All of us have felt unpopular at some point of our lives. Sometimes, though, it can feel like that’s all our life is, and all it’s ever going to be. It seems like everyone is ignoring you, like you’re the only one people don’t like. You start to think that there’s something wrong with you, that it’s always going to be this way. Or you try changing yourself to join the popular crowd.
But here’s the thing—none of those things are true or necessary. Nothing is wrong with you, you don’t know the future, and changing yourself to please others is a fruitless endeavor. In fact, being outside that crowd can actually be to your advantage!
Why, then, do we have the urge to be popular? Humans are social animals. Usually, we want to belong to a community, we want to be liked by others, and we want to have friends. These are normal human desires—and there’s nothing inherently bad about any of them. But popularity isn’t all a bed of roses, nor is it necessarily the best path towards finding the type of fulfillment that we want.
Popularity Isn't Perfect
One of my (Katharine’s) friends was really popular throughout most of high school. It seemed like everyone knew him and his family, like he had endless connections. I—being his polar opposite socially—was kinda jealous over this. I compared my life to his more often than I should have. But eventually, he opened up to me with the realization that many of his friends were fake, or just not good people to be around. This has been a recurrent problem for him ever since, and it’s something that many popular people struggle with. When some people just want to be around you for the sake of popularity, it can be hard to know who your real friends are.
Even aside from the issue of “fake friends,” popularity isn’t as ideal as it may sound from the outside. To large degree, the more popular you are, the more social pressure you’re likely to feel, and the harder it will be to see through those pressures. Figuring ourselves out as people and building identity, particularly in the formative tween/teen years (but also as a lifelong process) is hard enough already. When you add popularity to the picture, the process of figuring yourself out becomes even more complicated. To some extent, external pressures are inevitable, naturally, and a large part of what make us into the people are are. But between family, friends, and the media, filtering out what is and is not actually part of whom you are—and part of whom you want to be—is enough of a challenge as it is without bringing the pressures of being popular into the mix.
Of course, most of us do want that sense of “belonging.” But when seeking that community, it’s key to keep in mind that the goal is to find a community that fits you—not to fit yourself to a community. And this is another area where popularity can become a problem; with social “success” often comes the pressure of pleasing a large group of people. The truth is, though, people have different preferences, pet peeves, and personalities, and it would be impossible to cater to them all. Too often, being popular can become a struggle to please everyone, which is simply not realistic. And in the long run (if not handled properly) can be harmful to the persons’ own happiness and mental/emotional wellbeing leaving them feeling stressed, insecure, and/or (once again) not sure who of their true friends are.
In part related to the previous point, social dynamics/popularity rarely remain a constant throughout life for anyone. As we age, develop, and go through new life experiences—and as our social circles do the same thing—popularity or lack thereof is bound to also change. Popular or otherwise, it’s important not to come to rely too much on social status, because (aside from the potential detriment to individuality) it can be absolutely devastating when that status changes. No matter how popular or unpopular you may be at any given moment, it’s vital to remember that you are not defined by how many friends you have.
Popularity isn’t always bad in and of itself (so if you do consider yourself “popular”, don’t panic!), but these are all things to watch out for. There are pros and cons to everything, and being popular is no exception.
Plus, it works both ways. Just as popularity/large friend groups can be both positive and negative, the same goes for being unpopular/solitary. Which brings us to the second half of this post...
Advantages to Being Alone
Of course, it’s normal and natural that our identity will in some ways be influenced by our loved ones, our role models, and our peers—but this can easily go too far, to the point where the person you are is being determined by your popularity and your popular peers, not by yourself. In the end, the only person who can truly decide who you are is (that’s right) you. Relative solitariness provides the opportunity to figure yourself out independent of external pressures, and it gives you the time for introspection.
Being alone gives you the freedom to find your interests, and to focus on the many dimensions of life that aren't social in nature. From practicing creative pursuits—art, music, writing, dance, etc.—to homework, less time going to parties means more time to dedicate to all these other very-much-worthwhile activities. Writing a novel, researching something you’re passionate about, volunteering somewhere, walking your dog, curling up on a couch with a book… the possibilities for things you can do on your own are virtually endless. As you age (and become more socially involved, if applicable), chances are you’ll have less time to devote to these other things. Take advantage of this opportunity while you have it!
With figuring yourself out also comes figuring out the kind of friends you want. Friends and friendships are wonderful, but (as discussed earlier), some friends and friendships can be or become extremely problematic. Even outside of toxic friendships, there are going to be people in life—probably many people—with whom you don’t just quite click. Not bad people; just people who, for whatever reason, simply aren’t the right friends for you. Somewhat ironically, being a bit of a loner can make it easier to figure out just what you’re looking for—whether that’s personality traits, ethical views, mutual interests/experiences, or something else altogether—in those friends you do have. Ultimately, this will help both with avoiding toxic relationships and with finding the healthy, positive relationships that we all want to forge with others throughout life.
You may feel unpopular, or even sometimes friendless, but you’re not the only one. Being outside of the “popular” circles gives you the opportunity to befriend other amazing people who are in the same boat as you. And often, these other people are at least as kind, interesting, and loyal—if not more so!—than those who are popular. For every time that you’re sitting on the sidelines, someone else is also sitting on the sidelines. Get to know these other, quieter, more solitary, or “unpopular” people… and for all you know, you might just find that perfect friend. Either way, the connections you form are not limited to the often-arbitrary criteria of popularity.
So regardless of what’s popular or not—and regardless of whether you’re popular or not—take pride in what you enjoy! Keeping up with trends simply for the sake of popularity isn’t worth your energy. It’s way more fun and fulfilling to indulge in things make YOU happy—and sooner or later, people who like the same things will come join you. Be friendly but cautious (in other words, be nice to people but also be wary of getting wrapped up in the wrong people and the wrong things). And remember that confidence doesn’t come from the mindset of “Everyone will like me,” but rather, “It’s ok if they don’t.”
Writing done by Katharine and Sarah (but mostly Sarah)
Drawings done by Katharine