When I was a freshman in high school, my theater teacher talked me into participating in an acting competition. She had seen how engaged I was in the class and thought I would like the challenge.
She was right. I loved it.
In that first year, I qualified for the state competition. And, during the next month, I spent more time memorizing a five-minute soliloquy from the Merchant of Venice than I did at football practice (and we practiced two hours every night).
I can still picture my first state competition. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the nervousness of getting on stage, the jolt of excitement when something I said produced an emotion in an audience member, and writing feverishly in every feedback session so as not to miss any opportunity to improve.
However, despite finding success and enjoyment in this pursuit, a single conversation would prevent my passion from developing, at least while in high school. And my experience shows why kids, especially, need to feel that they belong, are accepted, and that they bring value to the world.
The Importance of Belonging
The human need for belonging is in our very biology. The brain is hardwired to see rejection as a threat to our survival — much like how it might interpret the danger of being chased by a bear. For teenagers, the struggle to fit in is made more complicated and challenging because they are trying to figure out who they are at the same time.
As humans, and especially as kids, we use external feedback to help us identify where we fit in. When external feedback — specifically, praise, validation, and reinforcement — match a person’s inner feedback of excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, we experience acceptance. And acceptance is crucial for all humans.
In “Social Acceptance and Rejection: The Sweet and the Bitter,” researchers explain, “Early humans survived harsh environments by depending on small groups of other individuals to meet many of their survival and reproductive needs. The benefits of acceptance and group living extend beyond protection from predators and providing mates to spread one’s genes to future generations. Cooperative group living enabled early humans to share and receive resources from each other, thereby making it unnecessary for individuals to carry the entire burden of their well-being on their own shoulders.”
Additionally, when we are noticed and supported for something we’re good at (or passionate about), and when we feel as though we have something valuable to offer the world, work feels more like play and can inspire even the most consistently bored teenager to become engaged.
Take my brief high school acting career, for example. As a teenager, there were very few things I would work too hard at voluntarily. But when the competition ended, I was already planning my potential performances for the following year.
Fear of Social Rejection — and Its Long-Term Outcome
As much excitement as that first year had created, I never shared my feelings about the experience with anyone. The only person who had any idea of my secret was the theater teacher who initially got me involved.
And the next year, she moved on.
The new teacher had different requirements for competition, one of which would cause me to miss multiple football practices. And I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed playing football. But I was nowhere as good at it as I was in this new acting thing I had found.
On the other hand, missing practice could cause me to lose my position on the football team and require me to explain why. So I decided to talk to an older football player who had previously performed in a school play. I figured he had likely been through this same dilemma.
He had not.
“Why would you put your position on the team at risk for some theater event?” was his sharp response. The potential damage to my social standing and the possibility of further embarrassment were communicated in just one sentence.
He went on to tell me that the only reason he’d been in the play was that he needed it for class credits. I realized then he was the wrong person to ask for advice, and yet, the shame and fear produced in that single conversation led me to put that passion in my back pocket until my late twenties.
Helping Kids Realize Their Potential
When the need to fit in conflicts with the danger of not being accepted, the need to fit in wins almost every time. Straying from the norm, creating our own identity separate from the pack, and promoting new ideas are all psychologically risky behaviors. And, for young kids to build the confidence necessary to stand out, they need the very support, acceptance, and reinforcement that allow them to fit in in the first place.
A kid’s need to fit in, be accepted, and feel as though they bring value to the world can be confusing and scary. My experience is one example of how a single conversation can take a dream — that would otherwise be celebrated in the world — and hide it behind insecurities, self-doubt, and fear, sometimes for many years, and sometimes for a lifetime.
Over a decade later, after presenting on one of the first big stages of my speaking career, someone asked me if I’d ever had theater training. The discussion that followed made me feel like I was right back in high school, preparing for the next competition. And the same old excitement returned. While I didn’t start pursuing an acting career, I finally felt accepted for a passion I had hidden for too long.
I often wonder how many kids would pursue a different path if someone simply asked them about what they were really interested in — early and often. Imagine if they were provided a psychologically safe place to explore new ideas and new passions while they built the confidence to communicate them to the world. How much more potential would be realized sooner?
Creating these opportunities for kids starts with understanding the difference between simply fitting in and being truly accepted. Further, knowing that the overwhelming need to fit in makes real acceptance more difficult, we as adults can help kids feel accepted by asking questions, listening, and supporting them whenever possible.