Live Through This

Go Your Own Way

Confessions of a lone wolf.

Illustration by Cynthia

Illustration by Cynthia

I hated the process of picking teams for gym class, so I used to hide in the huge wooden fortress on the playground when we played dodgeball. I remember feeling relieved when everyone became so engrossed in the game that they forgot I was there. For years, I chased that feeling, and imagined building a big imaginary fortress around myself whenever I felt pressure to join something.

I’m a people person by nature, so it’s hard for me to admit that herd-like antics make me recoil and leave me running for the hills (or wishing I could). I love to collaborate with people, but I’m also very protective of individuality, and have been for as long as I remember. I suspect this came from being in the minority, racially, at most of the schools I’ve attended, having uber-liberal academic parents in a community with lots of military families who tended to be kind of conservative and traditional, and being teased as a kid by some of my cousins and their friends for talking like a valley girl and listening to rock & roll instead of rap—basically, I wasn’t acting black enough for their tastes. I longed to be “normal,” but I wasn’t in so many categories, so I learned to shy away from anything that required me to blend in with the pack.

I hated being forced to join things in high school, like when I was expected to conjure up enough school spirit to get through pep rallies and basketball games, or to try out for a sport (a requirement at my school). Every time I was asked to pantomime this kind of collective enthusiasm, I felt like every fiber of my soul was being sucked away with a vacuum. That sounds really dramatic, but that’s really how it felt. I’m not competitive with other people by nature, but I run a hell of a race with myself, and I resented being forced to pretend I cared about how I did at stuff I knew I wasn’t great at. The architecture of high school is built on forced togetherness, but I was tired of having to explain why I didn’t give a damn about whether our school won a lacrosse game, or getting weird looks when I admitted I would rather be in the darkroom than at a game. Looking back, I know that I should have simply explained, “I don’t feel comfortable spending my time and energy on competitive sports when I really feel passionate about developing my creativity,” but at the time I just felt exhausted by everything I had to do to avoid looking like a spoilsport.

I wove into and out of different groups in high school; I hung out with the nerds, the band kids, the art students, and the popular crowd. I maintained my floater status with pride by sitting at different tables for lunch throughout the week and inviting kids from various groups to hang out at my house or swim in our neighborhood pool, despite being urged to “Choose a group already!” by the alpha types in each clique. I saw myself as a connector and a bridge builder, someone who brought different kinds of people together. I was an inadvertent diplomat in high school—I traveled everywhere and maintained my own culture and customs in every space or group I visited.

I thought the pressure to fit in would end with high school, but my first exposures to the larger world showed me that wasn’t the case—it was almost worse in professional settings. When I was 15 I interviewed for a retail job at a trendy teen clothing store, and I was asked how I would handle advocating for something my superiors decided was in the store’s best interest, even if I didn’t personally believe in it. I didn’t end up taking the job, because I could tell I would never do such a thing, which meant I would never fit in with the culture there.

My resistance to being a “team player” often made me wonder if I’m some kind of freak. Why did I instinctively withdraw from things other people find fun and inspiring? Then one day, when I was still in high school, I was looking through my parents’ books and I came across the postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s declaration that “fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (I told you my parents were academics!), which means that people who feel powerless rely on enthusiasm to give themselves the illusion that they’re powerful and in control, which meant that I was not a freak after all! Suddenly it made sense that I had recurring nightmares about falling into a pit of quicksand in my school uniform, a satin ribbon in my straightened hair and a lacrosse stick in my hand; what I initially thought was some sort of personality defect on my part was really a fear of losing my sense of self to fit into someone else’s ideal—a fear of powerlessness.

I’ve always made decisions with my individualism in mind, whether it’s the choice to join and then quit the Girl Scouts, finally pledging the same sorority that my mother belonged to when she was in college, or even leaving my sexist and homophobic church and look for a congregation that matches the sincerity and tolerance I feel from the God I know in my heart. I refused to join the strangely named Kissy Girl Club in second grade because chasing boys around campus seemed silly and less appealing then reading Judy Blume in the library, and I still refuse to join anything or anyone that doesn’t align with my core values of love, respect, dignity, and reciprocity. In any relationship, the value that I protect most fiercely is my right to do me, and for the most part, I’ll defend that for everyone else too.

Being a lone wolf doesn’t always work out, and sometimes I surprise myself by joining something against my will that turns out to be fun. When I lived in Washington, DC, a mentor criticized me for not attending office happy hours on a regular basis. She explained to me that many decisions, partnerships, and interoffice political dealings happened over cocktails, and said that my lack of enthusiasm was impeding my advancement at the organization. I wish I could say she was wrong, but she wasn’t. As soon as I started attending events and making connections, my relationships with co-workers improved exponentially. I still felt awkward being one of the only young people or women of color at most of these gatherings, but I kept on joining them in hopes that getting to know people on a deeper level would translate into support and trust in the future. And it did.

Being a loner doesn’t mean I don’t love to connect with people—I’m just very selective about whom I do that with. When I’m considering joining an organization or club, I think about what being a member of that group says about me. Moving to New York City and diving into the online feminist community helped me realize that my aversion to joining things had less to do with my fear of mob rule, and more to do with anxieties around being misunderstood, misguided, or affected by peer pressure. But I’ve finally found a community full of people who value the way I define myself, because they do the same thing. I’ve discovered that I may not be into joining, but building connections based on shared values and experiences is all right with me, and it actually feels good!

And I’ve also discovered that there are other lone wolves out there, and that they are they easiest ones to connect with, because they know how it feels. ♦

25 Comments

  • malvadaMujer September 12th, 2013 3:47 PM

    So I’m not a hidden introvert afterall! I feel so connected with you, Jamia. I feel so much better after reading this because I’m a very individual person too.. I always thought there was something not ok with me

    • Jamia September 12th, 2013 10:36 PM

      Thank you! :)

    • notnobody September 13th, 2013 5:26 PM

      I just have to point out- being an introvert isn’t a bad thing.

  • Chloe22 September 12th, 2013 4:46 PM

    <3 INDIVIDUAL FOREVER <3
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • KatGirl September 12th, 2013 5:56 PM

    This is literally the story of my life.
    http://www.kawaiiunicornsandsparkleponies.wordpress.com

  • Sophie ❤ September 12th, 2013 6:15 PM

    Oh gosh- the drawing? SO ME! (Except for in volleyball!!)

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • spudzine September 12th, 2013 7:10 PM

    I now understand myself 50 percent better than I did before reading this article. I just wanted to hear someone say that I was normal, and hear it is.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • ColoredSoft September 12th, 2013 7:44 PM

    JAMIA I LOVE YOU THANKYOU FOR WRITING THIS.

    • Jamia September 12th, 2013 10:37 PM

      Thank you! :) Love you right back!

  • LadyKatie September 12th, 2013 8:20 PM

    Hey Jamia!

    Just curious, what was the church that you joined? I personally denounced mine for the same reasons as you, and I can’t seem to find one that “matches the sincerity, non-judgment and tolerance” that I need in a church.

    Thank you!
    Katie

    • lydiamerida September 12th, 2013 9:35 PM

      Unitarian Universalism probably

      • Jamia September 12th, 2013 10:34 PM

        I do love Unitarian Universalist congregations. They have an amazing sex-ed program for teens and awesome teen conferences.

    • Jamia September 12th, 2013 10:33 PM

      Katie, I encourage you to consider exploring different communities and congregations and enjoy the journey. My friend Meggan wrote a beautiful book about her own spiritual quest that I think you’ll enjoy–here are the details. I still go to different progressive baptist, lutheran, and episcopalian services at churches who have policies and positions I support (i.e. women can be ordained, they marry and welcome LGBTQ couples etc) sometimes, but often attend interfaith women’s circles and gain so much from them.Check out Meggan’s book here:http://megganwatterson.com/reveal-the-book/

      • I.ila September 16th, 2013 12:10 PM

        I go to a Presbyterian Church in NYC. It actually split with the New York Presbyterian league in the 70s because it wanted to allow LGBTQ ministers, and there are always several female ministers. I’ve always found it very open. I feel bad that so many people think that all religious people are close minded, anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion; I’ve actually encountered people who are prejudiced against my decision to identify myself as inherently religious.

  • SWIZZLEFAIRY22 September 12th, 2013 11:10 PM

    Today I turned 19 and instead of feeling happy or excited, I reflected on my days in high school. I technically am African-American but my parents are African. (They’re from Sudan and Uganda.) Growing up in the South, I never really immersed myself in activities that other people my age found fun. Sports are big in Texas. Instead of playing lacrosse and listening to Lil Wayne, I would come home every day and lose myself in books, films, and rock music. I wasn’t opposed to school activities; I’ve just never been big on organized group activities. I floated between different groups, but mostly I was alone. Most of my African friends tried to integrate into the black culture I lived in, but I shied away. I got strange looks from the black and African kids around me. It’s difficult enough trying to maintain an identity and be the African girl my parents expected me to be. Reading your article, Jamia, made me realize that I’m not all that strange, and its okay to be a lone wolf. Thank you :)

  • lmcam September 13th, 2013 7:31 AM

    This is so relevant to me right now, I’ve been feeling so lost with a lot going on around me and this really sounds like me. Thank you so much Jamia, I thought I was the only one! x

  • Maelizzle September 13th, 2013 7:43 AM

    Loved this piece.
    I have found myself being a floater in 6th Form, never really settling in anywhere because there were too many great people that you would miss the opportunity to talk to, simply if they weren’t in ‘your group.’

    http://bambooseason.blogspot.co.uk/

  • joannna September 13th, 2013 1:20 PM

    Once again I have that great feeling while reading an article on Rookie; it’s like: I’m not a freak, I’m normal, there are others who feel like me, what a relief. I’m a lone wolf too, I guess. When I was a little kid, many times my parents told me I’m rude, arrogant or stubborn, because I often refused doing things only because somebody didn’t ask me whether I want to. I didn’t want to go for summer camp only because my father signed me up without asking me. He had good intentions of course, but I don’t think he has ever understood why his 10 years old daughter didn’t want this fantastic chance for having a great holidays. Now I don’t think it was very wise, because this camp could be really great and that was actually a gift from my father which I rejected, that was rude. But I was 10 and just wanted to decide about myself and to do everything my way. People often don’t even realize that they are forcing you, they probably think they are giving you a chance for having fun, socializing, or whatever. I always think then: what if I just don’t want to do this? You didn’t even ASK ME whether I want to.You just assumed I do. You are actually forcing me.When I was a teenager, I used to think something is wrong with me, that I’m such a withdrawn weirdo who avoids social activities. I thought I SHOULD be more participating, more involved, more smiled, happy, sociable and outgoing and I blamed myself for not being so. I blamed myself for spending evenings alone in my room, drawing, writing, reading and listening to Radiohead, instead going out and getting drunk, like a normal teenager, like everybody I knew. I blamed myself for not wanting to participate in activities I found boring or stupid or waste of time, with people I found boring or stupid too, or just not my kind. Now I’m 24 and the older I get, the more aware I am of who I am, what I like, what is important for me, etc, and I know that I can say ‘no’ if some activity or some people, or some idea doesn’t seem interesting to me. I dont’t think “I’don’t fit them” but “they don’t fit me”. Thank you for this article, Jamia. :)

    Of course I hated picking up too. Few times happened to me being the last person to choose. That is such, such an awful, embarrasing situation. I felt like having a word LOSER written on my forehead. I wonder how this could ever be allowed, you know? There were kids who were ALWAYS the last, how could they feel? I think picking up should be forbidden at school, actually.

  • xcelina September 14th, 2013 8:48 PM

    I spend a lot of time alone and reading this makes me feel less guilty about it.

    • Nomali September 20th, 2013 9:46 AM

      That’s exactly how I felt! Sometimes I think that I should try harder and be more agreeable and entertain small-talk more. But you know what, it’s OK to be how I am. How you are.

  • Maklime September 16th, 2013 2:41 PM

    After a really big fight that I had a couple of years ago, I realized that it was better for me (at least) to be a loner and shut myself in a room Since then, there were a couple of chances to make up the fight, but I just said no. But the opportunities that I had to participate in stuff were fun; I just don’t want to actively participate in those.
    Anyways, my story is completely different than it is written here, but it did make me feel better about staying in my room. Thank you.

  • Nomali September 20th, 2013 9:43 AM

    Jamia you get me, you really get me. I really didn’t ike school (but the five years I spent in high school took the cake as the most draining on my grade school years.) I felt uncomfortable doing group projects and changed lunchtime company every term. I think it’s a need to protect my space and wanting — needing to be able to change my mind. I also think it’s a fear of being misunderstood. I left high school fives ago and at 21 I wish I were less rubbish at people.

    Wonderful piece, as always.

    X

    http://nomali-from-soweto.tumblr.com
    http://nomali-from-soweto.blogspot.com

  • Lydia Jane October 2nd, 2013 10:39 PM

    Incredible article. I’m a senior in high school, and for the first 3 years I was a part of a very close-knit clique. I loved my group of girls a lot, but ultimately started to separate myself from them because I realized how toxic the situation was: everyone was so similar, and everyone was aspiring to be The Best to the point where it started to get weirdly competitive and not emotionally healthy. This piece resonated with me a lot, because even though I now only have a select few friends (all from different social groups) and we never hang out all together as a group, I feel much happier and less stressed :) Thank you for this.

  • barbroxursox October 4th, 2013 8:29 PM

    Wow, this piece was awesome! I was kiiinda similar to you in high school in that I sort of hovered between friend groups… at least after my best friend moved away and we lost touch and I needed to make closer friendships with other people. And as a freshman in college it’s even harder to keep my individuality/live fully the way I want to. At my university, there seems to be this huge divide between people who drink/party and people who don’t, but I occasionally drink and identify with people in both groups! I haven’t made any close friends yet because I don’t feel fully fit in with any group. Oh well. This helped me realize that my situation is okay!! And that I am not alone! So thank you so much for this, Jamia.

  • lotte3012 November 11th, 2013 11:24 AM

    thank you thank you for writing this!