I like to linger where the inner and the outer worlds meet. The big drama of nature and nurture, the complex veiled interactions and clandestine exchanges, they never fail to fascinate. In my younger years I often stood at that particular precipice and dove into the infinite depth of the subconscious. But now I know, that a lot happens at the place I once thought of as mere passage to the real thing. Most of my insights into human nature are discovered in the gossamer membrane between the worlds. This infinitesimal barrier is holding back our emotional content from spilling outside, and conversely, from the outside world to rush in and overwhelm what has been built in years of patience and struggle.
Most of us treat the juncture between the realms of the self and the collective quite casually. We move fluidly and imperceptibly in eternal circular movement between our inner and outer world. But for some of us, those boundaries are more a hurdle than an open door. Early in my work with patients, I recognized a subgroup of people with “inter-realm flow difficulties” who struggle with the transition between the inner and outer lives. I term this attribute “otherness.”
Otherness is a natural minority trait, akin to being left-handed or redhead, therefore it is often quite isolating in a majority group. We are naturally social, and derive a sense of well being and strength from belonging to a group. The nature of the group itself is secondary. It could even be a group of “anti group non conformers” so long as the members can bond with like-minded people. While many animals live in groups small and large only humans can cohere around a concept. The notion of being like-minded is key in understanding human nature, as it is unique to humans. Having a mind allows us to connect with people who think like us, something no other animal seems to posses. Conversely, having a mind can make us feel different and lonely and isolated, even if outwardly we seem like a successful member of the group.
Belonging becomes an issue around the age of 8, as soon as the tight adult supervision of early childhood begins to wane. We are left to fend for ourselves as the children society starts cohering around its own rules, and slowly drops below the adults’ radar. Throughout middle and high school, your friendships are forged based on a small, limited and seldom changing pool of peers. Essentially your grade mates are your community – the main actors with whom you perform your adolescent drama. Belonging to a pre-adult community, entails a strict adherence to its rules. Breaches of the rules or individuality are not tolerated and the transgressors are punished by exclusion and banishment, with little if any empathy or mercy. At no other period in life, does the feeling of otherness conflict so painfully with a strong desire to belong. Consequently, puberty and young adulthood tend to be intensely incompatible and bruising for non-belongers compared with any other period of life.
We are all born solipsistic – i.e., being unable to relate, and having no words to communicate with. In a way we are locked in our inner world, physically helpless and unable to partake in the outside communal world. Within a few months, even though our communication skills have not changed much, we show the first communal trait that will animate our lives: we start experiencing discomfort, when being left alone. That desire to be with others, the unpleasant sensation of loneliness, directs us towards the community even at the preverbal phase. We may not be able to relate, nor to understand the codes of interpersonal behavior, but we already want to belong.
The transition from the solipsistic experience of infancy, through childhood’s evolving awareness and responsiveness to the community, and finally the teenage crescendo of sameness and uniformity, does not unfold smoothly in the otherness person. The difficulty to belong to a group is not overtly apparent. Many people with otherness are empathic, outgoing, and seemingly sociable. I call them “pseudo extroverts”. It is significant that a person with otherness trait desires to belong much like anyone else. He or she lacks the ability but not the yearning. And therein rests the inner conflict of the otherness person.
By now, one may wonder, is otherness a cognitive or emotional disorder? The simple answer: it is not, but the experience is likely to cause some emotional difficulties. As opposed to relational disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome or personality disorders, a person with otherness traits can be, and often is, very perceptive and empathetic. They have no problem in embracing others, or creating loving relationship. They are not odd, or tempestuous, or self centered. In fact there is no obvious distinction from any well-adjusted individual. The distinction lies in the inability to belong.
In itself, the sense of belonging and loyalty to a group is natural and common. Becoming a member in a group is either passive or active. In certain groups, membership is automatic: family, physical attributes, ethnicity. Those are groups where individual members do not choose, or even prefer to belong to, but rather are being assigned to by their society. The assigned, or “natural” groups tend to be static or to change slowly in the course of one’s life.
The other types are the groups which one chooses to belong to. Social and professional activities present endless opportunities: A bunk at summer camp, a sports team, a certain group of friends, a professional organization, a social club etc. These elective membership groups, either exclusive or inclusive, entail an effort on the part of the individual to be included and remain in the group.
And so from birth to death, we belong to groups, and seek to belong to others. Often the only sacrifice we are required to make in order to belong, is to compromise some of our individual notions and needs for the communal ones. Most people flow rather effortlessly with this, and in fact do not view this as a sacrifice at all. But for an otherness person, subjugating the individual for the communal is sometimes an impossible, all-consuming emotional effort.
If you are an “otherness person” your difference from the majority lies in your difficulty to shift smoothly from the inner to the outer world: from the individual to the communal. You end up spending inordinate amount of time in your own mind even if surrounded by people. Your facade is interacting with the rest, but it is empty of you. What is a translucent, totally permeable membrane for most, is opaque and barely traversable for you. And you may not know it. You may treat your otherness as invisible shackles, making it harder for you to be you. You realize that some truly simple aspects of life, which accordingly are so easy for the others, are inexplicably very difficult for you.
People with otherness do not know why they are different. They go through long life stretches, unable to enjoy the benefits of togetherness. You may be the “life of the party”, but inside you are like a child whose parents have company past your bedtime; you are again lying in your little bed, in another room, while the laughter and voices of your parents party drift in and out of your sleep, mysterious and far. Otherness is an innate trait that like extremes of height or having green eyes, confers a status of minority wherever you are. Much like other outlier traits, it can be modified very little if at all. I like the analogy of otherness to left-handedness. Like otherness, it is a congenital trait that renders the person almost imperceptibly different from most. However, it has a profound effect on the cognitive experience. And while Left-handedness does not intrude in a person’s life , trying to modify it does. No matter how much one practices using the right side, the left would always remain the natural, comfortable one.
So “hanging out” at the inter-world juncture, appreciating the ease of flow, has become another clinical focus for my work. Knowing where to look, I encounter many people who meet my criteria for otherness, but could not explain the feeling to themselves. I meet those whose lifelong ambition to embrace a group, any group, the way others do, has been repeatedly thwarted. All they can do is simulate devotion to some socially acceptable (or even required) groups, but fail to experience the emotional intensity binding the other group members. They struggle to belong, they try harder than the rest, but they correctly observe that most people do not share the same difficulty. Indeed, most people flow effortlessly between the individual and the communal, feeling no impeding boundary. The bonds formed among the collective, easily spill into the individual members, and take root in their inner worlds. In that environment of shared bonhomie, the otherness person is lost, unable to join the emotional flow of the group. Walking alone among good friends and relatives and spending inordinate time in their own inner world, the otherness person is an eternal loner in a world of community.