I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the feeling that I need to fit in.
On one hand, I always felt a great deal of pressure to conform to my surroundings. On the other hand, I felt strongly that I needed to do things “my way.”
Quite often, this tug-of-war with “fitting” created the need to make it look like I was conforming, while secretly doing things my own way. (But shhhhhh, don’t tell my former teachers or principals!)
In working with clients, I find that people have one of four basic relationships with the need to fit in:
- I’ll do anything to fit in. My survival depends on it.
- I feel like I’m not capable of fitting in, so I deny the pressure to do it.
- I have to actively rebel against others’ rules. Surviving depends on doing things “my own way” (which is often just the opposite of those around me).
- Life is a ping-pong match between needing to fit in and needing to do things my own way.
Do you recognize yourself in one of these? You might see this show up in how you follow society’s rules (or don’t). Maybe you say that the rules you’re asked to conform with are “stupid,” so you refuse to follow them. Maybe you see it in how you interact with social groups. You might go entirely with the crowd, or you might be the free spirit in your family, with your friends or in your community. It might show up in your career. Maybe your can effortlessly work within others’ ways of doing things. Or, you might feel the need to do things your own way, so you find that operating on your own is best.
No matter which of the four you resonate with, your mechanism for dealing with the need to conform was developed early in life.
It is both an expression of, and a way of coping with, what I call Learned Distress, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.” We all absorb this feeling early in life from how those around us feel about being human, and it becomes embedded in our sense of self, which generates each moment of our lives from that point on. Whatever relationship with “fitting” worked with your initial surroundings will be the same way that you find yourself coping with Learned Distress now, because your sense of self just keeps generating situations and relationships in which you feel the same as you did early on.
The opposite of Learned Distress is uniqueness.
So, if you didn’t have any of the feeling that there is something wrong with you, then you would be able to live entirely from your uniqueness. Learned Distress makes you feel like you need to relate in that same old way to the rules. Uniqueness, on the other hand, lets you fit naturally just as you are. You could even think of that as the world fitting with you, rather than the other way around.
When I suggest this to clients, they often respond with disbelief, no matter which one of those four patterns they’ve embodied. Often, people even think that I’m suggesting that they just behave in the opposite way from their pattern, but my work isn’t about turning rebels into conformists or the other way around. What happens with the shift I’m talking about is that you relax and get to be yourself in the way that feels effortlessly natural and watch as the world starts to fit with how you feel best.
My clients are usually surprised when those around them seem happier as a result, or their situations work better. But this is how uniqueness works—it generates win-win situations.
One of my clients has struggled with this issue of conforming in her career. She has resisted doing things the conventional way because the rules felt stupid to her. But that was getting in the way of her being able to make a living. As she has unlearned her denial of the need to follow some basic rules in her profession, she has found it easier to just sit down and get work done. After a long dry spell, she now has as much work as she can handle. And, she has also been able to start working with a partner who wanted her to use a different system than “her way.” Despite still feeling that her system was better, she invested in his system and has started working with it.
She’s finding that instead of this partnership being about her familiar pattern of resisting the rules, it’s allowing her to collaborate successfully and express her uniqueness professionally.
Can you imagine what it would be like to just relax and be yourself, and find that your surroundings fit well with you? When you unlearn your need to fit in or not fit in, which is always a reaction to someone else’s rules, your uniqueness gets to shine through, and the whole world benefits.
I hope you’ll share your thoughts or questions in the comments, and if you’ve found this helpful, please feel free to share with friends.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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