The Struggle of Being the Girl on the Outside

    When I was in high school, Taylor Swift’s song, “The Outside,” was, without a doubt, one of my favorite tunes. One of Taylor’s lesser-known ballads, the song is told from the perspective of a girl who’s perpetually on the outside. She fails to forge connections with the people around her, leaving her feeling lonely. “How can I ever try to be better, nobody ever lets me in,” she laments. The song’s message of loneliness and the frustration that accompanies it resonated with my 15-year-old self. Truth be told, I may as well have been the girl singing the song. I fit the perfect high school stereotype of being that nice, but studious and quiet girl. You know, the one everyone liked well enough to say hi to in the hallways and study chemistry with during free periods, but the one no one invited to parties or spent much time with outside of school. I had plenty of acquaintances, but struggled to form friendships that went beyond the surface level. Every morning when I walked through my school doors, I was met with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation. While the rest of the girls in my grade were gushing to each other about prom dates and dresses, I would just put my earbuds in, turn up the music, and try not to look on longingly, wishing that I was a part of such friendships. Needless to say, I was eager to graduate and start college. I’d hoped that going to a college almost ten times the size of my small high school would allow me meet more people, some of whom I’d ultimately be able to connect with on a deeper level.

    However, by the time my first term of college rolled around, I’d never felt lonelier. At least in high school, I knew almost everyone in my grade by name and had a lunch table to sit at, even if I hardly contributed to most conversations. In college, I was starting completely from square one. I didn’t know anyone, and my reserved nature began to present problems that had once been minor, but were now insurmountable. For example, the first few people I met immediately asked to connect with me via social media. Given that I was an extremely private person who hated photos, my Facebook profile consisted of a meager compilation of prom and graduation photos that I had been tagged in, my Snapchat account boasted a snap score of 100, and my Instagram page was nonexistent. For the first time in my life, it seemed as though being social media savvy was essential to making friends. The people I met were constantly sharing photos and commenting on each other’s posts, and in failing to do so myself, I felt as though I was already missing out on the chance to make friends. Moreover, while in high school, parties were events that most people occasionally went to, but only a select few attended religiously, college parties seemed to be an integral part of the undergraduate social scene at my university. I felt as though I had to overcome my fear of large gatherings of people I didn’t know well, and force myself through the fraternity doors every Friday and Saturday night if I wanted to make friends.

    About halfway through my first term of college, I decided that if I wanted to overcome the suffocating loneliness that I was experiencing, I needed to completely change myself. I thought that maybe the reason I’d never been able to cultivate close friendships was that there was something inherently wrong with me. Therefore, to make myself a desirable friend, I felt as though I had to pretend to be someone I was not. I made a conscious effort to check my social media accounts several times a day, and despite my dislike of photos, sent out more selfies via Snapchat. I also went to as many frat parties as I could, outwardly acting as though I was having the time of my life, and telling the people around me so, when inwardly, I was trying hard not to gag at the overwhelming scent of beer and not to flinch every time someone in the crowded basement accidently shoved me. Yet despite my hardest efforts, I wasn’t having an easier time making friends. It was almost as though the people around me knew that I didn’t truly fit in with them. I grew increasingly frustrated, wondering why, no matter how hard I tried, I was like the girl in my old favorite song – namely, always “on the outside, looking in.” As a result, I became insecure, over-analyzing every aspect of my personality and even my appearance in an effort to find an explanation for my outsider syndrome. Maybe I studied too much, was too shy, or didn’t have the right connections to get into the best parties, I told myself. To make matters worse, I overheard a passing – and in hindsight, unlikely intentionally malicious – comment about how thin I was, and given my already vulnerable state, was left feeling horrible. I asked myself, “Could my body really be part of the reason I was having trouble making friends?” I found it hard to believe that people could be so superficial that they’d discriminate against someone for not having what they perceived as an attractive body, but I was so desperate for an explanation that anything seemed possible. Before I left my dorm every morning, I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to make sure that my clothes were flattering on my frame. I also spent more time with my flat iron and makeup, in an effort to smooth out any flaws in my appearance and thus any obstacles to potential friendships. Unsurprisingly, my efforts only led me farther down the path of loneliness and disappointment.

    Eventually, I grew exhausted. Spending whatever free time I had in fraternity basements grew less and less appealing every weekend, and scrutinizing my clothes to determine if they fit perfectly had become an unhealthy obsession. While lacking close friends was lonely, nothing screamed self-destructive like spending a whole day pretending to be someone I was not. I finally reached my breaking point towards the end of my second term, when on a Friday night, as I sat alone in my dorm, without any weekend plans, I realized I was actually further distancing myself from people by taking on a superficial identity. As I contemplated my situation, it also became apparent that I had spent so much time suppressing my true nature that I never did the things I loved anymore. I rarely watched romantic movies from the comfort of my own bed, or read high fantasy novels that I could gush to my sister about, or even, to my utter horror, listened to old Taylor Swift songs at the end of a long day. In my desperation to fit in, I had grown ashamed of all of the little things that made me who I was. And after realizing that I missed all of those little things, I decided to ditch the false identity, and instead take pride in my real one.

Over time, I stopped going to the parties that were making me so miserable and started wearing the clothes that made feel confident, regardless of what others would think. I also stopped trying to force friendships that weren’t working out. Yes, as Taylor says in her song, I’ve “been a lot of lonely places,” but in doing so, I’ve learned a few important lessons when it comes to forming friendships. For one, pretending to be someone I’m not never leads to real connections with people. How can I connect with people when I’m lying about who am? Second, assuming that friendships don’t work out because there’s something wrong with me, or because the other person has a problem with me, is unhealthy. Usually, when people fail to become good friends, it’s because they don’t really have anything in common, not because one person is deliberately discriminating against the other. There’s no point in overthinking it. Third, don’t assume that I’m the only person in this position. Just because someone outwardly looks like she has a lot of friends, that’s not always the case. Googling “loneliness in college,” and finding a myriad of relatable anecdotes taught me this. Lastly, loneliness is all relative. Everyone wants that close friend with whom she can share all of her secrets, but it usually takes time to cultivate such friendships. In the meantime, I’ve learned to spend more time outside my dorm, whether it’s studying in the library, joining a few clubs I’m interested in, or working out at the gym. Sure enough, simply spending time around others, regardless of whether they’re my best friends, has helped with feelings of isolation. Talking to people back at home regularly, but not too often, has also helped to combat loneliness without leading to homesickness. Do I still feel lonely sometimes? Yes. I don’t, however, view my position “on the outside, looking in,” as one of utter desolation anymore, and instead proudly showcase my personality, allowing it to shine brightly with every passing day.