“I get along better with boys.”
I can remember declaring some version of these words when I was a little girl who spurned little girl things. No New Kids on the Block for me. No pink scrunchies or kitten-adorned Trapper Keepers. I was into sports, climbing trees, and catching frogs. You know, boy stuff.
These days, playing sports and climbing trees are for boys and girls, and the term “tomboy” has basically gone out of style. However, many have kept the grown-up version of the tomboy mentality, insisting, “I’m not like other women.” Perhaps they get along better with men, or find they aren’t into cooking, jewelry parties, or Pinterest crafts that dominate some female social circles.
As often as I hear women profess to feeling different from most of the women around them, it seems like a paradox of sorts: How is it that all these women never find one another? Wouldn’t they be great friends? Then again, I don’t think that’s really the point. This expression isn’t usually about yearning for female companionship, but quite the opposite. Underlying this belief that “I’m not like other women” can be a deeper need to feel set apart, to establish a distinct identity, and to feel special.
I can’t help but wonder if this mindset is one of the many consequences of the self-esteem movement, of our tendency to tell children again and again how exceptional they are. I say that as one of those children; I grew up in a loving home with parents who always affirmed my potential. Somewhere along the way, “special” became my identity. It shaped the way I saw myself in relation to others, reinforcing the belief that I must be different than others because I was special.
Once I became a mother, I really began to notice this mindset in myself. No matter how many fellow moms I met, and no matter how similar we seemed, I felt different. I’d remind myself of the ways I was unlike them: I am a writer, I started my family later, or I never dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom. Each distinction led me to conclude that I simply wasn’t like most mothers.
However, it wasn’t long before I discovered the flip side of being special: being alone. As a mother, as a wife, as a writer, I struggled to find “my people,” the ones who were that exact combination with me. No one was quite like me, and so the narrative that served my uniqueness eventually alienated me from others.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship...is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…’” The unexpected fruit of the “you are special” message is that it undermines those “you too” moments. The desire to feel special collides with the equally powerful desire to belong. After all, how can you belong if no one on earth is like you? How can you belong if no one has shared your exact experiences or if no one truly understands you?
This mindset doesn’t require us to throw “special” out the window or to start reminding our kids how average they are. Scripture does affirm our uniqueness. First Corinthians 12 describes a church of diverse parts. Each of us has a specific role that no one can replace. However, Scripture also reveals our commonalities: all are created in the image of God (Gen. 1), all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and all are loved by God (John 3:16), just to name a few. To have a healthy identity rooted in Christ, we must hold all these truths together—that we are both special and the same.
Again and again, Scripture exhorts us toward unity because our human default is toward the opposite. The human gaze naturally lands upon our differences, even when our differences are good. That is how an otherwise healthy message about our uniqueness can lead to loneliness and division. As Christians, then, our challenge is not to erase our uniqueness, but to put it in its proper context: service to the whole, not separation from it.
As long as we live in a broken world, we will all struggle with feelings of loneliness, whether we feel “special” or not. The ache to belong will only be completely satisfied in the heavenly home that awaits us. But even in that, Christ redeems. He transforms our loneliness into belonging with this quiet truth: If isolation is your struggle, if you constantly feel like you are different, like you don’t fit in, or that your “tribe” does not exist—most of us feel that way too. You are not alone.