There are many of us, both adults and kids alike, that spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy trying to gain acceptance from others whose approval we desire. Many times these efforts cause individuals to be less than their true selves in some instances and in more extreme cases completely abandoning self in return for acceptance by certain others. Most relationship experts would agree that to have successful relationships a certain amount of compromise or accommodation is necessary. However, when this crosses the line to the relinquishment of personal values, thoughts, and beliefs, the cost can be extremely detrimental. When an individual strives to fit in at all costs, this can result in damage to integrity and lower self-worth. This cycle often leads individuals, according to Dr. Brene Brown, to feel more in need of external validation and tend to be even more willing to compromise themselves in order to gain the acceptance, attention, and love that they are unable to give themselves. (1)
Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W. state “that it takes courage to risk the disapproval of those whose opinions we cherish and it takes even more courage to go against the not-so-small voice within our own mind that lambastes us for being self-centered and selfish for focusing on our own needs rather than those of others, even though doing so ultimately enables us to be more giving and generous with them. “(2)
In the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” author Dr. Brene Brown states” Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” (1)
Dr. Brown describes the difference between people that try to fit in as opposed to people that want to belong. She states that people who feel they belong are able to embrace their imperfections and vulnerabilities and share them with others. Their shared attributes include worthiness, faith, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity. People on the other hand who are simply trying to fit in deny their imperfections and vulnerabilities and try to hide them from others for fear of judgment and rejection. Their shared attributes include perfectionism, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment and scarcity. According to Brown, these individuals tend to put on airs to seek approval and acceptance, operate with a lack of mentality and judge both themselves and others. (1)
In the worst cases, people who deny their own imperfections are less likely to accept the imperfections of others as well. In some cases this is overt. However, in today’s age, this can be more subtle and anonymous, but all the more hurtful. Think of colleagues competing for promotions in the business world, couples competing with their spouses in a cause of self-righteousness in the relationship, and students wanting to popular at school. There are also those who are simply jealous of others and desire to tear them down. The rise of mobile technology apps and social media has increased various types of connections and communication that can perpetuate inauthentic, cruel and downright bullying behaviors for those on either side of the “fitting in” spectrum. Again, someone who is trying to “fit in” is either not tolerant of other’s imperfections or unable to accept and share their own.
Consider the following recent news article related to the mobile app Yik Yak which because of its anonymity can be a tool used for gossip and bullying. Yik Yak is a social media platform that allows users to make anonymous comments about anything and anyone. Users can only see comments made within a 1 1/2 mile radius. The app, which is very popular among college and high school students, has been the source of numerous problems. The principal in the article below made the decision to ban the use of the app at school by asking the company Yik Yak to shut it down around their perimeter. This was with the encouragement of parents and students who voiced multiple concerns over the damage it was doing. Many parents and teachers had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. Principal Wood described it this way” you can have an opinion, but there comes a point when it’s actually harassment and bullying.” (3)
So when does the need to fit in becoming so extreme that individuals can go beyond subtle negative thoughts and behaviors, beyond cyberbullying and gossip to something even more overt and extreme? Mona Siddiqui details some of the appeals to British and even some American youth to groups such as ISIS. Siddiigui states that “the narrative may well be wrapped up in the familiar language of jihad and “fighting in the cause of Allah”, but it amounts to little more than the destruction of anything and anyone who doesn’t agree with them.” This is a true sense of power to those that may feel they do not have any. The alleged atrocities committed by the group in the name of Islam against men, women, and children is extensive and brutal. According to Siddigui, “When religious narrative can justify this kind of oppression and moral blindness, everything suddenly seems simple and the cause appears even more worthy. Instead of oppression, they see honor; instead of killing, they see victory.” This type of fitting in can be seductive, powerful, and lethal. The author asked her 18-year-old son why he thought that some Muslim men would be drawn towards groups such as Isis. He said: “You don’t suddenly turn; you already have the desire in you, however deep down, through your upbringing. A lot of it comes from home.” (4)
“Fitting in” is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted.
“Belonging”, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are. Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which is not only hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it. (1)
Author Joel Redence states that the path to shifting your mindset from one of “fitting in” to one of “belonging” isn’t an easy one, especially if you’ve been conditioned to seek external approval and acceptance by others. Redence states that start with being mindful of your behavior and ensuring your actions are coming from a place of authenticity and self-respect. Redence suggests asking yourself what the motivations are behind your actions and if they’re aligned with who you really are. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Redence recommends identifying and opening up to those trusted individuals you can share your whole self with, imperfections and all. The next critical step is to be willing to accept others, imperfections and all, in return. This is the key to successful relationships and “belonging”. (1)