My guest today is Rebecca Fraser-Thill from . Currently a psychology professor at Bates College, a mother, a spouse, a writer, and a great source of inspiration for many twenty-something year olds, myself included! I’m very honored to share:
On The Cusp
By: Rebecca Fraser-Thill
The current mystery of my life is whether I’m a member of or not. Some sites claim that I am while most say say I’m out of the loop by a year or two. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, except that this is the most recent example of how I’ve lived my whole life: on the cusp.
I seem to be someone who is impossible to categorize – I’m a hardcore NPR listener…when I’m not singing at the top of my lungs with Pink and Rihanna; I’m an academic with a high need for cognitive stimulation…who can lose easily herself in People magazine and bad TV (Kardashians anyone?); I’m a games-and-giggles stay-at-home mom two days a week…and a driven career gal the other three days. All of this floating between categories may seem like fun, but it’s actually caused me a ton of strife.
And with good reason. When we ask the loaded question, “Who am I?” it can be helpful to have categories to cling onto: I’m a girl, I’m a Democrat, I’m a Gemini. (Actually I don’t even have the luxury of resorting to astrological signs since I’m solidly on the cusp there, too. It was my aunt who first brought this to my attention, saying something like, “Oh she’s going to be a tricky one, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.” That’s about right.)
Classifications serve as shorthand for our inner selves, doing the work of defining us without us having to get our hands dirty figuring it all out.
They also provide us with a sense of belonging. I know who I’m supposed to hang with if I know the categories with which I most readily identify. In those circles, I can share my viewpoints without fear of retribution, can listen to others speak without being affronted (usually), and can count on backing when the rest of the world disagrees. Famous psychologist Maslow even puts belongingness on his , right there in the middle of the action, it’s that important to us humans. It’s why people are so eager to become sports fans; it makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, and gives us a common interest when talking to others. (Go Pats!)
It’s no wonder, then, that my cusp tendencies have caused me a great deal of confusion. I spent most of my teen years and my twenties simply wanting to be one thing – and trying my hardest to force it.
When I enrolled in an Ivy League grad school straight out of college, I especially felt my “cuspness” bubble up. My interests, academic abilities, and drive made me a ready fit. That said, the majority of my peers actively eschewed television; had parents who’d earned a bachelor’s degree at the very least; and had a straight-shot vision of their careers, from graduation to tenure to retirement while I come from a family who used television as a gathering point; have highly intelligent parents who didn’t have the opportunity to go beyond an associate’s degree; and believe that
In other words, I was really out of my league.
All of the times I’d felt like I didn’t neatly fit in came to a head in that moment, causing me to have middle-of-the-night panic attacks and a true crisis of self. I tried to resolve these overwhelming feelings by throwing myself headlong into my studies and modeling myself after my peers. It was a false effort, at best, and a destructive one at worst. I was not them. I will never be them. They’re great people, but that’s simply not my reality.
The only way I managed to stop the panic attacks was to relax into who I am: a person with no category, as it were. I quit my doctoral program and, over the course of years, learned to embrace the fact that I can’t be easily classified.
The thing about being on the cusp is that you do indeed have traits of both categories, just as my aunt said long ago about my astrological sign(s). Being indefinable, I’ve learned, can actually be my greatest strength. If I let it. I can move between various groups of people with ease, can act as a ready intermediary between opposing sets of opinions (I genuinely understand both sides), and can find deep joy in a wide range of activities.
Not only that, being on the cusp now forms the basis of my career. It enables me to read dense psychology journal articles while easily identifying the elements that would be most important and compelling to a general audience. I’m then able to share that information in lectures and in writing in a way that is – hopefully! – compelling and accessible. By walking the line between serious academic and regular, TV-watching, middle class gal, I’m get to live a life about which I’m passionate and enthused. I don’t fit squarely into either group, and sometimes feel lonely for it, but really, who does have just one category?
And that is what I learned most from the identity challenges of my twenties: while we all desperately cling to categories to define ourselves and others, none of use is one-dimensional enough to shove into a little box. By embracing our complexities rather than denying them, we become our most true and beautiful selves. Then and only then are we able to do the work we’re meant to do in this world, and to find great pleasure in doing it. 
When it comes down to it, we’re all on the cusp. And that’s a fact to celebrate.