We’ve all felt it.
Even if there’s a place in our lives where we’re on the “inside” of the group, we’ve all experienced many more places where we’re on the outside looking in.
For me, I’m on the inside when I’m with a group of my coaching colleagues with whom I’ve interacted over the years. Sometimes, but not always, I feel that way when I’m around other entrepreneurs.
But more often than not, at least in my mind, I’m on the edges. It doesn’t matter if I know a healthy handful of people in the room or not. There’s just an overriding sensation that most everyone in the room knows each other except for me.
I found myself slightly triggered at a professional association event I attended as a guest recently. It was a lovely group of people; funny, smart, driven. And familiar. Many of these people had known each other for years, and it was an intimate enough group that it was fairly clear who was an insider and who wasn’t. Not that they made those distinctions; it was more in the way they joked together, called each other out, referred to past or future events. They acknowledged there were newbies in the room and made time for some very quick introductions, but that’s as far as the accommodation went.
As I spent time with the group, I noticed myself feeling a bit resistant. If something was supposed to be funny but I didn’t get the reference, I didn’t force myself to laugh. I focused on just talking to one or two new people during the networking time instead of trying to connect with more (which is actually fine in any circumstance). I let myself get a bit distracted by the sense of being on the edge of the people, instead of being immersed in the information.
I even started to wonder if this was a group I wanted to join. It felt a bit… cliquish.
So I felt it. I felt that outsider feeling, of being the only person not in on the joke. Did I really want to be part of a group that was cliquish?
The group wasn’t intentionally doing anything to make me feel unwelcome. They were being their natural selves, comfortable with each other and enjoying each others’ company. So if I felt any “me vs. them” energy, it was coming from my end.
Now, I also will admit that I wasn’t feeling particularly social that afternoon. A few friends I had been expecting to attend the event weren’t able to make it after all, so my mood shifted from anticipation to mild disappointment. It was a fairly long drive to get there, so some of my energy was expended from highway driving. I was taking in so much great content at the event that I didn’t have as much bandwidth for banter.
But those were all excuses, and I leaned into them. I made that choice. My energetic distance might have contributed to my perception that the group was cliquey.
I realized something later that day as I reflected on the meeting: it only felt cliquish because I was new. It seems a little too quick and convenient to slap the label “clique!” on the group, turn up my nose and walk away. Then I don’t have to do the hard work of getting to know them. I don’t have to make myself vulnerable to them.
And if I walked away, I might be cheating myself of some wonderful personal and professional growth opportunities.
Walking away is oh-so tempting. Without stepping back and asking myself, “what’s true?”, it’s easy to decide that they’re a clique, I don’t do cliques, so buh-bye.
I’m an introvert.
For me, that means I treat my energy like I treat currency… I want to save and spend it wisely.
I can feel shy or uncomfortable around people who seem bold or comfortable with each other.
If I don’t take the time to discern what’s me and what’s them, I can make inaccurate snap judgments.
I know that being on the “inside” takes effort and vulnerability, which takes time.
I trust that I can determine when it’s worth the time and effort, and when it’s not.
How do I determine if it’s worth it? By how safe I feel. Even if I’m uncomfortable, if I feel safe – I’m not being judged, discounted or condescended to – then it’s worth giving the situation and the group a chance. I still might determine it’s not a good fit, but at least that decision would be based on thoughtful discernment, rather than flashback-to-high-school-popularity-contest angst.
The next time you’re in a similar situation, ask yourself: what’s true? Are they really full of themselves and exclusionary, or am I just drawing a line between us because I’m not familiar with them, or they with me? Is there evidence that they enjoy the inside joke a bit too much, or is that a story I’m making up in my head? Even if I feel shy or hesitant, is it because I don’t feel safe, or because it’s all new?
Some groups are cliques, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. But notice if your fear is assigning that label, or if it’s reality. When and if you decide to join in and become one of the group, take care to notice when there’s a newbie around. Remember how you felt when you first walked into the room. Remember how much courage that takes. There’s a certain level of risk involved. So reach out and give that person an especially warm welcome. Do what you can to dissolve some of the insider-outsider vibes that might be a barrier to entry.
After all, if we’re going to find out if we click, we have to get close enough to see, hear and feel the connection.
We’ll always have those times when we’re on the outside looking in. Take care to notice who’s deciding whether you’re in or out: them, or you?
When have you felt like an outsider? How did you handle it? Please share your experiences in the comments, so we can all learn from each other :-).