Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#068: How to Break Free from Conformity

Episode 068 of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz examines how conforming to societal expectations can lead to a stagnation and a life-long habit of mediocrity. When was the last time you questioned what you believed?

Listen to learn…

  • …how we sacrifice our non-conformity as we grow into adults
  • …why conformity can lead to depression
  • …the importance of developing one’s own beliefs, values, and opinions
  • …how non-conformity breeds authenticity, self-reliance, creativity, and an imaginative life
  • …why we must write our own scripts to live a life of integrity

Are you ready to break free of the shackles of conformity and live a life of personal integrity? Let me know in the comments!

Want to watch this episode?

Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #068

Hi and welcome to today’s episode. The idea for today’s episode came to me the other night when I was listening to a podcast — a philosophy podcast about Ralph Waldo Emerson — and the topic was called “Self-Reliance.”

I’m not going to be talking specifically today about self-reliance. I’m going to talk about what gets in our way of self-reliance, which is conformity: cultural impositions, societal impositions that really just get us to conform and never really develop our individuality. Or I should say, cause us to lose our individuality because as children, we have a lot of individuality.

So what do I mean about conformity? Conformity are these unwritten rules of a culture or a certain segment of a culture that really teach us how to think, how to speak, what is okay to say, what is okay and isn’t okay in terms of how we interact. What choices we make.

Think about a funnel. We start off in life looking through the narrow part of the funnel; the funnel is wide open, it’s full of possibilities. Our individual sense of self hasn’t been developed yet; it’s all full of imagination. Again, possibility, a state of potential.

But what happens is we reverse the funnel. Instead of it opening and increasing in terms of who we can become, our emergence, that funnel as we get older narrows and narrows and narrows and gets more and more imprisoning, and constraining, and much of this is due to conformity.

You know what I mean by conformity? The rules of engagement of life. Thinking something but saying to yourself, “I can’t say that.” Or worrying about what others will think, how we connect, what is okay, the rules of — the rules of life, so to speak.

As chil- as children, of course, we come into life as non-conformists. We haven’t been trained yet as to what to think, what to believe, how to act, how to interact, what’s okay and what isn’t okay.

Now, I’m not proposing that some operating rules of relationship and engagement aren’t necessary, but I think as a culture? We step so far over the boundary, the balance between individuality and conformity.

So, Emerson wrote a incredible essay on self-reliance. Self-reliance… I– I substitute the word authenticity for self-reliance. How will I reach my authentic self? How will I come to understand what I believe? What I value? What are my beliefs, what are my thoughts, what are my values, as opposed to what has been handed down to me? How have I been trained to think and believe, what part can I say is honestly my own?

Self-reliance is my ability to navigate life. Authenticity speaks to my ability to be true to myself and genuine. Conformity — cultural conformity, societal conformity, sometimes a family’s conformity — absolutely attacks my ability to know of myself, to rely upon myself, to not default to the rules of engagement for life as they’ve been handed down to us.

So going back to the concept of children: after a couple of years of childhood, very quickly, particularly by the time we start school, we teach children to conform: what are acceptable thoughts What are acceptable beliefs. And before long, we lose the ability to distinguish between those values and beliefs and thoughts as culture, as opposed to, “what are my beliefs? What are my value? What are my thoughts?”

Let’s just look at our educational system. It’s geared upon getting the right answer to a question. How often do our children, or did you, when you were in school, question something? Like, “Why are we celebrating Christopher Columbus? Going back to my school years, it was Columbus Day, it was not yet Indigenous People’s Day. “Why are we celebrating him? Was he a conqueror? Was he an explorer? Was he an imprisoner of people, was he a slave trader?”

The question of values and cultural norms is quieted in school. We start to become anesthetized to finding our own opinions, cultivating our own opinions and our own beliefs, so we get corralled into the consensus of conformity, a narrowing of the funnel. And that’s depressing, because we don’t develop our own voice, we don’t develop our own ideas. Politically, we may fall on one side or the other side, but we don’t develop the self-reliance about, “How did I come to this belief? Should I question this belief?” We don’t develop wisdom.

You know the expression, “they say?” “They say” speaks to the conformity of a culture. We don’t know who they are; they are amorphous, they are anonymous, there is no “they…” but you know what? We all operate from this rule book of “they say,” or, “how they think.” There can be no self-reliance; we cannot develop authenticity, unless we break out of the chains of conformity.

I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t seek and education, and a diverse education, but always ask ourselves, “What do we think? Does that make sense to us?” Ask myself, “Where do my beliefs come from?”

Well, my beliefs may come from my family of origin, the groups that I identify with in my community, the voices that are out there in terms of experts, politicians and influences. But shouldn’t your beliefs and opinions ultimately come from yourself? To become a thinking individualized person requires reaching an integrity of your own mind.

Now, that is a balance, to reach this integrity of mind is to take ownership of my beliefs, and my thoughts, ask myself, “how do I come to them, what informs me of those beliefs and thoughts, and should I be considering or reconsidering them, and maybe reaching for something new?” Cultivating an integrity of mind is perhaps the opposite of operating from conformity.

Maturing in life typically means following the rules. Don’t step out of line. This is what’s expected of you based upon your age, your income level, your educational level… we all conform in certain ways, and again, I’m not proposing radical departures; I’m not proposing anarchy, but there needs to be a healthier balance that we have this self-reliance.

Self-reliance helps us reach of integrity of mind and this feeling of, “I’ll find my path. I’ll navigate it. I don’t have to default to consensual reality and conformity.”

So what I’m proposing is that we need to reach out and develop our own individual philosophy for life. And how many of us do that? If you ask someone, “What’s your philosophy for life,” it might be, “well, I want financial independence,” or “I want health.”

Well those are segments, those are factors, but what’s the philosophy for my life? What’s meaningful and important to me?

In a recent podcast episode, I talked about critical thinking, looking at our assumptions and beliefs and asking ourselves, “How’s that working out?” What do you do with an opinion or a belief that you have that may be questioned or challenged or not accepted by most people? Do you marginalize it? Do you subordinate it? Or do you feel embarrassed about it, suppress it? Or do you express it? Out of your own integrity to yourself, do you feel okay sharing a belief or a value that may be different than what other people believe?

Then, this conformity informs our jobs, our careers, our relationships… it informs everything. When you conform to the extreme, you never reach your authentic self. What a waste! What a waste of lost opportunities and creativity. What if your philosophy for life was this integrity of mind, this self-reliance whereby I will educate myself, but I will always cultivate “what do I think? What do I believe?” and not be afraid of stepping out of consensual reality?

The drive to conformity induces what I call “other-esteem.” Many of you are familiar with my use of this term. Other-esteem means I am more concerned about how I’ll be seen, about what I think other people will think of me than I am in terms of my own self worth.

So if you’re afraid of someone else’s judgement, that speaks to other-esteem. Everyone has an opinion, but only you can grant them the ability to be your judge. Self-reliance, quoting to the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is cultivating the sense of self that makes you a unique individual, as opposed to a pawn in this overall scheme of conformity.

Many years ago I saw a movie that fascinated me. The movie was called “Bullworth.” “Bullworth” was a movie in which the actor Warren Beatty starred. In this movie, he played a Senator running for re-election. Now, in a moment, giving a talk, something snapped in him, and he just decided that he was going to become authentic. And in the middle of a campaign speech, to the dismay, to the horror, of his entire campaign staff, he just began to tell the truth, more or less saying, “This is bullshit. I don’t believe this; here’s what I do believe.” He threw away the political rulebook of conformity and not surprisingly, he was incredibly popular and just riding this wave of passion because people were so drawn to his authenticity. He was no longer conforming.

Conformity dulls our creativity. It dulls our imagination. Again, and it can lead to depression, because we become an actor playing out a script of life that we didn’t write. Someone else wrote it. Society and culture as a whole wrote it.

Conformity gets in the way. It precludes and inhibits growth and change and authenticity.

You know, your beliefs don’t have to be consistent. You can change your beliefs. I remember in the Presidential campaign between George Bush and John Kerry. There was a moment in which Bush was charging Kerry with being a flip-flopper, and Kerry, regrettably, said, “No, I’m not.” He missed the opportunity for self-reliance. He could have, in that moment, said, “You’re calling me a flip-flopper. Do you mean I’ve changed my position on something? Well yes, I take in new information, I reflect, and from time to time I do change my mind, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s not something I should feel defensive about.”

You see the way he dealt with that charge of flip-flopper is he conformed to consensual reality. In politics, it’s not okay to change your mind. What sense does that make?

Self-empowerment comes from authenticity and self-reliance; that you get to make up the rules of engagement and the rules of your life. You can’t self-actualize and surrender to conformity at the same time.

So let’s keep that simple: If you want to self-actualize, you’re breaking out of the scripted pattern of life and have to be able to break free from the imprisonment; from the shackles, of conformity.

Are you a human being stuck in a fixed identity, or are you what I like to call a human becoming, where you’re evolving and growing, not just living life out in a linear way out of the fear of not conforming and what other people will think?

And now let’s look at our relationships with each other. Take two people in a committed relationship or a marriage: each signed on for conformity. Can you just imagine how that dulls and depress and suppresses creativity and imagination and spontaneity; we get locked into the predictability of formatted scripts. What do you think that does to our lives and to our relationships?

So what I’m proposing is that we break free from the imprisonment of conformity. We dare to change our minds; to change our beliefs. We dare to be inconsistent. We dare to be different.

You know what? If you dare to become your authentic self, it’s full of imagination, creativity — you are writing the script of your life rather than living out a script that someone has written for you… and by someone, I mean your family of origin, I mean your community, I mean your larger belief systems as a whole, I mean society and culture.

Seize the opportunity to be self-reliant. To be accountable to yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I think, what do I believe,” and give yourself the courage to express it without fear of how you’re going to be seen.

Conformity, the sense of “I have to do this, I must do this, instead of asking, “I think that I must do this, but do I really have to? Why don’t I look at it? And if I say something that’s surprising or troubling to someone else, should I default to not saying and not saying what I think or feel or believe out of my concern about how others will see me?”

It’s imprisoning. It shackles our self-reliance and our authenticity. You can break free from the strictures and the bondage of conformity. Just set your mind to do so, and set yourself free, and you can go on this imaginative, creative journey that makes life really well worth living.

Well I hope you enjoyed this conversation today and this episode, and I look forward to speaking with you again real soon. Bye for now.

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