Making Friends in Strange Places

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Growing up I always felt different. I felt like an outsider. I stood on the outer ring of the popular social circles. I was the one on the outside looking in.

I like to observe. I like to think. I like quiet and I like to be alone.

I’m an introvert.

Being an introvert in a loud world isn’t easy. As a child I was called a snob, an ice princess, haughty and uppity. People would assume I thought I was better than them just because I was quiet and reserved.

I also grew up in a loud home. Everything was magnified – anger, bitterness, self-pity, betrayal, abandonment, sadness. And very little was dignified. Then only place I found solace was within myself.

Deciding to travel solo for the past 2 years has forced me into some uncomfortable situations. Situations where I found myself amongst groups of people who seemed to be so different to me. Who made me wonder how I was ever going to begin to make connections with them.

So why try to make connections at all?

Because while being solitary some of the time is a soul fulfilling thing, having experiences that you’ve shared with one other or many others can be an even more soul fulfilling thing.

Life becomes more colorful, more intense, more bright, more interesting, more inspiring when it’s being shared over a passion for food, a bottle of wine, a priceless adventure, a game of football, a deep conversation, a love of coffee, an obsession with fashion or the joy and frustration of raising kids.

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Travelling has taught me that even though we may speak different languages, have different cultures, look different and think differently, we are all fundamentally the same. We all want the same thing. And that is simply to love and be loved.

When you’re able to see people through a common lens it makes connecting and cultivating friendship that much easier. As an introvert I’ve learnt that there’s no huge mystery to making friends. Start with a smile, be present, be yourself and be open.

And most importantly be prepared to share.

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In the photo above, my Korean sister.

Putting your best face forward

My mother lived for many years near a beach front area with a beautiful promenade. We’d often go for walks in the evening but before we left she always had to do her face first.

She is not a vain woman so it would make me all the more frustrated that she HAD to touch up with a little foundation, mascara and eye-liner beforehand. And being the brat that I was I would always go big on the moaning and whining about having to wait for her. “We’re only going for a walk, why do you need to do your face?” Standard question and the standard unapologetic answer, “You never know who you’re going to meet.”

What I didn’t realise back then that I know now is that there is this subliminal pressure in society to always present your best self to others. To present the face you think other’s think is the perfect you.

You meet an old school friend for coffee and she glosses over all the real shit stuff happening in her life and presents you with her best photo-shopped version. She leaves out all the cellulite and stretch marks and only talks about the toned and tanned.

So there you are thinking wow, Debbie’s doing so well. All the while she actually feels unappreciated by her husband, is stressed and overworked in her job, is struggling financially and can’t get a handle on her kids.

And we all do this. You. Me. Debbie. Because no-one wants to be a downer, no-one wants to be judged, but mostly, we do this because we’re taught to ‘pack up our troubles in our old kit bag and smile, smile smile’.  We’re not really encouraged to talk about the less than pretty, to unpack the ugly, to let it go.

We use social media sites to present the best packaged versions of ourselves.  We get on Facebook and write snippety status updates because we’re hip like that. We get on Twitter and write witty one liners because we’re smart like that. We get on to Instagram and shimmy up all our pics because we’re cool like that.

And yes people naturally want to hear and see all the positives. People like the good and warm and fuzzy. I like the good and warm and fuzzy. But life is not all about the good and warm and fuzzy.

Have you ever wondered what makes Nelson Mandela or Oprah’s life stories all the more powerful? It’s the fact that they’re not perfect.

Yes, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison sacrificing his personal freedom for the greater good of his country. And for this he is adored and respected. But he has also not pretended to be the perfect man. He is twice divorced with a strained relationship with his children. He has endured personal struggles.

And yes, Oprah is one of the most powerful and successful woman in the world. But she has also not presented the standard ‘poor black girl makes good’ story. She’s exposed the sexual abuse, the promiscuity, the lack of self worth, the emotional eating and I’m sure a whole lot more. She has endured personal struggles.

And it’s in these personal struggle stories that we can relate to them.  We have context for their lives and we have truth. And in some ways it makes us feel a connection with them knowing that they too have struggled.

You don’t look at them and think, damn, I’m never going be like that. You look at them and think hell yeah, I want to be like that and I can be like that. Their personal struggles didn’t stop them from being all that they can be. Just like ours don’t have to stop us from being all that we can be.

It took me a long time and a lot of tears to come to this realisation. It took me an even longer time to know that you don’t have to be perfect for people to like you, to respect you, to love you.

In fact, if you are truly engaging with people then you are being the imperfect you. You’re revealing the cellulite, the stretch marks, the chicken skin, the acne scars, the lumps and bumps and rolls.

Now I’m not going to lie to you, some may turn away in disgust and run.  But that’s ok because you’ll never do it for everyone all the time. In my experience the people that matter the most stay and hold your hand and love you all the more.

I only managed to unpack my old kit bag about 3-4 years ago. And when I did I had an emotional break-down of magnificent proportions. This of course is not really recommended. Not unless you don’t mind not being able to sleep, eat, drink or speak. And you like crying for days.

Don’t be like me. Don’t stash away your struggles. Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t minimise you by maximizing a version of yourself.

Be imperfect. Be you. Be free.