When I was in third grade, my mom picked me up from school one day and told my brother, sister, and me that she had an announcement for us: We’d be homeschooled the next year. While my fifth grader sister was devastated and my kindergartener brother was indifferent, I was elated.
I’d always been painfully shy, highly sensitive, and incredibly introverted. Going to school every day and interacting with a classroom full of peers often felt difficult and scary for me. The thought of being able to stay home all day long with my mom and my books felt like heaven.
But becoming a homeschooler for the next few years added to my feelings of being an outsider. While I held on to one close friend from my public school days and made some new homeschooled friends, I was aware that I no longer led the life of a “regular kid,” one who had classmates and after-school activities. When the time for high school rolled around, I was desperate to feel “normal” again, wanting nothing more than to blend into the crowd and fit in with girls my age.
And so, in tenth grade, I went back to the public school in my small town. For six years, school had looked like the quiet dining room table and mail-ordered textbooks, and suddenly, it looked like lockers and crowded hallways and ringing bells and lunch lines. I was 14, and I had never felt more like a misfit in my life. I was struggling.
One morning in early fall, I walked into my art class, where I’d usually sit in the back by myself. I didn’t know anyone in the class, and my apprehension about my new atmosphere kept me from being too social. I walked past the table of “popular” kids—the older ones who I who I didn’t dare talk to because they intimidated me—and heard one of the girls talking about how fun it’d be to be the new kid in school.
“It’d be so easy,” she laughed loudly. “No one would know me, and I could just be whoever I wanted. I’d just make friends with everyone.” Her friends all laughed in agreement, and I made eye contact with her as she said it. Immediately, I felt a deep sense of shame. I hurried past and hid at my table in the back, not wanting to look up. Was there something wrong with me? Should I have been adjusting more easily?
It took me awhile to adjust—not only to the change in daily school structure, but to the reality of being an introverted, sensitive kid in a very extroverted environment. Eventually, I found my place, but I had to face down a lot of doubts and insecurity. But after that rough first year of high school, I learned a few big lessons that still guide me today.
1It’s okay to feel uncomfortable in life.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliché for a reason—it’s usually true. Discomfort is no fun, but it’s impossible to avoid. Life isn’t always easy, and the sooner we get comfortable with discomfort, the better. It can teach us so much about ourselves and our values. It’s okay to feel unsure and uneasy, and we will probably survive.
2No one is looking at you as much as you think they are.
Whenever we experience something new, like the first day of school or the first day of a new job, it can feel like everyone is staring at us. Does my hair look okay? Should I speak up now? Is it okay to sit here? Suddenly we’re hyperaware of ourselves, and we become consumed with what others might think. But you know what? No one is really looking at you as much as you think they are. Breathe.
3You can do hard things.
Repeat after me: I can do hard things. We’re capable of so much more than we think we are. Those hard things we need to tackle—opening up, stepping outside of our comfort zones, talking to new people—are often not as difficult as they seem to be in our heads. You might be surprised at how much you can actually handle.
4All transitions take time.
Nothing significant happens overnight. Life transitions take time and patience and grace. You’re allowed to be gentle with yourself while you navigate new terrain. You’re not expected to suddenly master that new thing with a snap of your fingers, so take the pressure off yourself.
5What’s wrong with being an outsider?
Who wants to be normal anyway? In high school, everyone wants to fit in—but you won’t feel that way forever. Don’t be afraid to make change, swim against the current, and let your freak flag fly. All the important changemakers in history existed on the peripheries and rejected the status quo. Sometimes you have to be an outsider to properly see in. Embrace your position.
It’s been quite a few years since I was a former homeschooler starting my first year at a public high school, and I’ve come a long way since then. While I’m still a highly sensitive introvert, I’m much better at navigating uncomfortable situations and battling self-doubt.
All of this is to say: Don’t listen to the girl in art class who convinces you that your feelings are wrong. The most important voice to listen to is your own.