Being Yourself?–or Fitting In?
“Being yourself” is one of the most popular themes in articles about personal development. And who doesn’t want to just be themselves? “I Just Gotta Be Me,” sung by Sammy Davis, Jr., struck a chord with people in the 60’s and soared to the top of the Billboard charts and is still heard today.
“Being you,” a unique individual, is often thought of as an important part of living a successful, meaningful life.
“The need to fit in,” at the same time, is fundamental to career success and a satisfying social life. When they tell you “you’re one of a kind,” it’s often not meant as a compliment. To be successful in school it helps to wear the same brands and be like else.
Frank Sinatra Sang “I Did it My Way”–and Mostly He Did!
I hear old Frank every few weeks at Starbucks–they never seem to let him rest. One of the most popular singers of the 20th Century, Frank Sinatra’s fans adored him and he lived large with his friends in the Rat Pack.
People loved his “bad boy image,” living life the way he wanted to live it. He loved love, broke the rules, and got into a few fist fights. Some of his associates didn’t have a great reputation for staying on the legal side of life. Frank did finally settled down to a long-term marriage.
Frank, for the most part, did it “his way.” One of Frank’s songs, sometimes played at funeral memorials is, “I Did it My Way.”
As a song for my funeral–and I never expect to have one, planning to live forever–I wouldn’t have them play “I Did it My Way,” because that simply would not be true of my life.
Instead of singing, ” I Did It My Way,” I’d modify the title to say,
“I Did it the Best Way I Knew How–at the Time I Did It”
Don’t get me wrong. I REALLY DID want to do it my way. But I just couldn’t deal with the blowback I would get from those who wanted me to do it their way. There was family, the job, and norms that had huge consequences if you didn’t follow them.
“Fitting in” Has Always Been the Norm–Since Early History
“Fitting in” has always been the norm, and “individualism” is a fairly new phenomenon in human experience. Early man’s experience was as a tribe, and the norms of life from hunting to marriage were fixed, and nobody broke out of their role. Becoming chief of the tribe was not individualistic, but was a role where everyone was led to be just like their ancestors before them. In those days, everyone fit in.
Individualism, “Being Yourself,” Has Most Often Been Punished
True individualism has been often admired, and almost always punished.
- Boris Pasternak’s novel, “Doctor Zhivago,” isa story about love in the Russian Marxist Revolution of 1914. Zhivago ends up in a hut freezing in the Russian winter with a woman he wasn’t supposed to love. He finally finds himself alone, isolated on the streets of Moscow, viewed by everyone as a weirdo whom the world had passed by, very unlike his portrayal in the movie.
How Do You “Be Yourself.” and Also Fit In?
I don’t know about you but all my life I’ve felt the whiplash of “wanting to be me,” and “wanting to fit in” to the group around me, with their norms and standards. I believe I have something unique to give to the world–but people around me may not see it as important. Even now I will wilt when I’m when I’m explaining my idea to someone and they don’t like it.
So How Do You “Be Yourself?”–and Also Fit in?
- In Some Ways “Being Yourself”–Can Really Be a Bad Idea. There are some real reasons for putting the breaks on individualism and for why society has some serious “rules of the road” to limit it. The first part of childhood and on to adolescence is spent on learning, for good reason, not to be an individual–to be like everyone else. We are drilled to “sit up straight,” not “talk with your mouth full,” how to put on your clothes, and when not to take them off.
Some Individualism Doesn’t Work. When I came into the workforce as a young adult I tried being an individual and that didn’t work well for me at all. I lectured people instead of connecting. I could clear a room with something I said and wondered why people reacted the way they did. People told me I was a terrible dresser with really bad table manners.
Some Individual Behaviors Have to Be Unlearned. There are a lot of individual behaviors we have to work hard on to change. These are the behaviors that block our ability to navigate life. They keep us from developing effective relationships. These are difficult, ingrained behaviors that are difficult to modify–like a bad golf swing we’ve been using for years. We may be able to self-correct, but we often need a mentor or coach to help us understand our impact on other people and how to modify our approach.
- Being an Individual–Standing Out from the Crowd. The last thing I want to do is to fit in so well that I don’t stand out as ME. Here are some ways not to fall into that trap.
Don’t be an Ant in the Colony. If I fit in perfectly to my surroundings I’m like one more ant in the colony of thousands whose only claim to fame is how many leaves it hauled into the chambers below–I want to be an individual, not an ant.
Create Your Own Personal Style. That’s why it’s important for each of us to create our own personal style that makes you the unique YOU that you are. I want to have my own style of dressing. It’s important to me to be an interesting person who can talk about many subjects–I have a variety of news apps on my handheld, I read well-written blogs, and listen to many podcasts.
You Need to be Funny. Comedy is very important to me in order to become an individual who can laugh. Comedians are some of the best illustrations of wacky individualism and they even tend to live longer. I want to make people laugh at the world around them and to see improbable angles.
Exceling is Important. I want to stand out from the crowd as an individual by being my personal best. I think that people who are successful individuals excel at what they do. I make it a point to learn new skills and abilities that take me to new levels. People who work all their lives in order to be able to quit, frankly baffle me. They fade into a faceless crowd–they have lost their individualism.
- Discover the Individual Core YOU–and Never Give it up! There is your Outside Persona–your appearance, style, your way of interacting with people and making your way through the world. They are the skills you use to fit in with groups. Your persona will adapt, change, and modify according to what the situation demands. It will change with your role in the theater of life.
But playing with the real YOU–that part inside that is constant–is not a game. William Shakespeare put in the mouth of his character, Polonius,
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
But who is the core you?–that unique part of you that you are in the process of discovering and is constant and unchanging. It is what you have been given, the individual of YOU that you can never give up.
You as an individual are so unique that you are the only person ever created who is like you in the world. When you are gone, there will never been another person like you. St. Paul said, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” If you do not use the gift you were given, no one will ever benefit from it.
The unique God-given individual YOU will be put down and under-appreciated by people around you before it’s accepted. It is worth any effort and sacrifice to protect that fundamental YOU. Don’t ever back down from being that YOU.
Individualism or Fitting In–Which Do You Personally Prefer?
Being an individual or a person who blends into the group–it’s largely a matter of choice or chance. Which do you prefer?
Some personality types hugely prefer group norms and procedures–they want everyone to fit in. Individuals who question the status quo are seen as hugely disruptive, time consuming, and throw the group effort off course. Other personality types believe that progress takes place where there are individuals who challenge the status quo.
There is always a price to be paid–both for individualism and by those who just want to fit in. Groups that despise individualism work in harmony, but often without innovation. Those who prefer individualism may bring break-through ideas to the table, but can end up in isolation without getting their ideas implemented, with no allies.
As anyone who has known me, I have always tilted to the side of individualism. I’ve launched some good initiatives and ideas, but have paid a price for that. I’ve come to learn that it’s a combination of both, being an individual and fitting in, and you can never with certainty know how much of which…but keep figuring it out!