Amidst All the Pressure, Staying True to Yourself
Social pressure, of one kind or another, is a powerful, all-pervasive thing. Staying true to yourself in the face of it can be a difficult task.
It’s easy for any of us to be unaware of, or to underestimate, the amount of pressure we all feel to fit into someone else’s idea of who we ought to be. Yet, if we truly going to find our own direction, it’s essential for us to be aware of just how much pressure to follow the desires and expectations of others we actually face.
The cost of social pressure can be high for individuals. Sometimes we realize this cost only in retrospect. Often, it’s only when we think about the roads not taken in our lives, that we start to realize how much letting others take us away from what we actually want has actually cost us.
Group Pressure is Surprisingly Powerful
Recent studies on the power of social pressure have a lot to teach us. Building on nearly 50 years of social psychology research, Emory University psychiatrist / neuroscientist Gregory Berns has demonstrated that social pressure can actually be strong enough to lead people to change their perception of reality, and that those who resist group pressure can experience very significant levels of emotional discomfort.
This has particular importance for us in relationships. Key relationships, such as families, are absolutely essential to human existence. Yet, at the same time, those key connections, like families, can do tremendous damage to our awareness of ourselves, and can enforce rigid forms of social conformity. Although we look to families for emotional shelter and support, often a family can be extremely intolerant of individual differences and the characteristics that make individuals unique. As Jung himself noted,
Children don’t belong to their parents… often they are about as characteristic of their parents as an apple on a fir-tree.C.G. Jung, Correspondence
Given that group pressure has tremendous psychological power, and given that even our conjugal families and families of origin can be pressure vessels that induce conformity, what chance is there of staying true to yourself?
Individualism Isn’t the Same as Staying True to Yourself
Now, this all seems disquieting, because we live in a society that ostensibly values the individual and individual expression. We all give lip service to freedoms like freedom of mobility and freedom of expression. Yet it would probably be fair to say that we stress the value of individualism, of individual achievement, more than the value of individuation, which is the process of becoming the person you or I are most fundamentally meant to be.
Certainly, product marketers use the language and visual images of individuality to great effect in marketing campaigns. We all know the powerful images of the individual alone in his or her car, perhaps in some panoramic wilderness or some warm velvet night, putting pedal to the metal and sailing off in his or her Own Direction [capitals mine]. This must be very effective imagery: the automotive industry has used it for many years now. You can find similar usage of images in marketing a wide range of products — perhaps the most famous of all time being “The Marlboro Man”.
Yet it’s striking that this kind of advertising is itself a kind of social pressure, applied to induce thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions of people to engage in the same behaviour. It raises the question, what would it be like to really “go in your own direction” — to really live in a way that fundamentally expresses who you are.
What’s more, the norms of whole communities, neighbourhoods and certainly family units get shaped by these kinds of social pressure. It’s easy for the individual to see themselves as functioning autonomously and independently, when there are all kinds of pressures at play that take us away from who are really are, and what we really want.
It’s very easy for each of us to delude ourselves, when it comes to “staying true to yourself”. We can think that we’re living out of our spontaneous selves, when we’re really living out of the long buried expectations of society, or some significant other, buried deeply and for a long time in our psyche. Is there any way past this dilemma?
illusions of individuality. marketing
Hearing Your Inner Voice: Staying True to Yourself
So then, is there no way to hear the voice of the self, and to live it out? Are we doomed to perpetually meeting the expectations of others and of our social surroundings?
Actually, there are things we can do that bring us more into contact with ourselves. It sounds incredibly simple, perhaps even simple-minded, but we can find ways to listen to ourselves.
As we explore our life story often we can begin to discern what is our true self, and the places where others, wittingly or unwittingly, have applied pressure upon us to do things other than what we wanted to do, to want things other than what we really want, and perhaps to be someone other than who we really are. The places in our lives where we have gotten the message that who we really are is not enough, or is even just plain “wrong”, are often places where we encounter anxiety and/or depression.
There are many ways of getting in contact with who we really are. One way is to explore what it is that we really like to do, and, especially, as C.G. Jung emphasized, getting in touch with the things that we really liked to do as a child, or as a young person. Finding ways to genuinely express ourselves in some way — through writing, through visual arts, through improv, through dance — can all be great ways to connect with the depths of you.
In addition, like many people, you may find that engaging in /a-midlife-transition, especially Jungian analysis, can be a tremendous aid in staying true to yourself. Working with someone to investigate our unconscious and undiscovered self can be a tremendous benefit on the journey to wholeness.