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  • Gabriella van Rij

Conformity Breeds Adversity

When we hear the word conformity, we often think of compliance to rules and regulations, which, of course, is correct. However, we don’t often equate this to the way a single individual complies to others.

We conform to be a part of a group, a family, a friend, or an entire office culture, but to what expense?

For instance, when you are very young, you might experience conformity because of a decision your parents or your guardians make. In my case, for example, when I was dropped off in the Catholic orphanage in Pakistan, the nuns asked my biological mother to provide them with a birth date and a birth name. The very next day, they conformed this Muslim name into the Catholic name Gabriella, which I hold today. To me, this was them saying, “Now you belong within our group and we can take care of you since you are properly baptized and have a Catholic name.” The nuns likely never thought about this enforced conformity as their rules were “If you come within our walls and ask us to take care of the abandoned children, we will conform them to our religion and our way of life.” So as a baby, toddler, or child, you conform as you have no choice in the matter.

In my opinion, conformity happens for several reasons:

--Out of fear of not being good enough

--Out of needing to belong or fit into the group

--Lastly, out of a desire to not be left out

These often subconscious decisions are made so fast without really realizing that we conformed. Thus, we lose a bit of who we are to be part of the group. This is why I say that conformity breeds adversity for in the end you will go through the painful process of having to figure out who you became to please the group and to fit in.

Conforming to the rules and regulations of government—for example, stopping at a red light—are put in place so it does not become a zoo out there with the many cars on the highway. We have no problem with that type of compliance. However, I know many people, friends and colleagues, who are not so happy when they have to comply to the culture in a workplace. Especially if this is not something familiar to you and feels off somehow with your own values and standards. But when we are young, in the growing years between kindergarten age and a senior in high school, we have conformed so often to be part of the popular crowd that we don’t even realize that we have already changed our personalities many times to fit in.

This is where fear comes in… The fear of not being good enough, yet understanding instinctively that, for your own survival, you must adapt to the group because if you don’t you will be left out! And that definitely will not make you feel good about yourself. This is how we start slowly but surely to adopt another face… We put on a mask to hide our true selves as the price of belonging.

Belonging is a universal emotion that everyone can agree on. Like a good friend of mine, a holocaust survivor, once told me, we all need that “one friend.” When we have that one friend, we can move mountains. We feel the security of fitting in, of being loved and valued by that one person.

If I am not good enough, belonging to the group will elevate my status into being good enough! It’s very important to understand this motivation. We think, “Now that I fit in the group, I will not rock the boat. I will follow the general consensus.” We do this without even knowing that we’re doing that. We will now only let people into the group who think alike, look alike, and who represent everything the group stands for. This is how clubs and networks get formed, whether they have a religious undertone, whether they are about sports, creative groups, etc. Look around you. There are so many groups because we have so many likes and dislikes, there is room for everyone.

The danger of these groups is that we often lose who we are because, remember, we did not fit in the group to begin with! We changed some of our wants and needs to accommodate them. And in this process, we lose a bit of who we are each time we do this. Often, I hear people who have hit their forties and fifties, say, “Gosh! I think I lost total sight of who I was as a child, when I was fearless and daring. I do not recognize who I am today!”

See, I believe we all have faces that we show the world, some more than others. The more we pretend to be someone else, the harder it is to find your way back. The face you decide to put on, your public persona, if it is not who you truly are, it will eventually show up. Maybe not immediately, but in your interactions with others, they will feel that there is something off…

This is why the word “authentic” became so popular. People are attracted to those who are genuine and real over those who are simply putting on a public face because this is rare. If you show your own quirkiness, your dry humor, your cheeky character, you will stand out, you will not fit the general mold. And to be this genuine, you have to feel really good about who you are. You need to have the courage to show up as yourself every day, which requires more courage than conforming to the crowd.

I want to also quickly touch on being left out. We often equate being left out with being lonely and pathetic. We don’t want to be seen as a strange person living alone, who isn’t part of any specific circles, as it makes us feel like a social pariah. This phenomena is very strong in a lot of Western cultures. So much of our conformities are preset in our cultures within our environment. For example, the Dutch marry late and they first build a financially stable life before committing to marriage and children. In Belgium, it is the opposite, where the women marry early. Every culture has its preset conformities, which most parents hope their children will follow. And you know why? Because otherwise the parents will not fit in, if their child does something clearly out of the norm.

When I was a speaker and gave workshops in my younger years, my parents often asked when I was going to get a “normal” job. The reason this confused my parents is they had no clue where to box and label me—the same is true of many parents out there. Often it is not about you, it is about them wanting others to think that they did a good job as parents because, look, their offspring has a management job and earns 50K or more a year. It says more about who they are and their own insecurities about belonging.

In the end, none of the faces we show the world serve us. It is easier to just be you, you will have less doctor bills later in life. Try to make yourself happy before making others happy. Because if you conform, it will eventually trip you up.

The truth is none of this serves you! Just be you—that is already hard enough.

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