Q I’m a second-year student at college. I have started to really dread going on to the campus because I don’t fit in with most of my peers. I’m finding it hard to walk into a room of people who I know don’t like me.
I’m different. I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs, and I think that makes them nervous. I’m studious and I love the area I study. I get on great with people outside of college, and I’m lucky that I have lots of friends.
But I hate sitting in a class and feeling the tension of exclusion. I don’t think it would do well to report it, to get them all in trouble. But it’s starting to affect my course; since I started second year I have been missing half my lectures.
I don’t feel I should change, and be someone I’m not: I don’t think that’s a good idea. But what can I do? I want to do well but I can’t go on when I feel so intimidated.
A There seems to be a number of problems going on here: exclusion, feeling intimidated, missing lectures and resistance. It also sounds as if these problems have been going on for some time, and the effect of them could be very long-lasting. You have at least two or more years to go with this class before you complete your degree, and having discordant relationships and criticism in your life for two years is not acceptable.
It seems you have made a principled decision not to drink and take drugs, and that is a valid and courageous position. It may well be true that this makes your colleagues uncomfortable, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. They may feel criticised by you and return this criticism by putting you outside the group. Being different is always challenging to groups and yet I’m sure most of them would proclaim support for individual choices and stances. The move to address this needs to come from you, as they are all comfortable within the group and are unlikely to feel the need to include you.
When we face such exclusion, we often turn to familiar companions for reassurance, and you are lucky that you have good friends outside college to support you. However, this might pull you away from involvement in college, and this will make it ever more difficult to engage and enjoy your course and all other aspects of college life. College should offer you access to a range of people, ideas and experiences that broaden and challenge your perspective, and you shouldn’t deny yourself this opportunity.
The effect of criticism is isolation and intimidation. Think of going to a Christmas party with the attitude of, “I will put an hour in with these people”. The effect is that it is a very long hour with you observing from the edges and not engaging with anyone. If this criticism is dropped, you might find that you have a great night, but it is hard to see that our own criticism might be the cause of the isolation.
When we are in receipt of criticism, it really gets under our skin and we feel silenced, cut-off and stunned. In order to prove the untruth of the criticism we need to engage so that the truth can be revealed. This means asking questions, looking for examples and uncovering the bias. It takes a very strong person to do this, but both parties will benefit from the effort and acknowledgment that the relationship is worth engaging with.
For you this means taking a step towards friendship. First turn up in class and take any opportunity to speak to the person beside you; this can be very simple and open-ended. If you get a half-decent response, you might risk some level of truth such as, “I’m feeling a bit nervous here”. Most people have had some experience of exclusion, and, if offered an opportunity, will be supportive of any effort you make. You deserve a great college experience, and it is within your power to have it.
Your college will likely have resources available to help you. Going to your class rep may be a step worth taking as they can begin the inclusion process. Student counsellors are available in most colleges and they are a great source of wisdom and support. Your head of department will have knowledge and influence that might begin the change that is needed. Finally, becoming more involved in societies, clubs and events will allow fellow students to get to know and like you.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. For advice, email email@example.com. Personal correspondence cannot be entered into