True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments. – Brené Brown
Lately, I have been thinking about what we lose when we conform, and I’ve realized that in places of uniformity, loneliness is often – if not always – present.
I’ll start by noticing a slight difference between conformity and uniformity. Conforming is choosing to adopt behaviors and appearances that we think will help us fit in. Uniformity is the sameness that occurs when a group of people have made that choice.
Let’s go back to my Catholic School upbringing for a moment.
For 8 years, I wore the same outfit as every other girl in school: a navy blue, forest green and white plaid polyester jumper over a thin white polyester blouse and thick navy blue polyester shorts. There were few variations we could make to our uniform, such as sock and shoe choice. Our shoes had to be navy blue or black leather, but from there, we had some freedom.
In fifth grade, one of the cool girls chose penny loafers and put a shiny copper penny in the slit on each lip. So, the rest of us begged our moms for penny loafers, and of course, slipped in our shiny copper pennies. Already in uniform, we chose to conform even when given the slightest of freedoms!
God help the want-to-be-cool fifth grade girl who sits for a moment to ponder the navy or black leather shoe that fits her feet the best or that makes her feel creatively happy.
In uniform groups, many will feel a sense of belonging. But, when people all look, act or sound the same, parts of our uniqueness may be shoved down or hidden. When we hide parts of ourselves, we shut them down for connection, and loneliness creeps in.
Not to mention, if a person who belongs to a group grows or changes in a way that is not accepted or stands out…loneliness, again.
We may feel our loneliness or we may numb it – either way, it’s the same loneliness that we are being with or running from.
I think of my Japanese heritage where there is a saying that goes, “The peg that stands out will get hammered down.” Uniformity is a high value in Japan. While it fosters excellence, it also comes at a cost.
Now, I am not saying that we all must be ourselves to Lady Gaga extremes, as there is value in us celebrating our sameness, too.
Instead, just notice what happens when you choose to conform to a group or a person out of a desire to fit in.
What part of yourself do you leave out to be included?
When we abandon ourselves, we say hello to loneliness. So what is it to, as Brene Brown says, “Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Just stand your sacred ground.”?
This sacred ground is the space in which we can be true to ourselves and reveal who we are.
From this place, love, curiosity and compassion are possible; there is room for all of me and all of you.
When we contort to fit in, we can create a domino effect of contortion around us. Perhaps then, uniformity is not sustainable in the end. It can provide the structure for learning to occur over the short term. But long term, the goal must be to create room for what we naturally share and what we don’t.
This recognition of our uniqueness and sameness is a quality of high performing teams.
Once a group is united around principles, that team’s fortitude comes by celebrating its diversity and discovering how each person’s uniqueness contributes to a greater whole.
We know then, that step one is stay with ourselves. When we accept our whole selves first, we invite others to do the same. When we hide to conform, no wonder we end up feeling lonely or engaging in behaviors that help us run from that painful feeling.