Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.

The Outsider and the Need for Boundaries

Children learn from an early age the value of fitting in. It feels important to be the same as other kids. Wearing certain shoes, certain clothes; it connotes as sense of oneness and belonging. “Go along to get along” is a message that gets conditioned early in life. One wants the same toys and the same games as their neighbors or they risk being called the worst thing a child can be in their own under-developed mind – Different.

              If “fitting in” feels like a warm, embracing blanket; then being on the outside can be the cold, stinging splash of water across the face that keeps one alert and on-edge. There is a certain energy and motivation that comes from being on the outside. As much as people are taught to conform, they are also taught to admire and idolize those who challenge the established norms. Fables and mythological tales are often about the underdog overcoming immense odds to win a nearly-hopeless cause. In the story of David and Goliath, nobody roots for Goliath.

              The heroes of Star Wars are the rebel alliance.  The audience empathizes with the oppressed minority as they seek to overcome the tyranny of the ruling class. The Galactic Empire epitomizes uniformity, conformity, and the established order. In many ways, the Empire represents everything we are taught to value as children – Certainty and Sameness – while the Rebel Alliance seeks the pluralism and diversity that comes from embracing the perspective of multiple outsiders and disruptors.

              The energy of being an outsider can be alluring. People often feel crushed and smothered by the need to conform and fighting against those pressures can bring both excitement and passion to the under-represented.

One way this humble writer experiences that energy is by being Jewish in a Christian world. September and October represent the “High Holy Days” for those of the Jewish faith.  It is initially a time of immense celebration as Jews ring in the New Year, which is then followed ten days later with a day of mournful reflection and atonement for past transgressions. If one were to attempt to make a Christian analogy, it might be like squeezing Christmas and Easter into a two-week window. However, depending on the part of the country where one lives; it can also be a challenge to observe these Jewish holidays.  The United States claims to be a secular nation, but “coincidentally” most of the holidays and traditions tend to follow a Christian calendar. As someone who works in Higher Education, under the auspices of “Winter Break,” I have always received Christmas as a Holiday.  In fact, even when I have wanted, I have been told that I cannot work on Christmas because my employer is closed that day.  However, when I need to observe the holidays of my faith, I am told that I have to make special leave requests for the time off of work.  While those days off have always been granted, I still sometimes experience social pushback.  Because most Americans are working on Jewish holidays, I am the one who has to explain to colleagues why I cannot attend a meeting or schedule an important event during that particular period of time. My Christian colleagues have rarely, if ever, faced the dilemma of either advancing their career OR following the tenets of their religious faith.

While these concerns may be relatively minor challenges of not belonging to the particular de facto religionof the culture, it provides me with immense motivation to be cognizant of religious inequality or persecution.  I have an energy and passion for religious injustice in large part due to my standing as an outsider to the dominant religious culture. I fight for my religious freedom with an intensity and passion because I know what can be lost if the established culture remains unchallenged.

Another realm in which people are taught to root for the outsider is in the workplace.  There is rarely a colleague more valued than the one who develops a reputation of speaking truth to power. That person is usually respected and admired for their willingness to acknowledge and accept uncomfortable truths even when management will not. Once again, the noble employee is placed in the outsider role; fighting valiantly against the wrongs imposed on them by the faceless company. However, the passion this role produces is often counter-productive to the employee.  One of the reasons people admire the trait of difficult candor is because of the immense cost such actions can have; including significant loss of status or even termination. Yet even with such high costs, many good employees have suffered the fate of retaining their morality and integrity at the cost of their livelihood.

There can be immense cost; yet there is also an undeniable power and energy that comes from believing that one is a “noble outsider.” The power of outsider groups is real and can be extremely dangerous.  Anyone near the United States Capitol on January 6 can attest to these facts. Regardless of political affiliation; there is almost certainly no doubt that the protesters, both peaceful and violent; likely viewed themselves as “outsiders” to the political establishment and were intent on having their perspective heard. In their hearts and minds, they were fighting for a just cause against an unjust system. The fact that they were objectively wrong meant little to nothing.

As group facilitators, one must always recognize the innate power that can be manifested in a group. Energy can be channeled for any purpose; good or ill; and rarely does a group feel more energized than when taking on the role of the “outsider.” It is a powerful reminder of why boundaries are so important to a group.  The need is for the group to serve as an almost-literal container for the emotions and potentials of that group.  If group is truly a social laboratory, it is important to keep any destructive energy from escaping the lab.