A Message To The Teens Who Are Struggling To Fit In

To The Teens Who Are Struggling To Fit In

Teenage boy lying on a sofa looking bored
Elva Etienne/Getty

Dearest teen,

Hi. How are you? Not well, I suppose. I mean, if you’re here, you are probably hurting. You’re probably struggling. If you’re reading this, you are (more likely than not) having a hard time. And while I don’t know you or your personal struggle — I don’t presume to assume your pain or plight — I do want to ask you a favor: Hang with me, for three minutes. Maybe five. Give this 37-year-old your ear and time, because I’ve been here (in this place and space) standing where you are now, and distance has given me perspective, insight, and some well-seasoned advice.

You see, I wasn’t always confident or “cool.” I wasn’t always self-reliant or self-assured, and I didn’t always have a good or admirable life. I grew up poor, in the home of a hoarder. My mother was mentally ill. My father died when I was 12 years old, and while I was a straight “A” student —  a band geek, bookworm, and “drama nerd” — these things added fuel to the proverbial fire.

I wore shoes from Payless or, more frequently, Goodwill. My pants stopped at my ankles, not because it was the style but because my clothes didn’t fit. My shirts were too big. My bottoms were too small. And these things made me an easy target. Well, that and the full-body back brace I wore from 13 to 15. By seventh grade, I was being harassed on a daily basis. Bullies followed me home, making fun of my appearance — and my family’s situation. By eighth grade, I was hiding in the bathroom. I dreaded classroom transitions and walks in the hall, and by ninth grade, I was cutting class. I spent hours in English class, with a teacher who cared for me and befriended me like a parent. But it was scary and lonely.

I was lonely.

I wanted to be a part of something bigger. Something “greater.” I wanted to live like teenagers did in the movies; I wanted a gaggle of best friends. I wanted to be seen and accepted. To be loved. And I wanted to go to house parties with pizza and red Solo cups. I mean, these things weren’t my “scene” — but to be included would have been nice. An invite would have sufficed. Instead, I was shunned, bullied, and harassed. I was a wallflower, passed over and ignored, and it stung.

I can still recall the pain.

Make no mistake: I had a few friends. We were a circle of  outcasts. The “weird” ones. The forgotten ones. We weren’t jocks or goths, punks or preps. And we didn’t clique with anyone, at least not anyone except ourselves. But being isolated at such an integral time — feeling like I was missing out — hurt. It really fucking hurt. Plus, school was everything. Life happened between those double doors, and to be excluded sucked. I felt like I couldn’t move forward. There was no way I could survive four (more) years in this small town. Four (more) years of harassment, embarrassment, isolation, and put downs.

But I did. By will and fate, I did. And learned a few lessons along the way.

The teenage years are temporary. The pain and shame will pass.

While you’ve probably heard this before, life goes by fast. Very fast. I blinked and had two kids. (One is eight, the other is two) But when you’re scared, lonely, angry, or struggling — the hours can seem long. Minutes feel like days. A look at my teenage diary reminds me just how hard some moments were. Some days, I wanted to give up. I wanted to run away. But I promise you this: This season of your life is short. Hang on to what you have. Celebrate the friendships you can maintain. Take life one day, hour, or minute at a time, and say to the hell with the rest. Being popular isn’t important, in high school or after; being a decent person is.

Being unique is awesome. It’s badass.

Do you not fit in because of your clothes or your hair? Is your appearance different from that of your peers? Or were you just dealt a different hand? Are you socially “awkward?” Whatever it is, embrace it. Embrace you, and do it now, because being unique isn’t just awesome, it’s bold. It’s brave. It’s fucking badass. Oh, and in the “after world” — the real world, i.e. life after school — unique individuals are celebrated. Some of the most successful people are also the most awkward.

Your level of happiness won’t always be tied to popularity.

Right now, it may seem like your entire world revolves around what you wear, do, and/or who you date or hang out with, but it won’t always be like this. Trust me. Things get better — and, in some ways, easier. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

You are not alone, even if you think you are.

I know how scary and lonely the teenage years can be, particularly if you’re an “outcast.” If your circle of friends is non-existent or small. But you’re not the only one going through what you’re going through — and you don’t have to sit alone with your feelings. From teachers and neighbors to your best friend, people are there (and they care). 

Opinions really are like assholes. 

I know, I know. With this stupid cliche I sound like a total mom, right? But hear me out: No matter where you go or what you do, someone won’t like you. It’s a given. Even the most beloved people are chastized and criticized. But opinions only matter if you give them weight, if you listen to them, and believe them. So remember while everyone has — and is entitled to — their opinion, most of them stink. They are judgmental statements and viewpoints that are inconclusive, and not fact based. (See also: bullshit.) Own your shit, but not everyone else’s.

Does that make today easier? Will knowing these things make you feel any better? Maybe, but probably not. I’ll be the first to tell you that high school really fucking sucked. My teenage years were hard. And having an adult tell me otherwise felt absurd. They didn’t get it, or me. They didn’t understand.

But I promise you, I do get it. I’ve been there. You’re not alone, and while you want (and yearn) to be accepted and loved, you don’t need to “fit in” for friendship. You don’t need to wear certain shoes or carry a special bag to be somebody, or something, and you don’t need to change your behaviors. Fuck the labels. Let them call you crappy names — just don’t believe them. Don’t give them purpose or power.  Because you are you, and that is everything you need to be.