How To Be Genuinely Popular — In A Way That's Not Grossly Fake

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After 25 years, I still know all the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" even though I've long since graduated from Teen Spirit to Lady's Speed Stick (or whatever is on sale at Target this week).

It came on the radio — the classic rock station, which is disturbing in and of itself, because that station should be reserved for things like Bob Seger and Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers, and everything else my parents listened to.

The stuff I listened to shouldn't be considered "classic," right? Maybe I'm old, but I'm cool with that because with age came some better sense.

People say that the song is nonsensical, that Kurt Cobain wrote the lyrics in five minutes and you can't even understand what he's saying, but I've always held on to my interpretation of it as truth. The song is ultimately about the struggle between being a freak and wanting to fit in.

We all want to fit in. We want to be popular. But what we think of as popularity is a lie.

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The whole idea of popularity first surfaced in middle school. There was this little group of twelve-year-old girls who wore Bonne Belle Lip Smackers and had more Lisa Franks and liquid crystals in their sticker books than anyone else. They wore pin-striped Calvins and every year there was a new sneaker and they had to have it first. Everyone copied these girls. We all wanted to sit at their lunch table.

The popular girls swooped in on me quickly. I was an easy target being shy and unaware of my own prettiness, and they were raptors in Esprit pastels. They called me scum. That was my new name. They relentlessly teased me.

It was horrible. And the crueler they were, the more I wanted to be one of them, which makes no sense whatsoever, but that's how it works. Always has. The logic probably is that if you become one of them then you are finally immune to or at least relieved from being hurt. It's not true, but it seems like it ought to be.

I hated these girls. Everyone did. (I'd also like to interrupt my own story to say that I have stalked every last one of them on Facebook and they have aged terribly. I look significantly better than all of them, which is not a surprise now that I understand the world a lot better. Mean is just ugly.)

One day in ninth grade I experienced a profoundly seismic paradigm shift: the popular crowd wasn't really popular. Let me repeat that with some caps lock: THE POPULAR CROWD ISN'T REALLY POPULAR.

So what are they then, if not genuinely popular? They are ELITE.

Definition of Elite: a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group.

Definition of Popular: regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general.

It's not the same thing. But we think it is.

I still see it constantly in just about every adult I know. Everyone wants to be part of the elite. I see grown women every day who act like they're in sixth grade. I've seen this play out in jobs, church, yoga, PTO, in clubs and organizations, and among the mothers of preschoolers. It's rampant.

But why? We want power and control and an easier life, believing that if we are part of a privileged group that s*** won't be so hard all the time. I get it.

Except it's all a myth. Life cannot be controlled. The only thing you can do is to train your mindbodyspirit self to deal with it.

Back in ninth grade when I realized that popular and elite weren't the same, I changed dramatically. I knew immediately that I wanted no part of a group of people who created an illusion of power by being mean to everyone around them including each other.

That isn't real power and it definitely isn't true acceptance. The day I realized that I stopped caring what the popular kids said to me, what they called me, and how they talked about me to others. None of it mattered. They were a pack of pathetic people, and they still are. Life as one of them would never be fun.

I sought out friends who were interesting, who had unique passions, and friends who were kind, funny, thoughtful, flawed, sincere, and different. I have continued to do this throughout my adult life, with astonishing success.

Stop striving for elitism, the fake popularity. Aspire towards genuine popularity, which is nothing more than maintaining meaningful, mutually reverent relationships with others.

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Elitism is misery. It's materialistic and fake. It's stressful. People who want that have bought into the illusion. They live a big fat lie. They even have to BECOME the illusion by looking a specific way, having certain things, living, being, and liking the same things as someone else. Their lives are constantly grasping at something that isn't real and thus can never be held.

They chase and chase and never catch real happiness, and their spirits become so warped that they cannot perceive beauty and truth, and light anymore. They turn into spiritual Gollums, all twisted and crazed with the need to possess a thing that doesn't even exist and they will go to ridiculous and evil extremes to get that unreal thing that they want so badly. It's a mess.

You don't want to live a life like that, so cut that s*** out while you still can. It's never too late to tell the illusion to go f*** itself.

Do you really want to know how to be popular? I can tell you how.

First, ask yourself if you want to be elite or actually popular and think hard about the answer. If you want to be Elite then go figure out why you feel so powerless and what empty holes you've got that need filling. Work on that and get back to me.

Here are 9 ways how to be genuinely popular — in a way that doesn't make you grossly fake and elitist:

1. Show up and keep showing up

All a relationship means is showing up when people need you.

2. It takes time to build relationships with people

You can't just arrive and take the place over. You want to be a friend, not a conqueror. You are not Napoleon over here, so calm down.

3. When you show up, be helpful

Do the work. Be prepared to do a lot of work.

4. Be generous with your time, your positive words, and your affection

The little things, like kind words, can make all the difference to somebody. 

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5. Stick around when bad stuff happens

That's when you're needed most. It's easy to be a party guest, but harder to clean up and serve the food at a funeral (this is both literal and figurative).

6. Be one of the problem-solvers instead of the blamers

No one wants to be that person who is always starting drama for attention.

7. Do not seek attention.

If you must receive attention, let it be from your happy achievements rather than from being a drama queen, complaining, psycho a****** who sucks all the joy and energy out of every situation.

8. Forgive the mistakes and bad days of others, and don't take their misgivings personally.

Give comfort, not judgment. This can be your new mantra. Get yourself a mala and repeat it 108 times.

9. Embrace your own freak

I am so weird and I don't even care anymore. I used to try to hide it and act in some way that I imagined was how normal people acted, but it was a disaster. People are attracted to people who are authentic and real, not big phony jerks. Be real by loving what you love no matter how odd it might be to someone else or how uncool it is.

Authenticity is sincerity and telling the truth about who you are. Sadly, we think if we do this that no one will like us, but it's the opposite. The good ones will gravitate to you when you have the courage to be real. The haters? F*** 'em. They're trapped in their own illusion. You don't need them.

That's basically it.

I have a lot of good memories from high school. I had a wonderful group of friends and we never got into the trouble that the other kids were in. I bet we were all considered huge nerds, but you know what? We were nice to each other. We had a lot of fun. We used to get together and order pizza and play music and have sing-alongs. I swear, we even played board games.

We watched John Hughes movies and played Mario Bros. We went to parks and hung out and got Slurpees at 711. Such dorks, right? But we were happy and our interactions had meaning and value, and we didn't hurt anyone or each other.

Guess what? We're pretty much all still friends to this day.

"And for this gift, I feel blessed."

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Victoria Fedden is a writer and author of Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and This is Not My Beautiful Life. Her writing has appeared in Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Huffington Post, Redbook, Elephant Journal, Scary Mommy, and more.