Why do we feel this need to conform, to fit in? Why can’t we explore our individuality and find out through our hits and misses who and what we are without feeling the need to pigeon hole ourselves and behave, look, do what society expects from us.
I have been wondering about why I feel this need to conform and in my case feel I fit into the type of conformity as explained by Dr C George Boeree as “somewhat conscious and not quite voluntary. It is usually brought on by social anxiety ~ fear of embarrassment, discomfort at confusion, a sense of inferiority, a desire to be liked, and so on. I think it should be called defencive conformity.”
I have spent my life trying to do what has been expected of me, all be it with some disastrous knee jerk reaction moments when I deliberately did what was not expected of me even when I didn’t want to, just to spite those who I felt were pressuring me to do otherwise.
As a child I was exceptionally shy, prone to blushing during interaction with others, loathing any attention being given to me. I was fearful of everything, going into shops and requesting goods over the counter, walking alone down the street, talking to new people, asking directions, answering questions in class and catatonic with fear if I was asked to stand up and read in class or speak in public. I have no idea why I was this way, I can only assume that it goes back to when I was very young, my older sister by only 15 months used to do everything for me, talk for me, open my gifts ~ everything. We were inseparable and during that time I was happy and not at all anxious, I had my big sister, I didn’t need anyone else ~ let alone learn to rely on myself and stand alone. This changed when she reached secondary school age and left me completely alone, adrift, no support or companion as she had gone away to boarding school. This is when I realised how lacking in confidence I was, how shy I felt without the comforting presence of my sister by my side. It was awful.
Left by myself I felt I had to do what others did in order to “fit in”. Wear what they did, do what they did, look how they did. I didn’t have the courage to do what I felt to be right, wear what I wanted and go and do what I enjoyed. I believed you had to be thin and to wear make-up to appear attractive and that only the academically clever would go anywhere in life, so not me. I wish I could go back now and speak to the younger me ~ I would tell myself to have the strength to follow my own beliefs, desires and gut instincts.
I conformed and did what others expected of me, in short I became a people pleaser. This lead to conflict during the ensuing years because in order to please one person I inevitably ended up upsetting another.
I was also guilty of comparing myself to others ~ yes I can see that this can be a good way to evaluate yourself and used as motivation tool but it can also be damaging and create self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness too. “Comparison is the death of joy,” said Mark Twain ~ I couldn’t agree more; it is dangerous to put your self worth down to how you compare to others and can create jealousy and feelings of inadequacy if you don’t come up to scratch but also you may feel superior if you are doing better than others which is awful, who wants to feel good on the back of someone elses misfortune?
It was having my own children that made me re-evaluate how I lived my life. I didn’t want them to feel that they had to conform to the mainstream beliefs on how they should look, dress and behave. I allowed them the freedom to express themselves in whatever way they wished. My eldest daughter had 6 imaginary friends, all had specific character traits and were included in conversation and places set for them at mealtimes because that was her wish. For a while my middle daughter dressed exclusively in boys clothes and would only play with stereotypical boys toys. My youngest daughter liked to mix weird and wonderful combinations together and wear odd outfits – such as jazzy tights, patterned swimsuits and welly boots to nursery school. My parenting technique caused many a raised eyebrow from other parents and shaking of heads. As they are growing up I have allowed them to dye their hair all colours of the rainbow, have piercings and all three have not followed the normal educational route due to circumstance out of our control. We allow them to express their opinions and try to never talk down to them. This has led to us have 3 daughters who are finding out who they are, what they like and where they want to go in life. They are independent thinkers, creative and not afraid to speak their minds. I am exceptionally proud of them and believe that they have the strength to follow their own beliefs and desires without feeling the need to conform. Their teen years have been far from the norm due to chronic illness and this has further developed their individuality and ability to work out what they feel is best for them and to follow that path rather than doing what others may feel they should do.
I am learning through the courage of my daughters to look at my own behaviour and beliefs. I have now stopped saying yes to things I really don’t want to do and now have the strength to say “No”, I don’t give excuses but will if necessary back up with a valid reason. I have made a point of asking for what I want ~ I may not always get it but at least I am starting to work towards getting there. I am expressing my opinion, it may not be the same as other peoples but that doesn’t make it invalid either. I have made the big step of working at believing in myself and my abilities, I am currently working at writing my first novel. It is an ambition which up til now I had decided I could not achieve because I am not academic, I’m no writer but why not go for it? To complete my book and have it published will see a dream come true, I am doing it purely for myself and no one else. If people read it and enjoy it then that will be a huge boost but not the reason I am taking this on.
The hardest part of this challenge though is trying to stop myself worrying about what other people think of what I do or how I look. I am practising doing things my way ~ yes I carry some weight but does that make me a lesser person? No of course not. If someone judges me as being less than I am because of my weight then that is their issue, not mine. I also dye my hair bright unnatural shades of purple because I love the colour and it makes me feel happy. If people think I shouldn’t have bright purple hair at “my age” then again that’s their opinion and not mine. I will listen to other peoples opinions and advice but ultimately now I intend to follow what my gut instinct tells me to do. If I feel strongly about something and it goes against the advice of others I will do it not to spite them but because I want to ~ whether I succeed or fail. I am trying to learn the art of compromise as I recognise that sometimes I can’t blithely just do what I want without considering the feelings of others ~ so in some instances a compromise needs to be reached to keep both parties happy. I am practising the art of assertiveness (still a work in progress), this is harder than I thought and requires me facing my fears and speaking out. Lastly I am developing a shell to protect me from other peoples displeasure at my choices, especially when I chose to take the path they are against and don’t comply to their wants. This does not mean that I am being selfish – I recognise when there is a need for me to prioritise the wants and needs of others and will put their needs first when necessary. It’s a learning curve, trying to find the right balance that sits well with me. I am no longer willing to be a pushover, at the mercy of other peoples wishes and expectations.
I love this quote;
“The greatest acts of kindness are those done by choice, not out of fear or guilt. If you’re doing things for others because you would feel bad if you didn’t, is the action really genuine? Would you want others to help you under those terms? And, if you’re helping others to such an extent that you are neglecting yourself, is that really wise?
It is my responsibility to my daughters to lead by example and I am grateful to my husband for understanding and supporting me through my transition from people pleaser to individual thinker. I am exceptionally lucky and am finding through age comes wisdom and that gives me the strength to change ingrained patterns of behaviour.