"How do you balance the desire to be accepted by the people around you with the desire to follow what's in your heart and soul?" asks psychologist Leonard Felder in his book, Fitting In Is Overrated: The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider.
Felder, who, as a little boy felt like a complete outsider, attempts to show exactly how creative, thoughtful, unique individuals can survive and thrive in situations that used to make them shut down or retreat into a shell.
"When I was 10 years old," the author explains, "my mother had cancer, and I was made to feel as if I were living on another planet because I would go to the hospital every day and then have to be up most of the night trying to function in school. I got to experience what it felt like to be like an alien."
Felder adds, "Being the child of a Holocaust survivor and being a Jew in a predominately non-Jewish school, meant I had to put up with a lot of unpleasantness and learn that there are choices in life."
Both inspiring and practical, Felder's lessons offer useful answers for everyone who has ever heard during adolescence or young adulthood that "you just don't fit in" — and for the ones who love and counsel them, too.
Parents, for example, may have different expectations for their children; some co-workers try to control the flow of ideas; and friends sometimes can't tolerate certain idiosyncrasies.
But rather than abandoning individuality to simply fit in, Felder suggests seeing our differences as strengths that can be applied constructively to improve the lives of other people.
Felder says, "Parents can help their children explore how they can stay sane and healthy even when seemingly on a divergent path from everyone else, and decide whether is it worth trying to twist themselves into a pretzel trying to belong, or create new ways their child may eventually change the world."
To that end, the book outlines how the very qualities that made one different in the first place can become a person's greatest strength and most important gift to the world.
Take the case of Betty Goldstein, a young girl who cried every night because she was excluded from every high school party. "She had been warned by both of her parents and several of her classmates that the best way to gain acceptance would be to hold back somewhat on her own intelligence and intensity," Felder writes.
But the young girl wouldn't heed such advice. And later in life, she got women together in small groups and, under her married name — Betty Friedan — helped change not only the world from which she had once been excluded, but the world at large.
Felder, author of other inspirational books, explains that his works include Torah, Talmud and Jewish role models to be used for inspiration.
"We have all been given unique gifts," he says, "and should use each gift God and the universe has given us to make our life as happy and fulfilling as possible."