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Photo Essay: The Beauty of Uniqueness

Over the last month, I have had two visits from a dear friend from university. In the time we have together, we enjoy hiking and exploring new places. I take my camera with me, as she has a lot of patience with me, as I stop to capture the latest thing that caught my eye.But I think that it’s important to acknowledge and say that it isn’t possible each and every day to be challenging and pushing, striving and learning. Some days, maybe even weeks or months, we are just surviving. It’s important to say that’s ok too, and not beat ourselves up about it. Sometimes we just need to be, and sometimes we just need to focus on getting through the day and doing the things we really have to do.

Red leaf with large piece missing, several holes, and dark spots (Poinsett State Park, South Carolina)

At this time of the year, one of the most rewarding finds is the unusual and gorgeous leaf. While in some parts of the country and world, rich and colourful leaves are bountiful, here in the South it seems that most leaves go from uniformly green to a withered, sad brown directly. So the few that are different, uniquely beautiful and colourful, are especially treasured. Especially when captured in light, they are truly luminous and glow.

As we have hiked, I have reflected on how that is true of humans too. While we may spend a lot of effort trying to fit in and be like all the others, it is when we embrace our uniqueness and highlight our true colours that we become truly memorable.

I spent an awful lot of painful years trying to fit in to groups where I didn’t really belong, especially in my first twenty years. The worst of those memories have been heightened recently, as my daughter is living through them now, and I am also analysing and working through my own past. I have been ridiculously hung up on signs of not belonging, for example a necklace rock with a sun painted on it that indicated the wearer had been selected for a secret society at summer camp. Or not having the “right” sorority letters on my sweatshirt (instead of realising how incredibly lucky I was to be among an amazing group of women who are still among my closest friends, biggest supporters, and greatest inspiration today).

Mottled leaf with several big pieces missing and small holes (Sesquicentennial State Park, South Carolina).

The compassion cultivation series that I took last year helped me first see how much belonging had meant to me, that my most powerful emotions, particularly the fight or flight mechanism, are triggered when I feel my belonging is threatened (or my fear of not obviously belonging would be exposed).

Brown leaf with holes and green and yellow spots (Paris Mountain State Park, South Carolina)

Through reflection, I realised that while I had spent my whole life fighting it, and hating myself because I didn’t belong, because I seemed to be lacking whatever it was that made someone popular, likeable, and the centre of whatever group they were in, it was actually my hidden strength. It gave me the ability to…

…Apply for a selective language program, moving to France for a summer while in high school, and committing to only speak French from the time the plane left until it landed (and this was back in the days of traveler cheques, air mail that took more than a week, and no internet)

…Leave my hometown and state, to attend a university in another state (and one of the world’s great metropolitan areas at that). While perhaps somewhat unremarkable, there are an incredible number of people from my hometown who consider a trip to the state’s capital a huge adventure, have seldom been out of state, and have never had a passport

…Choose a degree program and career that didn’t have many role models, mentors, or even other students that looked like me

…Embrace business travel on my own to other countries, seizing the opportunity for a month assignment in Munich, living and working far from anyone I knew

…Apply for a Masters program and company fellowship across the country, again knowing no one and putting myself in a group of some of the top students from around the world

…Seek a summer internship in Gothenburg, Sweden with a company subsidiary I had only heard of in a country I had only read about

…Move abroad to Sweden after completing my Masters, and stepping up to take a role way beyond my experience when I was asked

…Repatriate to the US, to take a year as a manufacturing supervisor for cross-training then grab the chance to be a project manager with my team in Mexico, Buenos Aires and Rio Grande Argentina, and customer in Brazil

…Start dating and move together with a Swede in Germany

…Marry and start a family with the Swede, moving to Sweden. Giving birth in another culture and language, and later raising my daughter for her first eleven years in Swedish schools and culture

…Start my own company, changing course and direction as I learned about myself and the work I enjoyed (and didn’t), while holding to the same purpose and values

…Volunteer for many business trips to China, often traveling on my own, and even while on crutches after a ski accident

…Move to deep in the heart of the American South when my husband was offered a dream job, adapting our family, my job, and our lives to a new place

Brown spotted and mottled leaf with many small holes (Woods Bay State Park, South Carolina)

When you don’t fit in and have a strong sense of belonging, it is awfully easy to go out in the world. When you exist on the side of, rather than at the centre, of groups, why not go somewhere new, learn a few words of a language to get by, and be comfortable being among a roomful of people who decidedly do not look like, sound like, or act like you?

Yellow leaf with brown and black spots and small tears and holes (Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Since turning 40, I have become a lot more comfortable in my self. My husband has been a wonderfully big part of that. He has helped me see that rather than focusing on the things wrong with me (and primarily, not belonging, being popular and at ease in social situations), I should focus on all the wonderful things that are right. Therapy and coaching have helped as well, and I highly recommend to seek help (especially cognitive based therapy, CBT) when you need it.

I had already been working with the people in my teams on playing to their strengths. I believed strongly in working with strengths: identifying them, finding work that allowed us to spend most of their time in them, and investing most of their training in enhancing them. And rather than trying to fix all of their weaknesses, pair them with others who had strengths to their weaknesses when possible, and working with feedback and methods of influence to turn weaknesses to strengths.

Spotted and mottled leaf that is bent and ripped (Paris Mountain State Park, South Carolina)

I have seen so many amazing results of this work. And while the stories are not mine to tell, I can summarise by saying that so often we are hung up on what is wrong with us, in avoiding confronting our toughest feelings and fears, that we don’t realise they can mask our hidden strengths.

When we embrace our unique shining colours, when we can see the beauty that shines through, in spite of, or even in part because of, the flaws, it is then that we become inspirational and luminous to others and are comfortable to seek out that.

Torn and bent leaves luminous and beautiful (York Sate Park, South Carolina)

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