I once had a mother ask me what I would say to her daughter who has summarized the great dilemma in this way: “You always told me not to worry about what people think of me. Now you’re telling me to worry about what other people think of me! What am I supposed to do?”
I’m guessing we’ve all experienced this social dilemma first-hand. We want to celebrate our uniqueness; to be appreciated for who we are. We would like to be able to wear what we want to wear, say what we want to say, eat what we want to eat, go where we want to go, and do what we want to do. Yet most of us discovered long ago that we cannot simply follow our own agenda. Others also have their own unique feelings, thoughts, opinions, experiences, and expectations, which sometimes conflict with our own, or may for some reason, or at some times, take precedence over ours.
That reality is also known as “theory of mind,” and being able to employ this and respond effectively is the root of empathy. The ability to recognize and meet others’ expectations, or to change their expectations in a positive way, generally leads to our social success.
When we struggle to recognize and meet others’ expectations, we may experience social frustration and/or failure. That can lead to a sense of being powerless, and a lack of desire to interact with others. Many people have experienced this type of social isolation due to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which make reading and responding effectively to social cues very difficult.
There’s an old saying attributed to Francis Bacon, which is generally rephrased as, “Knowledge is Power.” Demystifying the social context, by providing information about what people think, feel, know, expect, etc., as well as the choices we have available to us and potential consequences accompanying those, can restore a level of control and comfort, and even success. It allows us to make “informed social choices.”
Are there opportunities to “be ourselves?” Sure there are! Can we dye our hair blue? Yes, but we should do so knowing that while some people may applaud our individuality, others may stare, point, laugh, or ridicule. We may be included in some social contexts, but excluded from others. Our hair color may keep us from getting the job we want, or may cause us to lose a job where there is a policy (stated or unstated) against unnatural hair color. As we weigh the consequences of our choices, we may find that we prefer to continue to express ourselves in spite of the way others react to us. If we dislike the consequences of this choice, it’s important to remember that we are not helpless. While dying our hair blue is one choice, we have other choices. There may be other, more “socially acceptable” ways to express our individuality. For example, we might choose to dye our hair a color that’s different from our own, but still within society’s expectations. Or we might choose to dye it blue on weekends when we’re with our friends (temporary hair color provides this option). Or perhaps wearing our favorite shade of blue in the form of apparel rather than hair color allows us to enjoy flaunting our individuality in a way that’s generally more readily accepted by others.
In closing, it’s important to note that there are some times, situations, and/or places where we do not have options for expressing our individuality. “Crossing a line” in those areas will lead to certain unpleasant consequences for ourselves and possibly for others. I’ve heard this referred to (by author Jane Thierfeld Brown) as, “Non-optional social compliance.” One example of this is that we cannot make physical threats against ourselves or others. We need to be teaching these absolutes to ensure that our children and students have the necessary knowledge and information to enjoy success and avoid life-altering negative consequences.
Next week I’ll provide information about ways to demystify the social context and teach the social absolutes so that we and the others in our lives can be less frustrated and more effective in our interactions with others!