Rabbi Zusua said that on the Day of Judgement, God would ask him not why he had not been Moses, but why he had not been Zusua.
Walter Kaufman (German-American philosopher)
Although we have much in common, everybody is a different, separate individual, with our own distinctive set of characteristics and life experiences. So individuality is a given, and this area will focus on factors that restrict its actualisation: copying others, conformity, being self-conscious and trying to please others.
Copying others may be useful when learning new skills. However, copying the manners or appearance of somebody else with the hope that some of their essence will rub off on us, is misleading at the very least. Copying another may temporarily increase your self-esteem but it requires suppressing your individuality, which creates an inner conflict and diminishes self-respect. To copy means, in a way, giving up your own life, losing yourself. So, even if you achieve a desired goal but alienate yourself in the process, you won’t enjoy it because you will not be there but somebody else’s copy. Everybody has their own way, and what has worked for one person may not work for another. Copying doesn’t work with others either; an imperfect original is usually more valued than even a successful copy of a masterpiece.
Conformity refers to compliance with the attitudes, behaviour, dress code etc. of a group. Where conformity dominates, individual judgments tend to converge and group norms become a relatively permanent frame of reference. This can be a result of the need for security and approval, or just simple laziness. Another powerful force towards conformity is the feelings of separateness and anxiety that showing individuality may bring. These feelings may be experienced not only by those who do not conform, but also by the rest of the group, who may fear for the cohesiveness of the group. Individuality, however, does not need to be a threat to, or create a conflict with, the society or group. It doesn’t mean being egocentric, but accepting that you are, like everybody else, somewhat different, and allowing yourself (and others) to be so. Valuing what we share does not preclude respecting what we don’t. In fact, individuality may add something worthwhile to the group. What stands in the way of the above is peer pressure.
Why do w succumb to peer pressure? Because we want to be popular or at least accepted; the flock mentality also feeds into this – some insecure people tend to affirm their sense of belonging by ridiculing, laughing at, taunting, ignoring or even bullying those who are or attempt to be different. All the above can make us do what we think that others want even if this is not what we really want. However, succumbing to peer pressure means losing our individuality, which may lead to losing other things as well. For example, imagine you don’t care about the latest fashion and somebody else doesn’t care for it either – but if you both succumb to peer pressure, you won’t recognise that you have something in common with each other. So, you may miss a chance to meet somebody who shares your affinities and values, for the sake of others who may not be very important to you anyway.
Resisting the pressure to conform
You can take the following steps to resist peer pressure:
- The first step to do so is by asking (yourself and maybe others): ‘Why?’ (e.g. why do men usually wear ties and women high heels? Both are not good for our bodies).
- If you conclude that there is no sensible answer, consider if going against the grain is worthwhile. What do you risk?
- Prepare how you will respond (if at all) when others pressure you to conform. For example, you may ask somebody who laughs at you, ‘are you afraid of somebody different?’
- If you feel ostracised, imagine that you are currently a group of one – if you withstand the pressure, somebody may join in!
The opinions, judgments and other reactions of people towards us are important because they provide social orientation and security. Pretending that they are not may increase their influence over us on an unconscious level. However, being aware of and respecting the opinions of others is different from judging yourself only through their eyes, using them as a mirror and the only measure of your own worth. Exaggerated concern about the impression we leave increases insecurity and vulnerability and can also lead to mistaken self-assessment. You may, for example, start questioning what’s wrong with you in response to somebody’s reaction, but she may simply be in a bad mood or react in a particular way for reasons completely unrelated to you. So what can we do?
- Avoid mind-reading: you do not have direct access to the minds of others, so trying to guess what others think of you is pretty much pointless. A sense or feeling that you draw from focusing on atmosphere and on others (rather than on yourself through them) is a much better guide.
- Avoid the illusion of transparency: when self-conscious, we tend to overestimate to what extent others can detect our inner states – remember, they do not have access to your mind either!
- Avoid the spotlight effect: we also tend to overestimate the extent to which our behaviour and appearance are noticed and evaluated by others – you are most likely not in the spotlight!
- Even if you are, so what? Practising this exercise can help:
Being watched: imagine, while for example walking or waiting for a bus, that somebody is observing you (for no specific reason). Monitor how you feel and in what way it affects your behaviour. If you react strongly, try first to find out why it matters to you and if it is justified. Then, relax and make a conscious attempt not to be bothered much (you can, for instance, say to yourself ‘So what?’). You can also imagine (but don’t get into details) that people are talking about you, and do the same.
Pleasing others is usually motivated by a desire to be loved and/or praised. However, always giving in or trying to fulfil the expectations of others doesn’t earn you love but loss of respect. Even hardened manipulators value more those who do not always concede because it shows that they are not just objects but individuals. If adapting to the desires or demands of others is the strongest factor that influences your behaviour, it can be interpreted as weakness and abused.
The above is not a licence to be irresponsible or unhelpful – it only means not letting others take you for granted. In other words, being aware of your needs and desires too, and contributing to decisions and plans rather than just following them. You may still need to adapt, but to the situation rather than to others. For example, if you want to go on an expensive holiday with your friends but some of them don’t have enough money, you may have to be flexible and perhaps choose something cheaper.
The outcome may be the same, but there is a difference if you do this just to please others or because it makes sense to you. Individuality is not supported or proven by always being in opposition to something or someone (in which case you are still only reactive rather than proactive), but by taking into consideration yourself as well as others. There is no good justification for doing otherwise – just excuses.
What do I really want? Make a habit of checking from time to time your own needs and desires in social situations: do you really want to be there and do what you are doing – or you are just complying with the wishes of others or trying to leave an impression? If it is the latter, you don’t need to change something straight away. Consider it first in the light of your priorities at that moment. You may decide, for example, to go along with what is happening out of consideration (which is different from pleasing others). Otherwise, take the plunge and do what you really want – or don’t do what you don’t want.