During a recent conversation with a friend, we were talking about influential moments in our lives that have helped shape us into the adults we are learning to become. She asked me if I had a specific incident from my childhood in which I felt an overwhelming desire to fit in.
I said “Sure. All of it.”
But all joking aside, I honestly couldn’t think of a specific time. I think we all have some part of us that wants to fit in; we want to know that we’ve “made it” – that we’re safe from judgements and criticisms, and that we won’t have to worry about getting picked last for team sports.
All through school I floated somewhere safely in the middle. I was never the most popular girl, but I was never really singled out, either (aside from a few occasional times in middle school that I can remember that weren’t too pleasant). I was always quiet, earned good grades, and had a steady group of friends. People were more likely to not know who I was or not remember me than make fun of me, just because I kept to myself and my familiar routine so much. Because of my anxiety, I didn’t want to stand out, so I made sure that I blended right in.
So no, I couldn’t really think of a glaring memory of a time when I wanted so badly to fit in. I just remember wanting to coast on by. But for the sake of our conversation, she kept asking if there was something – because there must be, that helped shaped me into the person I am today. Things that have stayed with me and have played small or big roles in how I respond to situations. She was convinced there was something from my childhood and I was convinced she was crazy (sorry!)
But I remember walking away from the conversation that day with her telling me that it would come to me eventually. There was something important there, she just didn’t quite know what it was yet.
Fast forward a month or two later and I met with this same friend over coffee. In the middle of a random conversation it slapped me across the face.
“I’m a dog person!” I shouted at her as we were scrolling through Pinterest picking out cute new shoes we wanted to buy. “I remember! I’m totally a dog person, and you were RIGHT!”
She had no recollection of our previous conversation – one that turned out to be so monumental to me, I just hadn’t realized it at the time. I DID have a moment in my childhood that involved the desperate feeling of wanting to fit in, and it HAS stayed with me and impacted me in so many things in my life and how I make decisions today.
In second grade, we were given an in-class assignment that went through a series of questions and we were supposed to answer with our preference. One of those questions asked if we preferred dogs or cats.
Now, I’m sorry to all my cat-loving friends, but I can’t stand the creatures. I’m horribly allergic – as in, breaking out in itching hives, can’t see, can’t breathe, tears streaming down my face and snot bubbling out of my nose – allergic. Plus, I just really freaking love dogs.
I immediately wrote “dogs.” It was a no-brainer.
It was then time to go around and read our answers. One by one, all of my friends, and almost every single girl in the class read aloud that they preferred cats over dogs. I started to feel a nagging sense of doubt creep in. Only boys were reading off the they liked dogs. Not one single girl. What if they think I’m weird? It finally got to the last two people before me: the two people who happened to be my best friends, and also happened to be the most popular girls in the class – if you can imagine such a thing at such a young age. I listened, distraught, as they both read “cat.”
I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out my next move. I quickly erased my answer and penciled in CAT as fast as I could, and read my answer out loud. We got through everyone else in the class, and to my astonishment I watched the last student stand up to read her answer. “Dog.” Jenny Benisch read, loud and proud, never batting an eye as she sat back down. (Yes, Jenny. If somehow magically you stumble across my blog, this is most definitely a memory that has stayed with me in the 26 years since I’ve seen you, and you have definitely played a vital role).
I immediately regretted changing my answer. Not because I wouldn’t have been alone after all, but because, even at eight years old, I recognized confidence. Jenny didn’t give a cat’s you know what if anyone liked her answer or not, or if she was alone in her opinions. She knew what she liked and she said it. I desperately wanted to feel that way.
That memory HAS stayed with me all these years, and it often comes up in situations when I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be true to ME, and not care what other people think.
There have been a lot of times heading into a situation, both big and small, or when I’m feeling extremely vulnerable, that I whisper to myself “I’m a dog person.” And it’s always been my way of reminding myself that it’s okay to be who I am. It’s okay if I’m different from everyone else, and it’s okay to stand out. I walk into a lot of situations now as a dog person, and it’s something that I strive to be on the daily. I never want to change myself to fit someone else’s mold.
It’s crazy how something so trivial has impacted me in such a big way. In a world where everyone is being told they have to look or behave a certain way to fit in, I am now learning to find comfort in standing out. Dogs vs. cats may not be the most life-changing choice, or one that will make the biggest difference in the world. But being proud of who you are and what you have to say – most definitely will. I just hope that other people can see the value in being a dog person, too (both metaphorically and literally – because cats suck 😉 ). KIDDING! The key message here is this: Do you, boo, even if it involves loving dogs more than cats.
Natasha Funderburk is a wife, #boymom, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutrition Consultant, and ACE-Behavior Change Specialist. When not watching her son play baseball, she can be found on various writing platforms, coaching her clients to live their best lives, drinking all the coffee, and conducting living-room dance parties.