Conformity is the process by which one adjusts one's behavior, values and beliefs to those which one holds as acceptable by other people.
If one observes a child or an adult trying to conform, one can see that the underlying emotion in their behavior is fear and a sense of loss of control.
They are driven by fear to say certain "acceptable" things that will make them feel that they belong. They are always in a pursuit of pleasing some external authority and never find the serenity of self-approval and self-appreciation.
Conformity is not just a harmless habit, which comes down to nothing more than making sure to wear the right brand of jeans and to exhibit the right kind of opinions and interests - these are merely the symptoms, the external manifestations, of a deep spiritual, psychological problem.
Conformity is a damaging idea that targets nothing short of an individual's entire spiritual life: One's self-esteem, sense of personal identity, enjoyment of values and the possibility of any fulfilling relationship.
Most parents not realizing this, encourage their children to conform, thinking that "a child needs to have friends", "a child needs to learn to be socially acceptable to succeed in this world".
Little do they know that they ensure that if the child has any friends by this method, there is nothing left but an empty puppet to enjoy them.
If an individual cannot enjoy friends, what's the point of having them? But the damage goes much deeper and eliminates not just one's ability to enjoy friends, but one's ability to enjoy - anything.
Teaching a child that conformity is good does not take a full blown indoctrination - it can be done by hints. For example, if a child expresses concern that he is "not like the other kids" in some regard, the parent can either ensure him that being himself is the good, or the parent can help the child be like the others, in which case, the parent would be implicitly teaching the child that this is the right course of action.
Parents can teach a kid "not to make a fas" about his or her personal emotions in order to maintain a socially acceptable image, or they can teach them that the child's inner life matters more than social appearance by showing such preference themselves.
Then, parents also teach their kids how to judge themselves by showing what they themselves appreciate about what the child does. If parents show no appreciation for a child's independent thinking and creativity, but show great pleasure when he brings 5 friends home - what kind of lesson are they teaching their kid?
When one accepts conformity, one accepts a standard by which to judge oneself - one attempts to switch the role of the judge to other people. However, by the nature of SELF-esteem, that is not possible. One's subconscious then attempts to evaluate one's worth by how well one considers oneself socially acceptable, how much and how many people like him or her, how comfortable people feel around him, how much they would appreciate his jokes, how well he falls under what people consider "the norm".
One turns oneself into an empty vessel whose worth is measured by how well one can read the social circumstances and adjust to be liked and to fit the social standards. Being an "outsider", different, someone who is not socially accepted by others creates, under this standard, a feeling of inadequacy, guilt and self-doubt. One thinks "if others don't like me, something must be wrong with me".
Externally, one picks one's clothes by the impression they make on others, not by one's own preference (which is never allowed to develop). One attempts to get friends that are "cool" - not ones that one has personal interest in (personal interests are eliminated over time in favor of the "acceptable" ones). If other people in one's environment have a girlfriend or a boyfriend one feels compelled to get one too, otherwise one feels inadequate - lacking worth. If other people have a certain amount of income or lifestyle, one tries to "live up" to it.
Internally, one gradually loses sense of personal identity and loses touch with one's values (depending to what extent one accept conformity as valid). It is not possible, under the emotional pressure of trying to pretend to be someone one's not, to continue to feel affection for one's values. One's values become worthless if they are outside social acceptances.
For example, if one has a socially unacceptable hobby (say, a guy that loves the ballet), one feels that to be any good, one must denounce it to fit into what is socially acceptable. If one finds certain things funny, but others do not - one attempts to change one's sense of humor.
It is not merely approval in the eyes of others a conformist seeks - but approval in one's own eyes by changing who one is.
It is in one's own mind that one feels inadequate if one fails to be "like the other kids". Approval from others becomes not a nice emotional bonus, but a pathological need.
However, achieving approval does not solve the chronic self-doubt. Even the most popular kid in the class is still driven by chronic fear, even more than others who are less popular. Why is that so? The reason is that conformity undercuts self-esteem, regardless of how well one becomes socially accepted by others.
Imagine you were asked to walk on an invisible bridge above an abyss - would you feel any better if 100 people told you the bridge is there once you make the first step? You reach down and feel nothing, you try to knock on it but nothing shows any resistance nor makes a sound. The same thing works in regard to self-esteem. When using conformity as a standard one can only rely on others to know that one is worth something. One has no personal evidence of it - no achievement (they are all discarded in favor of social acceptance), no spiritual traits one considers admirable (they are all discarded), and one learns that one cannot rely on oneself to protect one's values on the fly. A kid that accepts conformity may discover one day, to his or her amazement, that they threw away a favorite toy in the blink of an eye to prove to someone that they are "cool".
One learns that one is not trustworthy to maintain one's life, to achieve things or to protect what matters to one.
Even the most popular kid in class (or in adult life) experiences this - and the more popular they are the more detached from personal values they become.
The feeling of having one's personal identity disappear in the presence of others creates a chronic dread from the company of people, especially public speaking and makes one very hostile to independent people. It also prevents one from developing intimate relationships because one always sees others as something to "please", not as a real person.
Healthy relationships are built on mutual appreciation. One cannot enjoy appreciation nor give it if one gives up personal identity and a standard of values.
Since conformity is subconscious and automated, one may not even realize why one is experiencing such emotions, but only that, one feels tremendous pressure to act in a way others would approve of.
It could be limited to a feeling of pressure to smile to others and act pleasant and "normal", it could go deeper into a need to make one's jokes fit that which is "conventional" or in severe cases, an individual loses all personal identity and becomes a bitter clone of "the perfect social man" (in which case, not accidentally, they are preoccupied preaching acceptance of others, altruism and compassion and take every opportunity to crusade and blame anyone who is not "social" as a way to rationalize their emotional situation).
To concretize better how conformity is a psychological problem, let's contrast it to healthy self-esteem. How can one maintain stable self-esteem?
Self esteem comes from staying loyal to one's standard of judging people and of having one's standard grounded in reality.
For example, if one notices while growing up that lies and dishonesty are disastrous to human beings and one concludes that honesty is a virtue - then one clings to it no matter what. Suppose some person comes along and says "telling the truth is for suckers. The cool ones are those who can deceive others and get what they want from them" - then one does not surrender one's value of honesty in favor of living up to the other person's standard. If one does this consistently, one maintains healthy SELF ESTEEM - in the full sense of the words, and this feeling of serenity and confidence is always present in one's mind regardless of the circumstances or what other people think of one.
One gains self esteem from living up to one's ethical values and placing nothing above one's own judgement of what those values should be, based on one's experiences and knowledge. The hallmark of self esteem is selfishness - by which I don't mean the conventional term for "selfishness" as exploitation, but someone who always acts for his or her own benefit - in every second of the day one places nothing above one's own enjoyment (long and short term).
The trouble with conformity is that it becomes, after childhood, a subconscious, automatic way of thinking and feeling. One may act in ways that do not seem to be in pursuit of one's happiness, but to satisfy some other subconscious need. If one accepts the idea of conformity even for a limited time in childhood, then if left unchecked one is likely to suffer some automatic reactions relating to conformity as an adult.
The way to solve it, as with anything else, is to develop self awareness. To become aware of one's feelings and subconscious thoughts and then to correct them time and time again (if they are in need of correction). It is also important to go back to childhood memories and remember cases in which conformity was an issue. Thinking back to such cases and realizing what would have been the right course of action and the right response is another step in reprogramming your subconscious with the right values and standard.
Self-esteem is not automatic. It requires effort, judgment, refusal to compromise on one's values - but the result is a sense of serenity which is at the base of happiness and enjoyment of life.
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