For much of my childhood and young adult years, that’s how I felt.
I’ve kept journals since elementary school, and I’ll never forget one entry from sixth grade around Christmastime: “I was pretty upset today in school because I was the only other girl besides Maureen that didn’t get a present from a classmate. I felt pretty low. I was pretty much unwanted.”
As an introverted kid who went through 12 years of Catholic schooling but wasn’t Catholic, I struggled to feel like I fit in with my peer groups. I was a studious kid who unequivocally followed the rules – like the time I raised my hand in fifth grade to remind the teacher about the quiz she had forgotten to give us that day.
I could feel my classmates’ eyes boring holes into the back of my head as the words stumbled out of my mouth. Kids who do stuff like that to (unintentionally) screw over their classmates don’t tend to be the most popular. People aren’t lining up to hang out with them.
The rejection continued when, in eighth grade, every kid in our class of 27 was invited to a party…except for me and one other unpopular girl.
I couldn’t help but think something was wrong with me.
As a result of experiences like these, the belief that people didn’t want to be my friend, that I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t “cool” enough to be liked took root in my heart at a young age.
Instead of expressing myself, I chose to mute my needs, feelings and fears.I never let them see how deeply wounded I felt when they excluded me or rejected me.
I just went up to my bedroom and cried and journaled about it.
This is not how we are meant to live.
We are hardwired to connect, to belong, and to be in close community with other people, not to be isolated and alone.
We long to feel seen, heard, known and wanted.
If we are going to connect in meaningful, soul-filling ways, we must be willing to take some risks, to put ourselves and our needs out there, to accept that sometimes we will feel like a burden, and to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. But all of that was hard for me to do.
My fears and insecurities overwhelmed me and held me back from sharing my life with people: “What will they think if they know the real me? Will they like me? Will they want me? Will I be too much?”
I knew how to protect myself more than I knew how to connect.
Getting sick with Epstein-Barr Virus two years ago was the wake-up call I needed to shift my mindset around connection, friendship and community. I was in such a state of neediness and depletion that I had no choice but to reach out, to ask for help, to be vulnerable, to let people into my life. I chose to admit that whatever I was doing wasn’t working and began to reexamine my life, how I was living it, and what really mattered to me.
Little by little, as I took risks and let people in to my life and invested more in their lives, I began to change. As a result of the transformational gift of friendship I have received over the past two years, particularly in the past 12 months, I have become more whole and happier.
I have been surrounded by community in a way I never had been before.
I was finally willing to let my guard down and let people in.
People checked in on me, prayed for me and my health for months, sent me inspirational and encouraging messages and cards, and gave me a few gut-punching doses of radical love. They spoke truth I needed to hear but would have previously rejected or responded to with defensiveness and denial.
I wasn’t doing anything to earn or deserve their attention or affection.
They wanted to love me through a difficult time because that’s what good friends do, and instead of pushing them away, I let them in.
In the book, Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist speaks to this kind of intentional community:
“We don’t learn to love each other well in the easy moments. Anyone is good company at a cocktail party. But love is born when we misunderstand one another and make it right, when we cry in the kitchen, when we show up uninvited with magazines and granola bars, in an effort to say, I love you.”
There weren’t many “easy moments” last year or this past year, yet my friends did what true friends do – they kept showing up no matter what.
True community doesn’t just rally behind you in tough times; it comes alongside you to celebrate the joyful times, to share in moments that matter.
I’ll never forget how a group of over a dozen friends and a few dozen strangers joined me at Movement Lab in Baltimore to celebrate my 33rd birthday. I decided I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself and wait for people to invite me to something that year; instead, I would invite them to join me for a morning of music, dancing and brunch.
As the celebratory dance class began, my friend, Lola, the instructor, smiled and asked the group, “Does everyone know why we’re here today??”
My friend, Suzie, shouted out, “To celebrate Rachel’s birthday!”
And the dance party began.
We danced our way through 90s pop and hip-hop songs, laughing and smiling and sweating and moving our bodies freely and joyfully.
As the class came to a close, Lola had everyone form a circle and put me in the middle. When the final song played, I drew in friends from the perimeter to join me in the circle. After a few minutes, everyone was dancing around the room; a deep sense of connection, joy and community was palpable.
At the end of class, Lola put me back in the middle and had everyone form a tight circle around me, as they sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
As I stood there looking around the room and into the faces of my friends and strangers who were there to celebrate my life, my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.
In that moment, I could feel a transformation taking place within me, as the lie that I wasn’t wanted or didn’t fit in loosened its grip and released my heart to receive the gift of love and friendship.
I felt like I belonged.
Being in community does something to our soul; it helps us heal.
In the months and year that followed that special day, my friendships have continued to deepen and grow stronger. I have intentionally invited friends into my life in ways I never had before. As a result, so much has changed, and I have been transformed as a result.
I have opened my eyes to realize that many of them were there all along, but I was so protected and guarded that I didn’t let them in.
Now, I let them into my mess, my fears, my insecurities, my quirks, and my struggles, baring my soul in ways I never had before.
I sit with their often-piercing words of wisdom and truth.
I wrestle with their tough, soul-searching questions.
I reach out to them to schedule phone dates, double dates or girls’ nights.
I ask about their lives.
I pray for and celebrated them.
I show up more consistently and more fully.
I have experienced the transformational power of friendship. I have begun to believe I am worthy of the love and kindness they pour out on me, instead of rejecting it for fear that I am unworthy.
The ways my friends have shown me love over the past year, in particular, have softened my heart and filled me with immense gratitude for how well they know me. Each of us desires to feel like someone knows us, deeply.
My friends know my likes and dislikes and that I cherish handwritten notes.
They know that Bill and I are
somewhat obsessed with Escape Rooms and find one in every new city we visit.
That herbal tea is my drink of choice no matter what time of day it is or where we are. (In other words, I’m a permanent DD!)
That I love to dance and that 90s hip-hop and pop music is my jam.
That I will rarely order directly off the menu due to my dietary restrictions and will likely throw a bit of a wrinkle into most homemade dinner plans.
That butterflies and peacocks are my spirit animals.
That I’m a big dreamer but often hold myself back more than anyone else does.
That I wish my relationships with my siblings were stronger.
That I struggle with having a scarcity mindset and can get grabby and possessive about people and ideas and question my unique value.
That I leave very little room for margin and am not always the most responsive to their text messages.
That my head is often in the future imagining what could be, so I need their reminders to come back to the present and just be.
That I think I have to impress people and accomplish things to be worthy of love.
That I rarely feel like I am enough.
None of this is terribly easy to admit, but when we invest in community and show up consistently, we can more readily drop the shame we feel and be met with grace, compassion and acceptance.
I’ve come to believe I am worthy of being invited, included and known. I realize I have to take initiative, let my guard down and let people in to receive the love people have wanted to give me. I have deeper and more honest friendships now than I ever have before. I’ve gone from feeling lonely and left out to feeling like I belong and that people want me in their lives.
I feel seen, known and like I matter.
The other night, a group of my friends came together to share a meal, laugh about everything from bodily functions to birth stories, and exchange and make Christmas ornaments to commemorate our friendship and all we’ve been through together in the past year.
I felt filled up as I left, and when I got home, I texted them this:
“You ladies have been the best gift of the year for me! I read Shauna Niequist’s book, Bread and Wine, earlier this year. In it, she wrote about a group of friends that she’s known for years and has regular dinners with. She wrote about how much they have been through together and how deeply they know each other. As I read that book, I remember thinking, ‘It would be so neat to have something like that’, and now I feel like I do.”
What a healing gift it is to experience community, to be loved in spite of ourselves, to feel like we belong, and to be challenged to become all that we are meant to be by people who truly know us.
My hope for you is that you believe you, too, are worthy of love, belonging and friendship and that you will experience the joy of community in the year to come.
You are worthy of being known, worthy of being seen, worthy of belonging, and worthy of being loved.
Now, I want to offer you the gift of reflection. Think about friendships in your life (either past friends or current ones):
- What friendships are you grateful for this year? Have you let them know how much they mean to you?
- How have you shown up for the friends in your life and how they shown up for you?
- In what ways have you let fears of unworthiness or rejection dictate your behavior and unwillingness to put yourself out there? What can you do to free yourself from those fears and begin to let people in?
- What is one step you can take to be an even better, more intentional friend in the new year?
If you’re interested in reading more posts on the topic of friendship and the power of community, here you go: