“Just like me”

I got an email this morning from someone in New York who found my website searching for group therapy. He said a few things about himself, what he’s struggling with, and then wrote, “I’m looking for a therapy group with people just like me.”

I was touched. It was clear that this guy spends most of his life feeling like the oddball. I could relate. For an awful lot of my life I felt the same way, and at the time, if I was looking for a therapy group (or any kind of group) I would have said the exact same thing.

It reminds me of the American Girl store. I’ve never actually been personally, but I’ve heard more than a few mothers recount with wide, stunned eyes the experience of taking their daughters. They sell a few things, but mostly if you’re taking your daughter to American Girl (in New York it’s on 5th Avenue) it’s to buy a doll. Not just any doll; this doll, apparently, is a “custom-made” doll (read: expensive) where a child can specify not only hair color and style and skin tone, but choose from an assortment of outfits and accessories. The idea is that your daughter can walk out of the story with a doll that’s just like her.

When it comes to 6-year olds and dolls, just like me works okay, I guess. But in the world beyond dolls, when it comes to people finding a place where they belong, where there are those they can be close to and build with, I’m afraid that just like me is a myth.

Part of what comes up short is that “like me” is based on privileging certain attributes as being more important than others. Does like me have to mean people of the same gender, ethnic background, class, part of town, age, etc? Does it mean, “those who struggle with the same things as me?” Like is a relative term.

Like can also get in the way of building a relationship. It might seem counter intuitive at first, but try this on: When you’re building with people who aren’t so much like you (at least in the categories of like-ness that seem to be the most important) there’s a certain amount of work you’ve got to do from the start. “Given that we’re different, how do we want to do X?” It also supports an environment of curiosity from the start; after all, if you’re aware of the differences, and choosing to get close anyway, there’s just so much to be curious about you can hardly help BUT be curious.

Finally, just like me is an effort at creating mythical pockets of safety in an otherwise harsh world. I say mythical because the reality is there is no such thing as a group or community that’s separate from or removed from the world. Search as we might, the world is filled with all different sorts of people. Some of those differences might be exciting, and others (no matter how much we grow) may be cruel or scary. If we want to get along better in the world, we’ve got to find ways of being in the world with all of its complexities.

It turns out there’s an awful lot one can build with people who aren’t like you (which is, of course, a myth of its own–we’re all alike in some ways and different in others). Maybe someday I’ll get an email to that effect: “I haven’t had much success building close relationships with people and I’d like to find a group of people who are really different from me.” I think it’s possible that’s a better plan.