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Left Out? 3 Survival Strategies for the Fifth Wheel

woman alone at partyHave you ever been with two other people and felt like the odd one out?

Did it seem like nobody would notice or care if you weren’t there?

In that case you know what it’s like to be the fifth wheel.

Huh?

Don’t I mean the third wheel?

Not unless you experienced yourself as a stabilizing influence!

Joining two people on a date doesn’t make you a third wheel; it just makes you a third person.

If you think about it, adding a third wheel to a two-wheeled vehicle is a good thing. It enhances the situation by creating more balance.

That’s why we give kids tricycles before they get a bike; that third wheel is a real tooth-saver.

A third wheel is an improvement on an unstable situation … unlike, say, joining a couple on their honeymoon.

In the latter case you would correctly be called (among other things) a fifth wheel.

Can you imagine any single vehicle needing five wheels?

A cart has four, one at each corner, and presumably carts were common when this phrase became popular.

There’s no place to put a fifth wheel, and certainly no need for one.

Hence the term “fifth wheel” being used to describe a person whose presence is extraneous.

Fifth Wheel Survival Strategies

In any case, it’s an uncomfortable feeling.

So what can you do to get through it gracefully?

1. Listen. If the conversation is flying back and forth in front of you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Everybody can’t talk at once. Relax.

Eat more than your share of the appetizers.

If you’re an introvert or suffer with social anxiety, remember that everyone loves a good listener.

By listening well, including making eye contact and grunting agreeably from time to time, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who’s fun to talk to.

2. Learn. You can learn a great deal about the world by listening, but you can also learn about yourself by paying attention to your feelings.

Do you often feel left out? Lonely in a crowd?

Did you feel that way when you were growing up?

What is that like for you? Are there any other feelings there at the same time?

Being mindful of your own “stuff” around other people helps you figure out what’s true.

Are you just falling into old patterns of thought, or are you really getting signals that you’re not wanted?

3. Leave. If you’re truly being ignored for too long or feeling bored with the whole exercise, in many cases you can find a way to excuse yourself.

There’s no need to be passive-aggressive about it. If you want others to know how you feel, tell them.

Depending on your relationship you may decide to let them in on your discomfort, or not. There’s no right or wrong about it.

If you just want to leave, do so with a polite excuse and a regretful smile that lets others off the hook.

You’re Not Alone

Finding yourself in the fifth wheel position occasionally doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

We’ve all been there.

Social groups spontaneously coalesce into clumps that often leave at least one member feeling like the odd one out, at least temporarily.

Keep your wits about you, and remember you have options.

Got some other ideas for how to survive this common situation? Please share them below in the Comments section.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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