In primary school, I used to be the undisputed King Julien of the yard. I was amazing at playing Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! To top it all off, I was a master at impersonating Piccolo’s “Special Beam Cannon”.
That was all it took to be accepted, and I loved every second of it. My love for Pokémon was unbound.
When I turned 10, I found myself in high school (5th grade in Germany).
From one day to the other, no one brought their trading cards anymore.
Everything that had made me cool before the summer break now was considered childish. Like most adolescent humans, I was eager to fit in. I wanted to grab lunch with the cool kids. Yet, I still loved indulging in the world of, and I am quoting my mom here, “Japanese monster poop”.
After school, I played the Pokémon Ruby edition on my Nintendo DS. I fought countless battles with my beloved shiny Flygon, which looks like a mixture between a dragon and a dragonfly and felt guilty about it. Every single time. When my classmates asked me via ICQ what I was doing, I’d tell them some fabricated story where I was doing anything but playing the game. Pokémon, my guilty pleasure, my source of true shame.
On the first October of 2004, I finally had a full-blown identity crisis over this. The FireRed and LeafGreen editions hit the German market and I was ecstatic, to say the least.
The first reboot hit me like a truck.
The developer of the game, Game Freak, implemented a brand new feature that showed you a summary of when you played the last few times and what you did. Immediately I had my absolute horror scenario swirling in my head:
A friend comes over after school, boots the game just to find that I played the day before. Gloating laughter. My aspiring cool kid's reputation: ruined.
My curiosity was too great and won the battle. I played for a while until shame won the war.
Anxious about my “sins”, I hid the cartridge somewhere where it would never be found.
I was a 16-year-old teenager when SoulSilver and HeartGold came out. I was fed up that I could not do what I loved just because some other kids thought it was uncool. So I just went to the store, bought the game, and played it. Oh boy, did I play the hell out of this game! One thing changed though, I was mad about other people’s opinions dictating what I would be doing and how I felt about it.
One day at school as I was standing in a circle with about eight boys and a friend asked the inevitable:
“What did you do yesterday?”
I answered in a calm and certain manner:
“I played the new Pokémon game the entire day, and it was amazing.”
I didn’t care if the class would end up making me a clown. I was simply done with worrying about opinions on the matter. What happened next surprised me. Instead of teasing me most people were lighting up and started asking about the game.
The next day, for the first time since I’ve been in this school, people took their old Pokémon cards with them. My mind was blown. I thought I’d harvest ridicule and instead, people were supportive and having fun.
To my great disappointment, the newfound enthusiasm for Pokémon had to GO as quickly as it came. After just one week, everything went back to baseline.
Regardless, this experience had a profound effect on my perception of myself.
It taught me a few things:
- I worry way too much about myself
- I worry way too much about what other people think about myself
- People appreciate people who do what they like and who stand by it
- It’s not worth it to restrict myself from doing things because I believe that other people don’t like it
- I can’t accurately predict what other people will celebrate or ridicule
I was a 16-year-old kid and had these, frankly profound, first-hand insights in my bag. This life lesson set me up to challenge the ever returning fear of rejection in my head. It’s been 12 years of introspection since then and I am excited to share with you what I found out while trying vigorously to be my undiluted self.
I will first look into why we humans have this fear attached to getting rejected and then provide some perspective on it.
Fearing rejection was an evolutionary advantage.
The reason why homo sapiens are so widely successful as a species is because of it's ability to collaborate (Hare & Woods, 2021). Humans were neither the strongest nor the fastest animals in the jungle. However, living in a tribe humans were able to defend themselves against the fiercest of beasts and survive the coldest of nights.
We are social animals and in the past, being an outsider, abandoned by our tribe, meant certain death.
Through the course of evolution, our bodies have developed strong mechanisms (like the fear of rejection or the painful feeling of loneliness) that ensure that we build social bonds with others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018).
Humanity has come a long way since natural selection advocated these emotion-based social security systems. Technology has transformed every corner of human life. We don’t have to watch out for feline predators anymore. Moreover, in some countries, we even have social security systems that ensure our survival. You could be a complete outcast and still hang on to life.
We are poorly adapted to modern life.
What makes being yourself so damn difficult is that you are a manifestation of a stone-age body in a high-tech world. Let’s look at food to see what I mean:
The reason why junk food tastes so freaking incredible is that it contains a lot of high-caloric macronutrients (and often salt). Simply put, our body can extract a lot of energy from this kind of food.
Before agriculture was a thing, getting enough food was always a big uncertainty for humans. We developed a taste for energy-rich foods because humans who ate more of them had better odds of surviving. In other words, we have an internal incentive system that makes us eat more energy-rich food items. That’s why we feel so good when we bite into a hamburger (Oginsky et al., 2016).
Unfortunately, 10.000 BC humans had nothing that came even remotely close to containing the macronutrients of a hamburger. So, when we bite into a hamburger today, our pleasure center goes crazy and we feel better than originally intended. If you had to win the Olympics to get your hands on a hamburger, this wouldn’t be much of a problem.
However, today, you can eat 5 hamburgers a day without leaving your room. Academia calls this phenomenon a supernormal stimulus (Barrett, 2010).
In our DoorDash world, there is a mismatch between the amount of work you need to undertake to get energy-rich food and the amount of sensual pleasure your body grants you from eating it. In essence, that explains why 76,6% of the adult population in the U.S. are at least overweight (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).
In the modern world, a human being that feels disgusted by pizza and gets a “carrot rush” could be considered well adapted. I bet that this new human would be way healthier and more productive than most of us.
Our rejection sensitivity is blown out of proportion.
Similar to our insatiable hunger for fast food, our systems for managing social interactions are outdated as well. The stakes of going against the norm are not nearly as high as they used to be. Yet, at the slightest thought of breaking convention, your inner voice still starts screaming as if you are about to jump off a cliff.
What if we could tell your mind that you might live in a place where there is no cliff and even if there were, the ground underneath would be made from Jell-O.
Sadly, wide parts of this planet are still covered with intolerant belief systems and non-conformity could mean death. Fortunately, at least the Western World has been changing and many parts have become more open-minded and accepting in the past decades. I’ll be using the legality of same-sex marriage as a proxy to prove my point.
As you can see, the countries that legally allow same-sex marriage have grown in the past 20 years from 0 to 30. This change constitutes nothing less than the legal foundation to finally eradicate discrimination for non-heterosexual individuals. Of course, this change will take more time. However, we can generalize the findings of this graph to various aspects of life. For you, that means that we experience a trend among significant parts of our population towards more acceptance and openness.
I know that recently there have been many backsteps in terms of freedom of expression for humans all over the world and some humans are way more affected by this than others. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the trend towards more acceptance will continue. With that, social consequences for anyone who strays away from the norm will keep declining.
As long as you live in one of the regions where democratic values are lived, it’s likely that your mind blows the fear of social rejection out of proportion.
Bold choices are not always easy.
Of course, when you make courageous decisions, you might end up losing people that are very important to you right now. Still, if they keep you from being yourself, you don’t want them around. It takes fortitude to speak up. It takes resilience to get through the pain of leaving friends or even family behind (if it comes to that).
An inspirational person I want to mention here is Amar Kandil from Yes Theory (YouTube Channel about seeking discomfort and growth). Amar had to decide between being himself (continuing to inspire people all over the world with Yes Theory) and his dad (who used to be his role model).
He chose to be himself and went through a very difficult time, as he was dealing with depression due to losing his father. Today, Amar is thriving and I am so happy for him. You can watch his short documentary here:
How did Amar bounce back from his period of sorrow?
Every human body comes equipped with a psychological immune system
It helps us to overcome adversity (for instance, social rejection). However, we are also very bad at factoring this response into our approximation about how a certain life event affects our long-term happiness. Daniel Gilbert et al. (1998) called this bias “Immune Neglect”. According to this research, even people who have had horrible accidents and were permanently paralyzed and initially thought that they would never be happy again, more often than not, regained their happiness completely.
That means that we recover quicker emotionally from social rejection than we think.
I first learned about this when reading “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. Shawn explains in this wonderful book how happiness fuels success and I recommend reading it.
Anyways, the point I want to make is that (as illustrated in the graph):
The actual short-term consequences of being yourself are not nearly as bad as you think and even if things go south, you will recover your happiness faster than you think. However, making these courageous decisions that bring you closer to your true self is worth it as they will increase your long-term happiness.
You are not alone.
Fruit for thought, everyone is in their own version of the stone age body. That means that the humans around you are overthinking just like you.
Let’s go back to your school days. Math class, eighth grade. When the teacher explained something about equations and you didn’t get it. Odds are high. You didn’t ask the teacher for another explanation.
“The others will think I am stupid”, you said in your head.
Then there was this one kid who did have the courage to ask. Oh boy, were you relieved and so were many others.
You are in this human experience together with everyone who wanders on this earth. Up to 77% of people are afraid of public speaking (Crome & Baillie, 2014). Everyone is afraid of being an outsider and putting on a show. Once you internalize that, life becomes much easier.
Humanity is wild and you are part of it.
We are 7.9 billion people today, and we are all different. Diversity is what makes our life interesting. Imagine if humanity was like a nest of ants. Same same (but not different).
Unlike an anthill, humanity has much to offer. There are communities for things that you can’t even imagine:
- 658 thousand humans are amused by photoshopping birds with arms: r/birdswitharms
- 44 thousand humans build robots that fight each other: r/battlebots
- 99 thousand humans are into slimy see through girls having sex: r/slimegirls[NSFW]
The buffet of humankind is limitless. There are so many dishes to pick from. You won’t even have time to take a look at them all. Heck, you can even bring your own dishes to the party.
Some dishes are tasty like sex-positivity or education and make the festivities more amazing for everyone. Some dishes are poisonous (like nazi stuff) and spoil the fun.
No matter how you choose to live your life, there is a community that will support you.
I mean, there is a crowd that hypes itself up over the idea that the earth must be flat. Some people bond over refusing to get vaccinated in the light of a pandemic. My point is, no matter how you turn out to be, you will make friends.
Just please, try to make better decisions when it comes to the communities you make part of your life. I will write a guide about how to pick the right dishes and link it here soon. → Newsletter :)
The wonderful crowd likes people who are different.
On the other side of bold decisions are human beings who will greet you with open hearts. These humans neither care about your watch, your tone of skin, or who you love. These humans only care about being around a good soul. The kids who are cool for real don’t seek external validation from random people they don’t even know.
The cool kids care for honest connections with well-intentioned humans.
Be afraid, and then be yourself regardless
Becoming your true self without hiding ain’t easy. It’s frightening at best.
It is almost like we human beings are not designed to be ourselves. Our journey to becoming ourselves demands resilience and many leaps of faith from us. However, this journey will be a journey full of wonders and it’s well worth it.
Accept that being yourself means wandering outside your comfort zone. Discomfort is your friend. It’s like a compass. If you feel an uneasy feeling creeping up your gut, you know that you are heading in the right direction.
It’s okay to feel unsure and hesitant. Just keep on marching.
Barrett, D. (2010). Supernormal stimuli: How primal urges overran their evolutionary purpose. WW Norton & Company.
Baumeister, Roy & Leary, Mark. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological bulletin. 117. 497-529.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2018). Loneliness in the modern age: an evolutionary theory of loneliness (ETL). In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 58, pp. 127-197). Academic Press
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Available at: URL [Accessed 03 September 2021]
Crome, E., & Baillie, A. (2014). Mild to severe social fears: Ranking types of feared social situations using item response theory. Journal of anxiety disorders, 28(5), 471-479.
Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: a source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(3), 617.
Hare, B., & Woods, B. (2021). Survival of the friendliest. [S.l.]: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
OECD. (2021). OECD Better Life Index. [online] Available at: URL [Accessed 08 September 2021]
Oginsky, M. F., Goforth, P. B., Nobile, C. W., Lopez-Santiago, L. F., & Ferrario, C. R. (2016). Eating ‘junk-food’ produces rapid and long-lasting increases in NAc CP-AMPA receptors: implications for enhanced cue-induced motivation and food addiction. Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(13), 2977-2986.
Wikipedia (2021). Electric power industry - Wikipedia. Available at: URL [Accessed 01 September 2021].