray a hero who just can’t quite go with the flow and instead feels compelled to break all of the rules. He seems hell bent on destruction and the group usually frowns on his behavior, until said hero discovers a key strategy or innovates a new way to stop the bad guys. Then everyone loves the deviant!
For the HSP though life can be quite miserable growing up. This is especially true in school where society has seen fit to throw together children of exactly the same age. The pressures to conform in school can be immense and a child who displays any deviance in appearance, behavior, or temperament is quickly categorized, stigmatized, and marginalized. I recall being a child in the 1970s and walking along the fence line at recess with other “weird” kids who spend most of their precious recess time staring out over the fence and talking of topics none of the rest of the kids would have had any interest in. The sense of differentness I felt was evident early in life and only reinforced in school when my permanent front teeth came in crooked marking me as only somewhat different, but evidently different enough to be worthy of ridicule and shame. That early trauma cemented my feelings of not fitting in and in time not caring if I fit in.
A Different Perspective
While it is true that conformity has its place in the ability of a group to meet its goals non-conformity also serves a valuable purpose. The so-called misfits are the non-conformists who are likely creative, open-minded, tolerant, and original. In the long view of human history HSPs have likely served the function of being broad-based generalists who spend a great deal of time observing and learning, thus making excellent leaders and advisors, they also have likely been the creative class that innovates and creates.
The time many misfits spend alone can be extremely productive time as the mind has time and space to reflect and consider options and variations to any issue or problem. American popular media is also full of examples of the strange kid who hides away in his basement building new inventions or the bookworm (Hermione Granger) who possesses highly specific knowledge that later proves essential to the defeat of the antagonist.
The misfits, the marginalized and misunderstood (perhaps simply not understood) serve the purpose of originality in thought, actions, and usually personality. There are several key factors misfits share in common: a propensity toward boredom, a preference for solitude or controlled and measured interactions with others, and a profound sense of differentness they may find sticks with them throughout life. While many HSPs may indeed feel like misfits I suggest that they wear it with pride and revel in their uniqueness, their strange qualities that keep them perpetually out of step with society. In that uniqueness lies tremendous potential for the entire species.
Research Suggesting the Value of Social Rejection
In a study conducted to determine the impact of social rejection on creativity Kim, Vincent, and Goncalo (2012) hypothesized that social rejection would lead to diminished creativity, except for those individuals who possess an independent self-concept. This means that people who essentially are not dependent on group approval would not only be less affected by social rejection, but indeed see the rejection as an affirmation of their individuality and uniqueness thereby enhancing their creativity.
Through a series of three studies the authors found that their hypothesis did seem to be supported. Those individuals with independent self-concepts were motivated to seek even more creativity, as if asserting their own uniqueness was validated. However, for those people with interdependent self-concepts they tended to devote more energy toward regaining social acceptance and less on creativity. In short, it mattered to them that they had been rejected and they feel compelled to go to great lengths to be accepted by the social group.
None of this is to say that we should not seek some degree of acceptance from peers or social groups we may belong to. In fact, we need socialization and the positive energy that can provide, but we also need to be very selective about who we choose to spend time with so our precious energies are not squandered on those who only drain us. Couched within that conceptualization is the real jewel of this blog post: we can spend our time trying to be accepted by social groups or doing things that matter to us. Learning to accept and value ourselves is key to being able to develop our many talents and abilities. When one is more focused on individuation than social approval the growth opportunities are limitless.
“The most interesting people are the unusual. No one writes about or discusses the average, the ordinary, or the common; they write about and discuss the weird, the mad and the different, so if you are one, even though the opinions of others are of no importance, you are, in their eyes, significant enough to notice and remember.” Donna Lynn Hope – author of Willow
Dr. Tracy Cooper is a highly sensitive person researcher, private consultant, and artist providing one-on-one consulting for HSPs and sensation seeking HSPs in career transition. His web site may be found at drtracycooper.com