Social scientists, after decades (centuries really) of studying what causes individuals and communities to get into trouble have begun to take an interest in individuals who, even when surrounded by dire circumstances (take your pick: poverty, abuse, trauma) manage to make it out OK. In other words, some of them have started to be interested in something other than pathology.
The field of study is called resilience, and the rationale for resilience research is that if researchers can identify the factors that are present or the choices that are made that lead to better outcomes, then they can seek to emulate those factors and choices in helping others succeed through similar hardships.
Many of the findings are fairly commonsensical: Strong family connections help trauma survivors recover better. Having a supportive, stable adult outside the family is helpful for individuals dealing with family-related violence and abuse. Some are less obvious and more controversial (participation in organized religion, for example, is seen as a strong protective factor against major depression).
I think the shift in focus to resilience is a good thing, but I think there’s an important factor that has (to my knowledge) been left out and one which is worthy of serious study: weirdness. Being weird (odd, quirky, unusual, bizarre–yes, we’re talking about that weird) can be just the thing that helps individuals or communities survive under dire circumstances. The early Mormons thrived during difficult seasons that were devastating to their neighbors because of their unusual organization of communal living and their strong, doctrinal commitment to storing food for difficult times. A passion for the violin or spelling or the Girl Scouts can be just the thing to keep a child in a poor community away from gangs and violence. In both of these examples, being weird is the asset that supports resilience.
Sure, weird comes with its own challenges. Weird is more likely to get picked on, made fun of and ostracized, and that can have serious consequences. But not fitting in, in an environment that’s destructive, could be the very best one could hope for. Too often fitting in means getting caught up in dangerous and destructive circumstances.
And it’s not just fitting in during a drought or in a tough neighborhood that can be problematic. The internets tell me that about 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce and that 67% of American adults are considered overweight. Clearly, if you’re going to buck the trend (and these are obviously just a few examples), you’re going to have to do some things that, relative to what most people around you are doing, are just plain weird.
Weird is about more than making different kinds of choices. Weird allows for creativity. Those of us who’ve spent some time flirting with the weirder side of life are more open to looking at things in new ways (and being curious–see my recent post on the subject). Being weird means getting to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t, exploring options for living and creating your life that would otherwise be quickly dismissed.
What does weird have to do with therapy?
I’m not so interested in helping people fit in, at least insomuch as fitting in means adapting ways of living that aren’t conducive to growth. Yes, we have to find ways of getting on in the world (even as we seek to make changes in it) because it’s the one we’ve got. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up the ways we’re different. In therapy, I help my patients use their weirdness to create relationships and spaces where they can be who they are.
In fact, in group therapy I often encourage the weirder members of the group (and often that fluctuates from week-to-week, or even minute-to-minute during a group) to help the group be more weird. It helps us see one another and what’s possible in new ways. It makes us more creative. It helps us engage and (ultimately) give up our pulls to be someone we’re not or to insist that the people around us stop being so different.
What does weirdness look like for you? Are there ways it’s helped you survive difficult circumstances? Feel free to share by leaving a comment.