These days, I spend all my free time being manic on the internet. I’m scribbling notes on machine learning, I’m pretending that lovingkindness meditation is changing my life, I’m discovering hellishly esoteric Twitter accounts that thrive on the false interpretation of buzzwords for comedy, then letting said Twitter accounts make me feel hopelessly unlearned, out-of-touch, and excluded. It is great fun for my synapses and terrible news for my self-esteem.
On the advice of Sasha Chapin, the author of my favorite Substack newsletter, I am also trying to reconcile with the parts of myself that I detest through a process called shadow work. If you run in spiritual circles, you are likely familiar with this practice. Simply, it involves confronting and making peace with your “shadow self”, the hidden parts of you that cause discomfort and inspire icky feelings. To do this, Sasha recommends a book by Carolyn Elliott called Existential Kink, an offbeat self-help guide that theorizes that many of the painful circumstances we find ourselves in are self-generated. Though we claim that we don’t want to be in difficult situations, we unconsciously act in ways that keep old patterns of behavior alive and functional even when they cause us suffering. By bringing those patterns into conscious awareness - or even better, loving awareness - we begin to reclaim agency over our feelings, allowing us to derive pleasure from unpleasant sensations, or recognize the illogic of our actions and change them. In sexier language, we can cum to our problems until they are no longer problems.
I read and continued to reread different sections of this book over the course of several weeks, in the meantime spritzing rose-scented mist into the air and trying to “drop in'' to my embodied self during short meditations. Lying on my back, I tested my reaction to phrases like, “I am unlovable” and “I will never live up to expectations” and “I will always sell myself short.” These had the approximate flavor of truth, like aspartame mimics sugar, but fell short of triggering the red-hot flash of shame/desire/”turned on”-ness that would signal a hit upon something major. Discouraged, I retreated to Sushiro, a heavily air-conditioned conveyor-belt sushi restaurant where I like to muse on my problems and consume cheap sushi. There, I spent four hours reflecting, drinking bottomless green tea, and eating one plate of nigiri every 30 minutes before ultimately landing upon the realization that my “irresolvable” pattern is feeling like I never truly belong.
When I look back at the course of my life, this comes across as a fairly obvious recurring theme, but evidently, I have an outstanding ability to ignore areas of agitation given that it’s taken me this long to investigate, map, and accept this feeling. I’m still working on loving it. The central thesis of Existential Kink posits that the reason why I continually find myself in a position of non-belonging is because some fucked-up, shrouded part of myself secretly craves the drama of being excluded, othered, not good enough, misunderstood, out of place, etc. Elliott refers to this as the shadow self. I think of it as the emo me - the part of me that explains why I know the words to every song on A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and have trouble hugging my father.
When I think about the type of person who would earnestly feel like they don’t belong, I picture a weird kid wearing a hoodie too thick for the weather, gnawing on an Uncrustable and muttering to themselves about something convoluted and indigestible to the majority of the population, like astral physics or Homestuck lore. Or a pretentious, self-congratulatory elitist who leans heavily on a single accolade acquired years prior to distance themselves from “average people” and doesn’t realize that their “helpful explanation'' comes across as extremely patronizing. Or a pick-me girl volunteering herself for degradation, because validation hits harder when it’s acquired through unconventional means. Basically, Jughead from Riverdale as he delivers his "I’m a weirdo" speech, but without the campy self-awareness or commitment to irony that tones it down. My initial reaction is to viscerally deny that any of these are me, but my fourth or so reaction is to shamefully accept that to some extent, I derive pleasure from acting out certain shades of these personalities. I like to be just different enough to come across as interesting or surprising, but not so different that I’m completely uncategorizable within the social order. This way, I get to maintain my self-constructed narrative that I really am trying my best to fit in; it’s just that some essential part of me renders me ineligible for full acceptance.
Non-belonging comes in two main flavors, and both of them resonate with me. Broadly speaking, using the existential kink framework, I’d say they are sadistic and masochistic. I don’t belong here because I’m better than this is sadistic, helping me feel high and mighty and special because I have some trait or insight or ego that some other people do not. I don’t belong here because I’m not good enough is masochistic, allowing me to feel like the mysterious, complicated, unknowable, troubled soul that I long to be perceived as.
In my quest to wrest forth the repressed part of myself and embrace her tightly, I made a list of the times when I felt like I didn’t belong, then practiced sitting with the feelings that arose. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve made any “breakthroughs,” but at the very least, in addition to being deeply mortified by my most awkward moments, I am also slightly amused by my refusal to just, like, lean into the vibe and have a good time.
To be clear, I wrote this list for documentation purposes, and because I’m practicing being myself (read: neurotic) in public. I did not write it with the intent to receive pity. I am sure it is clear to both of us that I live an ultra-charmed life, so there’s no reason to feel sorry for me. In the opposite direction, please forgive me for being hung up on what I also recognize as extremely minute and unimportant first-world problems. Rather than either of these options, perhaps you can instead view me as prone to dramatics, self-obsessed, or flatly insane - these traits, while not exactly complimentary, will at least titillate my enneagram Type 4 personality.
If you aren’t in the mood to read what is essentially a massive list of complaints, here’s the TL;DR: I have felt non-belonging at many points in my life, for many different reasons, and in many different ways.
Feel free to skip to the end of this blog to read about how I (tried to) use existential kink to reconcile this.
Final note, the last thing I want to do is insinuate that the kindness of my friends, family, and the general human populace has not been “enough”. I don’t want to pull an “I have no friends!” while talking to you, a friend. I have received incredible, bountiful love and support throughout my life. There is not a single person in my life who desires to hurt me. I know this and am grateful for it. Yet, I feel a pervasive lack of belonging. All these things can be true at once.
a non-exhaustive and overly personal list of times when i felt like i didn't belong
I am filled with anticipatory dread thinking about people reading that long and whiny list and knowing exactly what situations I’m referencing, then coming to the conclusion that I truly am a loser, being judgmental about my heightened perspective on what everyone else experienced as incredibly mundane, or feeling inclined to apologize for situations that are nobody’s fault and entirely my own farcical construction. They might want to talk about things, which is likely to be scary and excruciating, but the braver parts of me know that it might be healing and restorative too.
In making the list, I identified some reasons why I refuse to feel like I truly belong. I reject belonging because:
Throughout Existential Kink, Elliott asks the reader to consider that “having is evidence of wanting.” As in, some part of us genuinely wants whatever it is that we have, even if that happens to be something that causes us anguish. It’s a bold claim, but it’s an interesting one to toy with. If you allege not to want something but continually find yourself constructing scenarios where it happens anyways, perhaps it’s possible that there’s actually some desire there.
I tried to consider how my aversion to belonging has benefitted me, or at least my shadow self. I want to not belong because:
“Special” comes in many shapes and sizes, both positively and negatively connotated. In some instances, non-belonging makes me feel special because it allows me to develop more accurate social perception, the ability to code-switch, and neat introspective qualities. It makes me independent, capable, and non-reliant. It also hits on a lot of tortured artist tropes; surely, non-belonging makes me a stronger writer, a more unique person, and a better conversationalist. In the other direction, sometimes I feel special in the derogatory, pitiable kind of way - more excluded than different. But even this can be satisfying, because it provides evidence that I really am Bad and Not Worth Getting To Know, which protects my ego-mind and saves me the trouble of needing to rewrite my constructed narrative of self. These are all compelling reasons why my shadow might pull me away from belonging, even whilst I yearn for it.
The second point is harder for me to explain because it requires me to define what “belonging” is. I do not have a good pulse on this, because, as this blog post so thoroughly outlines, I am not sure I have ever felt it. My best guess is that true belonging is when the group feels like just as safe a place as your individual self. (Maybe that is too high a bar? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.) In belonging, you use love or shared goals or similar characteristics as justification to tether yourself to others, and suddenly, the actions of other people have significant influence over your life. They usually use their power for great good, but they occasionally use it for great evil, often on accident. You express care for each other. You experience acceptance. You become responsible for others’ well-being because you want to be. Your specialness starts to be viewed in contrast, rather than in absolute. You reveal your full self, and this gives others the power to hurt you in visceral ways. But maybe, also, to support you in visceral ways. I am starting to think that this is a risk worth taking.
In an email, my friend wrote me: “It’s hit me that I have a community here, these people love me, all these things that either didn’t occur to me or I doubted them into oblivion.” Maybe it is too much to wish for, but I hope that I am also doubting some love into oblivion.
For right now, accepting my shadow self kind of just looks like taking responsibility for the bad stuff too. If I’m unwilling to admit that some part of me likes to stir up trouble for entertainment, then I’ll forever cry “woe is me” and believe that I have been relegated to a cursed reality of perpetual alienation. If I’m willing to look the nasty parts of myself in the eye, then I get to have a little fun with the woe. And if I want to change the pattern and exercise ownership over the difficult parts of my life, I’m ultimately capable of that too. The point is recognizing where the behavior stems from so that I can consciously let it happen or intervene and switch courses. The next time I find myself withdrawing instead of accepting the hands that are outstretched towards me, I have the wisdom to approach the situation with intention (but also a sense of amusement and play), rather than defaulting to whatever mechanism of fleeing and fretting and “not knowing why everything is going wrong” that I learned in childhood. I can also outstretch my own hand. I can recognize how viewing myself as deficient or separate once served me, but no longer does. I can get tangled up in situations that I actually enjoy, and not situations that I merely enjoy in a perversive, shitty kind of way. I am allowed to belong. Maybe I already do.
I have a lot more meditation to do in order to accept these truths, not just be able to write them down coherently, but I think I’m on the right path.
Last Christmas, I was eating coconut noodle soup in a Japanese coastal town when I realized that I am the world. Following the logic that a wing is bird and a branch is tree and a forest is earth, a person is world. I have always known this on a subconscious level, but on that day, I brought my understanding to the surface, and it awakened me to my ever-present liberation. I accepted that I am one modicum of the capital “S” Buddhist conception of Self (and also, the entirety of it). I acknowledged that, by virtue of being divined by the indefectible Universe, there are aspects of my existence that are fundamentally beautiful and worth experiencing.
This understanding ushered in many months of amazement with the world, a reanimation of childlike wonder that I had not felt for many years. I believed in the promise of Being and consequently believed in myself. I let go of impossible expectations. I made new friends. I ran a marathon. I tried new things for 28 weekends in a row. I looked at the ocean and the sun and cried tears of gratitude. Life was sickeningly sentimental and incredibly based. There is belonging in feeling like the world is on your side, that you are on your side, that you and the world are collaborating on a shared vision of flourishing.
If I am a mere conduit through which the unflawed Universe takes shape, then I am allowed to be, feel, and love every part of my existence, right here and right now - even the yucky and shameful parts. And if we are both the world, then I am sure we have more overlap than I am giving credit for.
Maybe we can find belonging together. Do you want to try it? We can take a walk around the block, then fall into the crevices of each other’s minds. I’ll bring snacks.