This morning I found myself joyously singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s hit; I am what I am! It felt wonderful shouting the refrain at the top of my voice, and yet it also felt rebellious and even a little forbidden. Why rebellious, I wondered later? Certainly to the most adaptable and pleasing part of myself there is something deeply provocative about standing up for who I am.
From childhood we do what we have to do to fit in. We know this from countless research studies as well as many hours spent with coaches, therapists and counsellors. More often than not, the song we end up singing in life is ‘I am what I’m not’. And what I have noticed in the past few months is how quickly changing life circumstances can push me into a conflict where I try to be ‘more of me’ yet fear the wrath and the judgement of the herd.
Who are you anyway?
Scientist Thomas Bouchard has been studying twins, separated at birth and raised by different parents. Despite growing up in totally different environments, the twins show striking similarities in terms of personality, interests, life choices and attitudes. It seems to confirm that there is such a thing as an intrinsic blueprint to our identity, be it physical as well as psychological. How easily that blueprint is played out, how much of it is realised, could then be ascribed to upbringing.
Caring about your family’s opinions gives you the first layers of conditioning. Their norms become the musical arrangement to your life’s song. But you may end up singing your song to arrangements that are dissonant and out of step with your inner beat. And then ‘life’ happens. Through a life crisis, through change and upheaval you may end up exploring who you are. I truly believe this dissonance, and our quest to solve it, is the fuel of our evolutionary growth. You begin a process of peeling away the layers of conditioning and perhaps discover a better arrangement for your own unique song. But even then, Knowing, is not the same as Understanding, let alone Being.
Tension with the tribe
And then just as you think you begin to get to a sense of who you are, the planets move, circumstances change, and you get to do a little more work. You might be coming out as gay in a community that still frowns upon same-sex relationships, you might initiate or be at the receiving end of a separation or a divorce. Maybe a change of career, or country is chosen or imposed. Or maybe you are coming to realise you are not an accountant but a budding artist. In search for their true song I have seen people go from one extreme to the other. It’s not the goal, but sometimes we need to explore both ends of the spectrum to find the middle ground.
And as you want to express more of that truer inner song, you feel the tension with the need to remain acceptable and likeable to the tribe. Or you find another tribe. But in my experience, few tribes can leave its individuals alone to just ‘be who they are’. You just swap one set of norms for another. So unless you have completely thrown caution to the wind, you could be in danger of holding back the process of change out of fear to be judged or disliked. How might you recognise this in yourself? I’d say listen to your thoughts. Hours can be spent ruminating, cajoling, and explaining to the unseen arbiters of our lives. Your heart knows what it wants, but the mind wants to ‘spin’ the message so the herd won’t totally reject us. Of course the joke is that whatever form of ‘mind control’ we might be trying to pursue, people will always think what they think.
So how do I counter the need to fit in?
If it’s not stopping you from growing and developing, then don’t worry about it. It is a healthy and normal part of being human. But if it is holding you back from becoming more of who you can be, or if it is causing you to spend hours ‘defending’ and ‘justifying’ yourself in imagined conversations, or even real ones, then maybe think about this; perhaps it is now your job to stop trying to follow this ‘one-size-fits-all’ identity cruise and embrace who you are, letting others do the same. Be brave and not only discover, but stay true to your own song, and respect the unique songs of others, however different they may be.
Our human race is made up of home bodies and explorers, inward looking philosophers and emotional surfers, people who do and people who are. If you can begin to embrace our own unique way of being in the world, you will also stop passing judgement on others, thus furthering a gentle liberation of individual expression. And that’s not about egotistically pushing your own agenda and thrusting a rigid ‘fait-accompli’ up people’s noses; “take me as I am or bugger off.” It’s about genuinely respecting who you are, and who the other is, and if necessary, working on those edges that make interaction with others more painful. But to do it from the inside out, not the outside in. Not to fit in, or to be part of some norm, but because you have an inner desire to be connected to that other person.
Stopping the whirlwind of the mind is a good first step. Realising you will always be judged, and then letting that go. Letting go of the agenda, and just being with what is. Realising the only person who will make you truly happy is you! The only person who needs to accept you, is you. Make friends with the new aspects of yourself that are emerging by seeking out quiet places where you and your emerging self can hang out together. Spend some time sitting on the floor breathing. In and out. And when the mind chatter starts, the internal dialogues with imagined members of the tribe, just give a little puff, and blow the thoughts away, for now.
At least the truest self you can be, for now…