Jackson starred at the mirror but this time it was different; it was as if the mirror starred back at him. It’s as if the man in the mirror was talking to him. The scary bit was that it was a voice he could no longer recognize. The voice that reverberated so intensely but quickly faded just as instantly. The man in the mirror was a stranger, a face covered with masks, sometimes a bright smile, sometimes a dim frown, whichever suited the occasion. Jackson was grooming himself for a party, one he had attended every weekend since joining college. This particular one was his good pal, Steve’s birthday. It was yet another night of intoxication, loud music, and meeting so many people he would barely remember the next day. It was going to be a blast. Or at least it was supposed to be a blast, except for one thing, it actually wasn’t, not the first time, not the second, not the a hundredth, not even this time. Truth is Jackson was actually an introvert and didn’t like drinking and partying but he somehow forced himself to sit through all those parties. The pressure to perform and look the part, the anxiety, the façade he had to keep up and hope no one notices he was an imposter. What he would give for a quiet evening curled in his bed, with a shake spear classic, a cup of tea and his favorite Lionel Riche album. He kept telling himself, “I will keep trying and maybe one day I will become ‘normal’.” He saw his actual personality as a defect that needed to be fixed. Everyone his age does it, so he should most definitely do it right. But the more he pushed himself, the more the inner voice faded, the more depressing his life became.
Society is filled with people like this, people who conform to social forces and allow these forces to dictate their actions and values. Such people highly value how society looks at them, and obsess about what people think about them, or at least what they think people think about them. They try their best to think about how most people think, like what people like, hate what most people hate, and value what people value. To them, self-actualization depends on reaching a kind of ‘normal’, a concept they pick from looking at how most people in society behave. Those are the conformists and people pleasers who get a sense of self-worth or self-esteem from how many people approve of them. The face(personality) that they present to society is always masked, and the voice(opinion) they use is one filtered to suit other people’s needs. They are so afraid to look at their own face or listen to their own true voice.
Why then do people try hard to conform, to the extent that they are willing to give up their uniqueness just to fit in?
Scientific research shows that there are two main reasons people conform, Normative, and informational reasons.
The normative is a reason rooted deeper in our human nature, a desire to fit in. Because human beings are inherently social creatures, we value our belonging to a crowd, preferably one the shares our common traits. Belonging gives us a sense of identity, safety, and security because of the numbers. Like a buffalo is safer from the lions if it sticks to the herd. Belonging is good and mentally healthy. It fosters meaningful relationships especially with the people we value and who share our ideas, goals, and ambitions. The problem is when the need for belonging surpasses the need for self-actualization and when conformity becomes motivated by a fear of loneliness. Conforming to a crowd becomes a comfort zone where we won’t be judged or rejected for acting out who you truly are. But then in doing so, you trade your uniqueness, individuality, and potential gifts for a temporary sense of security.
The informational reason is a desire to be right. Here perfectionism plays a big role. It’s a compulsion to live perfectly, be good to everyone, be liked by everyone. We live in a perfectionist era where everyone wants to get things right and can’t bare their flaws. ‘have to talk right, have to walk right, have to behave right’ but what does ‘right’ really mean. People then conform to an ideal that society portrays and the ideal becomes what everyone else is doing. Society tries to mold you into everybody else. “to be authentic, we must cultivate the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable. We have to believe that we are fundamentally worthy of love and acceptance just as we are. I have learnt that there is no better grace, gratitude, and joy into our lives than by mindfully practicing authenticity.” Brene Brown.
Authenticity, a path to self-discovery involves a detachment from your crowd, their ideas and values and really discovering what the true you value the most. It involves a high sense of self awareness and introspection. You have to truly look inwards to discover what you truly love and really value. You must walk your own path to find out who you truly are. “two roads diverged at the wood, and I took the path less travelled by, and that made all the difference.” Robert Frost. After finding the unbiased version of your values, goals, and ambitions, authenticity then involves aligning your actions to those values. Those values vary from person to person and are rarely common for any two people. Hence such questions can only be answered by yourself. “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde. No quest is worthy if it compromises your deepest values, no amount of money or power can ever be fulfilling if in your journey you cheated your core values.
Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr. said it best in his poem, the man in the glass.
“When you get what you want in your struggle for self,
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go back to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what the man in the glass has to say.”
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in their last twelve weeks before death. These were patients at the fringe of their lives, at a point when everything suddenly flashes before your eyes and becomes clearer to you. Living up to expectations, fear of failure, judgment or rejection, pride, ego along all other vanities are laid waste in the face of death. No one has a clearer perspective of life than a person faced with death. The nurse recorded the dying regrets of these patients and she noticed a pattern. She then noted the most common and consistent regrets of a dying patient and guess the number one regret, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”. Don’t wait to come to the end of your life to start living a life truest to yourself, start now.