The majority dictates society. You’ve got to learn to deal with it. You’ve got to fit in and know the rules. You’ve got to have a minimum of social intelligence. That’s what you learn when you go to school: how to interact with others. We also get our head stuffed with formatted knowledge we’re told is going to be useful later. We’re taught a myriad of principles and values, manners of speaking and behaving are hammered into us, so we will fit into the mold of society.
School, but also our families and friends contribute to creating this mold. Don’t get me wrong here, the mold is important: thanks to it, we’re able to grow into independent adults. The mold is shaping us, but it also stifles our creativity, polishing and erasing some of our too quirky character traits, our overflowing imagination and our ability to dream. It shapes us so it can have us all fit in perfectly.
Yet it also allows us to interact with the others; as it dictates the path of the majority, it turns us into standards. I don’t doubt in the least the importance of knowing how to behave within society and having a minimum of social intelligence. However, a crucial step is missing after the thorough brainwashing we’ve been put through: we need to know how to unlearn it all.
Because our entourage, our families, teachers, schools and friends, the very people who are supposed to protect us no matter what, are actually undermining our self-confidence. When they tell us to beware other people’s opinion and warn us not to take one step outside the society’s mold, otherwise people will look at us funny and laugh at us, and our parents will get remarks from other parents and feel embarrassed.
The whole society seems to be watching us, trying to predict when we’re going to fail and go off the rails. People who go off the rails are not looked upon kindly. Little by little we begin to lose our self-confidence and we let people’s opinion take precedence over our own wishes and desires. Some things we are afraid to do, some others we don’t even dare to try or voice anymore.
No one ever teaches us that we need to leave this mold aside some day and think about our own aspirations. We’re obsessed by school and the studies we should be doing in the future, the ones our parents or our friends want us to do and in the end, we don’t even know what we really want to do. And so we just comply with society’s expectations: if we are good at math, we’ll do a scientific prep class or join a computer school. If we’re good at literature or foreign languages, we’ll do a literary prep class or go to college. What if we don’t succeed within the regular school system? In that case, there are other options still.
The years pass in a swirl of studies or work and we move on, head in the game, trying to meet society’s expectations, to fit into the mold and accomplish everything our parents or our entourage expect from us, just so they would be proud of us and congratulate us. All this so they would «validate » us.
We have never needed as much validation as we do now, since the development of social networks. We’re all constantly seeking the approval of others, for every one of our choices, whether they’re crucial or insignificant. With some of us having trouble deciding what they’re going to wear in the morning and asking their network for advice, how can they possibly be expected to make a decision on their own when it comes to really important things?
But let’s get back on topic. We’ll talk about the problem of social networks and the hunt for likes later, the larger issue of validation and the lack of self-confidence of an entire generation it entails.
One day, you wake up thinking you’ve got everything: a job, a roof over your head and food on your plate. You tell yourself “I’m supposed to be happy here, right?” and you don’t dare admit you’re not, because by the standards of society and according to this mold we’ve all been pushed into, you’ve got everything you need to be happy.
Except you don’t. We’ve only been taught to fit into the mold because there has never been so many of us on earth and while it is actually quite normal we should be taught how to live in community so as to build a foundation we could rely on, we have in the same time forgotten to awaken our individuality. And by “individuality,” I don’t mean selfishness; I mean the fact that we are all unique, that we all have different aspirations and that at some point in our journey, we should be taught to unlearn. We should be brought back to our deepest desires, the ones we had as children; we should be reconciled with what we really want, not what others expect of us.
I remember sitting in front of a psychologist, after having discovered that I was an over-achiever. One question in particular I remember vividly:
What do you want in life, Jupi? What do you long for?
I remember pondering over this for a little while before answering:
I don’t know.
I knew what other people expected from me. At that time, I had set up a company, which was doing fine and allowed me to earn a good salary and pay my employees. I was young and it was considered a success, even though I was off the rails: being a businessman at my age wasn’t exactly common.
But then I guess I had always been off the rails.
His question suddenly made me realize that my choices in life so far had not always been guided by my own desires, because I was unable to know what I actually wanted. My entourage had played a big role in all my decisions, not that I had consulted my friends before making them, but simply thinking about what they would think and say had been enough to help me choose a path they would agree with.
I was chasing after financial success for my family’s sake. I wanted to be my own boss, to be precocious, because I wanted them to validate me for it all. I wanted them to be proud of me.
My friends had always considered me as the gifted one and I was desperately trying to live up to this image, always taking up the most complex challenges. I needed them to validate me too.
As to my partner, who had come to me to start this business, I guess I had just felt flattered that someone twelve years older than me would want me as his business partner. And of course, I would also expect his validation every week.
But none of this arose from some true desire of mine. It all came from my need to be validated by others, to be told that I was doing well, that I was exceptional or whatever. I lived only for other people’s approval.
For six months, I was unable to answer my psychologist’s question. Then I first came to realize what I didn’t want and what I didn’t like. I hadn’t been able to see this clearly for a long time.
That’s when I realized the true power of the social mold: even though I felt like I’d been an alien all my life, I wasn’t really that different from other people. I relied on the opinion of others, I didn’t have any confidence in myself and I never made any choice for myself, only according to the reactions I expected others would have.
Awful, isn’t it? But that’s just the effect of the social mold. I had always been convinced, before tackling this topic, that I didn’t care about people’s opinion, that I didn’t pay attention to these things and that my so-called “dangerous” choices, according to society’s standards, were clearly a mark of courage on my part. I realized suddenly that they were not: I was in denial, hiding behind a façade and an image I had not even built myself, but which I had imposed on myself according to other people’s opinion and what I imagined they thought of me.
Society’s mold had me in its grip. I had locked myself into a role, the one I felt I had been assigned and I was not happy. I was struggling to get out of this situation, because society was telling me I should be happy. And society doesn’t like change.
I was nevertheless determined to change that. So one day, when I returned to my psychologist, I said to him:
I want to sell my business.
He smiled. He’d probably known we would be coming to this point for quite some time, I guess. I just had to come to this conclusion myself. I had just decided I would do without society’s approval. At the same time, I was starting on a journey to find out who I really was.
I was 27 years old and I had just realized that I didn’t know who I was.
I think that’s what our system is lacking today: we are taught to blend in, but we are not taught to discover ourselves. We are taught to be someone, a pawn that fits into the mold, but we do not ask ourselves whether or not this suits us. We are made to lose our self-confidence, we are taught to care about other people’s opinion, but we are not shown how to regain that confidence and how to not pay attention to what others think.
And yet, everything could be solved if we paused to ask ourselves who we really are, because that’s where self-confidence comes from: that’s when you leave the mold, this image education and environment has created for us. That’s when you stand firmly on your feet, after having thoroughly looked at yourself and said, “This is me”, no matter what people will think. That’s when you know yourself well enough to know your values, your priorities and act on them. Until then, you’d been offbeat because you’d acted according to the majority, not yourself. And worse: not realizing who you really were, how could you know whether you were acting properly towards yourself and your own aspirations?
There comes a day you just have to stop and pause to think: do I know who I am? Who I really am? Without worrying about what other people think? If I were to begin anew with my life, in some foreign country where no one would know me, would I still be the same person? What would I change?
And indeed, in the beginning, when we find our way to ourselves, people’s opinion weigh heavily upon us, because we are new to the game and do not know yet how to leave easily the mold of society. First, we take some small hesitant, trembling steps, and then with time, as is the case with anything new, we get used to it and people’s opinion doesn’t seem so important to us anymore. People don’t know what’s right for you, they don’t know what makes you really happy and the only reason they want you back inside the mold is because they project their own fears on you. Good friends, true friends will support you and happily watch you blossom.
When I told people around me I was selling my business, I immediately understood who supported me and who did not. Many people didn’t understand why I was quitting what they called “my baby,” something I had invested so much energy in and which worked so well. Not understanding is fine, though. But there were also people who tried to change my mind, criticizing my choice quite harshly and telling me I was making a mistake. These people wouldn’t listen to me and I knew then and there I no longer needed them in my life. They didn’t have any kind words for me, they didn’t support me; they just threw their own fears in my face, wishing to show me they knew better than me what I really needed. As if I had been lost and needed to be protected, because I was stepping outside the mold; as if it was crucial to find a way to bring me back. Leaving the mold is not easy, because those who are still inside want to hold you back; that’s the impression I had. It felt like they wanted to stop me from leaving and bring me back by force. Because if I was able to leave the mold, so were they and they just couldn’t live with that thought.
There are millions of people out there who have not been taught to unlearn, whom no one has told they have the right to be the person they really want to be and who continue to go around in circles, feeling uncomfortable, because they haven’t really chosen the path they’re walking. And as they suffer because of other people’s opinion, they try to conform to what they think is expected of them.
These words sound strange to me today. Conform to what? To what others expect of us, even if it makes us unhappy? Why? Simply because when you don’t have any self-confidence, you need others to give you that confidence. You seek their approval. And you rely on others for your self-esteem, on their compliments, the number of likes on the networks, the number of comments and sharing. This makes you feel good for a while. But then it all hits you even harder, until you can’t take it anymore.
I no longer need the validation of people around me to make a decision. I listen to what they say, because I am surrounded by the right people and their opinion matters to me, but I will not let society dictate my choices. I won’t let others decide what makes me happy or not. I trust myself, I trust that I’m going to make mistakes and screw it up, I trust I’ll change my mind here and then and do things the other way round. And that’s OK. I no longer need people’s approval to move forward, because I am going my own path.
We only have one life. I keep repeating this. Do you want to spend your life wondering what it would be like if you made your own choices, in good conscience, without worrying about other people? Or do you actually want to try and see what happens? Do you want to spend your life conforming to what you think people expect of you in order to get their approval? Or do you want to learn to trust yourself?
Courage is not to conform to what others expect of us, it doesn’t mean sacrificing your own desires. Courage means facing remarks and glances and asserting who you really are. True courage means being honest with yourself and with others, even when it’s hard.
But to achieve this, you have to be aware of the social mold. You have to think about whether it suits you or not (the mold obviously suits a lot of people, but something tells me that if you read this blog, you might not be one of them), you have to think about who you really are. Let me give you one piece of advice before you waste the next four years pondering over this: act now. Act before the months and years go by, before you hear yourself say, “Damn, I should have dared to do this sooner”. Act. It’s never too early to be yourself. It’s never too early to be happy. It’s a long and difficult path, so don’t wait until tomorrow to begin: get to work today.
Take your courage with both hands, think about your values and priorities, take one step out of the mold, hold on and enjoy the feeling of finally being one with yourself. And then just carry on doing this.
And don’t forget: the person you are today is not necessarily who you will be tomorrow, you can reinvent yourself every minute. You can adjust to your new values and priorities as soon as you feel offbeat.
Nothing is set in stone.
Illustrations by the wonderful @blandine.pouchoulinLast modified: 11 August 2020