I have spent a lot of time examining my belief systems and how and if they have benefited me. I have also seriously considered how and if they have damaged me. Sadly, for the most part, I have to side with the latter.
I have strong clear memories of the many times I was instructed not to do things because it was not what other people were doing. I am not speaking about setting fire to the family dog kind of things, but rather things that were expressions of who I was and harmed no-one like wanting to wear my green pants with an orange top. The only damage those types of things caused was to my family and their desire to fit in and to appear as “normal” as possible. Success was measured by how well you could do what everyone else was doing, as long as you did it in the same way everyone else was doing it. Life was one big chorus line where, to be perfect, you danced in sync with everyone else and never, ever, drew attention to yourself. I was to be assimilated, to be part of the whole and not an individual.
This, they assured me, was the path to true happiness.
It wasn’t. It never was and never will be.
The problem with trying to fit in and not being yourself is that you end up with people in your life who can and will destroy you. If I had just been myself there would not have been any ambiguity regarding our compatibility. Those people would have walked a wide circle around me and I would have been better off for it. Instead of spending so much time in complete pain, destroyed by the many unkindnesses from people who were never going to understand me, I might have found people who were actually capable of loving “me.”
Not because those people are bad people, or I am some precious snowflake, but because we both deserved the kind of love and friendship that actually was intended for our lives. Instead, we were all forced into a game of engaging one another simply because we paid the admittance price and once paid, everyone gets a ride.
It seemed like a reasonable request, “be like they are” and you will fit in, you will be accepted, they will not pick on you. It was true. There was a dress code to being allowed to participate in the normal things of growing up. Those people never took any time to get to know who I was, because along with the uniform I was expected to wear, came a long list of other expectations. I had to think like they did. I had to act like they did. The group decided what we liked and did not. You could sometimes get away with not having to be the instigator of unkindnesses, but you sure as hell had to show up and be standing somewhere in the circle surrounding the person who was.
There were people I was not allowed to talk to. There were things I was not allowed to do. Sometimes I had no idea who I was or what I was doing but there were friends and I was the envy of many kids who did not even have the ability to buy the uniform.
And it wasn’t like there was one person in charge, one horrible person that if we could take them out, the world would be set right … it was just an unspoken code, handed down over the ages, that fed itself and grew to be oh so much bigger than the whole of its parts.
In my whole life, I have had people who were there, not because I chose them, or because they liked me, but because if I wanted to succeed. They were my options. Whether it was work, church, or just the community I lived in, THE GROUP always exists. You join it if you want to be part of things. And once you join it, that expectation of your support and behaviour kicks in. As long as you play nicely, you are good with everyone. As soon as you start to speak up in any way, it is as if the whole group feels challenged in some life or death way and they close ranks. You either stop what you are doing or get out. With the former, you get to live with sanctions in place, with the latter you have signed your social death warrant.
I know that people will argue this is not the case at all and that they never think in these terms, it is all in my head. I am not suggesting that by the time we are adults, most people ever consciously consider this dynamic in terms of policing their own actions. By the time we reach our twenties we are so conditioned to the group mentality that it is second nature – a subconscious way of living.
This is especially true if you are a person who has always been part of the group. People who are well integrated are those who say they are having a tough day and people show up on their doorstep with cake and gifts to cheer them up. People on the outside get cancer and die alone. If you have always been part of the group you will be oblivious to the destructive dynamic because you have never had to challenge it. Being a sheep is comfortable and rewarding. There are plenty of other sheep milling around at all times.
No-one chooses to be a sheep. We are conditioned and socialized by first our families and the communities we live in, and then by the schools and finally the world in which we must live. We are rewarded for standing in an orderly line and arrested when we protest and make noise. We shout out how awesome our countries are when we have a democracy and can vote and yet we ignore that it is a flawed system. How is a system where 51% of a group dictate to the other 49% what their lives will be? Where is there choice to live as they choose, as they are? Majority wins right? And it is great, as long as you are the majority. We don’t even see that we were conditioned to accept this and to think it is freedom.
There is a lot written these days, telling the person who experiences the rejection that it is their mindset that causes this perception and that they should just change their expectation and they will have a swell time like everyone else who attended the same party. What that really is, is just another admonition for that person to stop being themselves and get in line with what everyone else is doing.
If we are all to blame for every bad thing that ever happens, it sounds really empowering and almost like there is nothing bad to react to. It sounds like it is promoting responsibility.
So the people who are spreading lies and rumours, who bully others; when do they take responsibility for their actions? Do we really expect the victim of their actions to just adopt a happier expectation and voila, that party will be awesome for him? There are people who do bad things. There are bad situations, and pretending that they don’t exist and that we can deal with them by having a happy attitude, is ridiculous.
Sometimes all this New Age “love” and “letting go” is ridiculous and even dangerous. Half the population is asleep playing video games and texting one another. Another goodly portion only think they are awake and doing better. They might care what happens but they still have their heads under a rock when it comes to seeing what is happening and doing something about it. They want the world to believe we can hug away wars and no-one needs to hang up their prayer beads or change out of their pristine white, flowing linens to do it.
That message from my childhood of being like everyone else had far-reaching implications. I was incredibly different than the people I was around but I was also aware. I picked my battles. I was willing to take hits for some things but also willing to get back in line so that I could participate in programs that required it – like sports. What I ended up with was a life filled with people and situations that served the overall life mission laid out for me by society but that had little to do with living an authentic life where I allowed myself to fully blossom and be myself. I invited in the demons that I lived with. And while my life was being ripped apart I had to pretend all was well and I was happy because well, isn’t that what we are supposed to do? I mean look at how Social Media facilitates exactly that.
The truth is none of us fit in THAT group. We all had other things we could have/should have been doing. We all needed other friends, people that really were capable of loving us just as we were, warts and all.
So I am a grandmother on a crusade. I give my grandkids permission to be themselves every chance I can. I try with every child I ever meet. I push their parents to let them just be who they are. Herd mentality is a difficult thing to dismantle because the herd offers immediate comfort … “everyone is doing it,” and we all look the same. Our own way seems like a lonely, scary road when we start down it, but along the way we find others who are meant to be with us. We find opportunities and happiness. And most of all, we find ourselves.
I cannot go back and undo what was done to me. I am not laying blame here, I am sure that the cycle began long before my parents took the reins, I am taking responsibility. I can break the cycle. I cannot save me from the pain the herd caused my life but I can grab the lambs that I see around me and set them on their feet and encourage them to run. It is about taking responsibility for our own lives and insisting that others do the same. That I can do.