I’m a huge advocate for stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Often the best times for genuine growth stem from taking a chance on a new challenge and diving in. Although moving to the middle-of-nowhere China, not speaking the language, and being the only American female foreign teacher in the town was difficult, I learned so much from that first year in China, and it forever changed my life. Standing beyond my bounds felt uncomfortable, but I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
Then there’s another kind of departure from one’s comfort zone, one that I’ve also experienced. This is the type where being uncomfortable is not about expansion or growth, but rather an intuitive reminder that something doesn’t fit. Sure, it’s possible to grow from the struggle, to persevere, but no matter how hard you try, those proverbial pants just don’t fit. Maybe they fit once, but they don’t fit anymore, and it definitely feels uncomfortable.
If you’ve met me, you would probably say I come across as confident, happy, and strong in who I am. That has not always been the case. As a middleschooler, I desperately wanted to fit in, so I was willing to change whatever was necessary to be part of the popular group. Curls? I tried to straighten them. Clothes? I tried to wear the “right” ones. Topics of discussion? Whatever everyone else was talking about, and I won’t even begin to recount the endless hours of obsessing over my appearance and how it would never make me one of the hot popular girls that all the boys liked. I tried so hard to fit the mold of who I thought I needed to be, and not only was it exhausting, it didn’t work.
8th grade was probably the most difficult year of my life. I started at a new school in a year where there were few new kids. I thought because I had a friend in the popular group, I had an “in” and that all my dreams of becoming popular, fitting in, and being accepted would come true. Well, I thought wrong. I didn’t account for the girl that I thought was my friend spreading rumors, and suddenly my dreams of becoming popular vanished. For all the women/girls reading, you know it’s a bad year in middle school when you don’t get invited to any girls’ houses for a sleepover. To top it off, that was also the year that my other grandmother came to live with us because she was dying of lung cancer. She passed in our guest room, weighing only 55 lbs. I was 14.
I believe that things happen for a reason, and it turned out that the most difficult year of my life and that girl were actually huge blessings in disguise. If it had not been for her or that year, my life could have turned out very differently. The universe showed me in no uncertain terms that I was not meant to be like everyone else. None of us are. We’re all unique. That summer, I went to camp, and for the first time in my life, I was me. The “me” that walks up to random people and introduces myself, the “me” that is often playful, silly, and goofy, the “me” that is curious and adventurous. It was there that I met a girl that changed my life. I talked about her in one of my original posts, Letters of Appreciation. She was my closest friend that summer, and it was the first time in my life that I felt affirmed in being who I was. I had to leave camp early that year, so she arranged a surprise going away party for me. No one had ever done anything like that for me outside of my family. I walked into the room and all over the walls were “We’ll miss you, Jackie” posters that all the girls on my floor had created. That one act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.
The next year, I went back to school as me. I met my best friend, who was one of the “new girls” that year. We decided that we would make an extra effort to reach out to anyone who didn’t have a place to sit at lunch, or somewhere to go on a Friday night, no matter what high school “caste” they belonged to until they naturally found their own group.
A life that doesn’t fit anymore is not exclusive to our childhoods. I wrote a song recently for the banjo that’s called “Two Sizes Too Small,” and it’s about just that, when being out of one’s comfort zone is not so much an opportunity to grow as an intuitive reminder that we all deserve a life that fits.