Todd Dewett | January 18, 2019
Some people spend a lifetime trying to fit in. I understand. I tried for a while when I was young. What I eventually discovered is that fitting in precludes you from being fully you. Don’t get me wrong, whether young or old, I understand the social benefits of fitting in. They include more friends, moments of affirmation, more status, and a feeling of being included. It makes you feel as if you matter.
Of course, the price is heavy. Deep inside you know you’re experiencing a false sense of self-worth predicated on adhering to group norms. That means you must look acceptable to them. You must speak in an approved manner. You must protect others in the group, even when you don’t want to. Ongoing acceptance is predicated on maintaining these behaviors which often run counter to your natural interests and beliefs.
Why do we feel so compelled to expend massive amounts of energy trying to be something we are not? Mostly, it’s due to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of being judged. And, at certain ages or in certain cultures, we may even fear the experience of violence. These are understandable concerns.
However, challenges aside, I want you to stop worrying about fitting in. Just be you. It’s a tough choice, but ultimately, it’s the best choice. Life is fleeting, why not experience it on your terms? I often feel that people live like caged animals trapped inside others’ expectations. Open the door – run!
Think about what you stand to gain. Less wasted energy. Friends you can trust. A feeling of self-acceptance that is distinctly better than any sense of acceptance derived from fitting in. A sense of honestly owning your choices. Feeling more comfortable in your own skin. A sense of personal integrity.
It takes time, but these are real benefits. There were many moments along the way that made this clear to me. Two in particular stand out.
The first involved parachute pants. When I was in middle school, pants that looked as if they were fabricated from parachutes were all the rage. They had zippers everywhere. I had to have a pair. I dreamed about them. I coveted them as others walked past me in the hallway. I imagined how great I would look. Finally, many months after the trend faded, I scraped together all of my pennies, added a few bucks from my parents, and bought a pair on clearance. I wore them to school. I was the only one still wearing them. People stared. I felt stupid. I never wore them again.
Years later, in my twenties I was dating a woman named Allison. We were at a Christmas party hosted by one of her friends. The music was superb. The den was quite large, like a dance floor, yet no one danced. Then it happened. Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order started playing. Allison was off talking to friends. I really wanted to dance, yet it would be a spectacle. “Who cares,” I somehow decided. I danced anyway.
For the first few minutes I was alone, gyrating and moving to the best of my ability. I closed my eyes and started to let go. I could feel the sweat on my brow and I didn’t care. I opened my eyes and saw Allison dancing next to me. Then another friend joined, and another. Later, someone said they couldn’t believe I was dancing alone. They said it was cool. I told them that was ironic since I wasn’t trying to be cool. I was trying to not care.
Years ago, we all desired to fit in and be cool. Acceptance was about doing what others do. It was often about self-aggrandizing. It was about denigrating the outgroup. Then a shift began. Sometime in the late 80’s and early 90’s dorks and nerds started to become cool. Some called it geek chic. It was interesting, but still the cool kids dominated. At least the geeks created interesting subcultures, from the Dungeons and Dragons crowd to the emo kids dressed in black. Later in the 90’s and into the 2000’s the real fun began. A far more interesting reality emerged.
Authenticity became the new cool. No parachute pants required.
It may be too late for the older generations, but the Zs give me hope. They are growing the authenticity movement. It’s reflected in the books we read, the movies we love, and the shows we watch on television. It’s also jumped from our social lives into many workplaces. You can be any color, any gender, any anything and still be accepted if not applauded – when you’re authentic. Just being real is an all-together healthier mindset, a sign of progress.
Yes, there are visible remnants of the cool kid cliques, but they no longer wield the power they once did. In fact, there is now a cost associated with trying too hard to fit in. We call those people fake or trendy or plastic. In most places, however, the tide has turned.
I’m not suggesting we should shun all social norms or strive to be different for the sake of being different. I just think it’s good that we’re seeing a shift away from traditional notions of “fitting in” and “cool.” Groups and cliques will always exist, but they’re becoming kinder, slowly but surely.
So, be yourself. Forget them. Do you. Embrace authenticity. To those of you leading the way, thanks and congratulations. I think you’re changing the culture. To everyone else, try it: dance anyway. I think you’ll find that when you march to beat of your own drummer others usually want to join the band.