Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Power of the Individual: Being Yourself and Increasing Your Personal Psychology of Difference

Person alone watching across English Bay
Be yourself no matter what they say. This revolutionary piece of advice is embedded in Sting’s tune “An Englishman in New York” which by all accounts and purposes depicts a relatively mild-mannered Englishman who walks around with a cane, drinks tea instead of coffee, and prefers his sliced bread toasted on one side only. In these small things of everyday life, he stands his ground and as he himself proclaims a gentleman will never run.

By today’s standards, you may not see his stance even remotely as revolutionary or significant, and yet, it is quietly subversive and perhaps much easier said than done. Western culture, which prides itself on individuality, at least in theory and ideology, hardly demonstrates this in practice and in real life. If anything, it is indeed closer to a culture of uniformity and conformity than subversion.

In fact, even those who would stand out before and used to be considered and judged as “weird” or “strange” have now become, for better or worse, embraced and assimilated by the mainstream; now they tend to be if not commonplace then only minimally different from the rest. In a twist of irony, in contemporary society in which weirdness appears to reign and have the upper hand, it is the common, the traditional, and the ordinary that soon shall be standing out like a sore thumb.

In a world where most people drink their coffee at Starbucks, Sting’s Englishman is different and outstanding indeed. Otto Rank talks about this constant push and pull, if not love-hate relationship between the psychology of sameness and that of difference. Yet individuality by definition must exist, develop, and thrive via difference. I cannot be myself if I am predominantly just like you.

Akin to the proverbial black sheep of the family, it is the true individual who carves his or her own and often unique path away from the mob and the masses. In that courageous act of defiance, as a matter of course, these individuals will be scorned, envied, and rejected by all the others who have been caught and lulled in the comfortable web of conformity. Their scorn is also equivalent to a type of punishment for straying from the preset established course set by most people.

Put differently, it is easier (i.e. takes much less effort and courage) to conform and to be like anyone else. Seen from this perspective, the person who does not go along but actually defies the Hitler salute during Nazi Germany (depicted extensively and masterfully in Malick’s true story of A Hidden Life) is a rebel but in today’s world in the background of which any such display is discouraged, frowned upon, or even morally and criminally punished, one could potentially construe the opposite. Morality and commonsense aside, it is the addition of context that defines the act as either cowardly or courageous.  A less extreme case would be males coloring their fingernails, which in the past was rather unusual and would have raised an eyebrow or two, while under current circumstances it has been sufficiently norm-alized and become rather a standard fare in most places.

Yet in either case, the above examples are not necessarily individuals who are living and acting following their true nature, but rather people who engage in isolated rebellious acts meant to merely defy the norms. It is like the child who more out of spite than personal conviction opts for the opposite of what the parents tell them to do. And defying norms just for the sake and thrill of defying is not a sign of individuality. In fact, it could be even a sign of conformity if you wish to gain the respect of your clan, tribe, or clique; this is regardless of political affiliation because they are driven by the psychology of sameness and use their supposed demonstrated difference only to fit in, curry favors, or please their own crowd, no matter how big or small that group may be.

In any case, these acts and behaviors are not their own nor unique in the sense of individuality nor are they being themselves in a deep and meaningful fashion. In fact, these types of people are as fickle and perhaps chameleonic as fashion itself as they are being driven and compelled by what is in and trendy at a specific moment of time. Being yourself this is certainly not; it is more a quest for a desperate substitute self because if you are acting in accordance with who you truly are, you are not being guided or swayed by the latest fashion but by your inner guide and compass.

Incidentally, a more extreme case of this would be the attention-grabbing narcissist who would do anything to stand out and be seen as different even though they may not even have a self to begin with or identify with. Full-fledged narcissists tend to copy and paste from others, borrowing what suits them most at a given moment and discarding what does not benefit them personally. They are not themselves, and sadly, they may never be able to be so.

The question arises how you can really be yourself in a culture that pays lip service to individuality while in reality, it discourages and even tends to punish any divergence whatsoever from its fixed and rigid standards and expectations. Anyone who dares to speak differently is under the threat of being expulsed, and this has been more pronounced in the wake of cancel culture. It does not matter what your group or political, ethnic, national, or religious affiliation may be, if you dare to challenge adopted views, you are more often than not excommunicated. Evolutionary speaking, inflicting and receiving this type of reputational damage would be seen and treated as a death sentence.

Returning to our opening statement, it is easy to say it does not matter to us what others say but we do care what others think of us. Since we cannot please everyone (believe me, I have tried for many years), it would be best to become shunned, canceled, or a persona non grata at least for a cause or something that truly resonates with you. The trouble is that you may think and believe something resonates with you or that something is truly worth it but deep inside, you may not really care for it after all, and you may just do it because it makes you look good in other people’s eyes and to artificially increase your self-esteem.

In terms of evolution, we seek and depend upon community, hence sameness, for our physical survival. We also seek sameness and the norm for evaluating and maintaining our sanity because psychologically speaking, being normal means following and adhering to the norm. The norm has undergone many changes and what is seen as outlandish and crazy in the past may be considered as perfectly normal today, and vice versa.

To complicate matters, anyone who stands out from the crowd will instill fears and doubts in the common majority. This is the power of the individual, but it is also its inherent danger because these individuals are an easy target, and they will be attacked from all sides for being different or having a different and less popular opinion. Difference can be physical or psychological in nature but instead of shying away from it, we must not only embrace it within ourselves but also encourage it in others.

At the same time, when all dress and think alike, whether the colors and jerseys of a given sports team or the scary uniformity in clothing and thinking of cults and sects, the one person that is not in alignment will be seen as hostile and is considered the “other”. Our survival instinct comes with the pledge and desire to protect our own kind, be it relations of blood and kin or geography and nationality or culture and religion. It is pitting us against them and living in constant tension and fear of being attacked and eroded by the other or at least imagining and believing these outcomes. This is Otto Rank’s fear of death projected onto the ones that we see as different to ourselves and by extension, our group and supposed immortality comes from identifying with and propagating our own kind of people, whatever that may be for the given person.

With all this comes paranoia and hysteria. Whether it is alleged communists, supposed terrorists, or what-have-you, anyone who does not fit into this predesigned box is seen as a potential threat and danger to the status quo or toward the aims, goals, and ambitions of the specific group. When these emotions mix and blend in with one’s own feelings of anxiety and of wishing to be accepted by our fellow beings, it can get very tricky to just be yourself.

Yet this is the moment where it is important to be setting our own boundaries, affirming, and confirming our own beliefs (not just mindlessly or rapidly adopting or swallowing the beliefs of others but honestly questioning and scrutinizing them), and increasing the difference and potential distance between ourselves and others.

As long as you are true to yourself, to who you are deep inside of yourself, after turning off all the voices that push and pull you in different directions or trying to grab, label, and put you in specific boxes, the voice deep inside of you that remains is your true one. If it is allied and aligned with your intuition, which would be naturally inclined to act out of love and bend towards the highest good, then you are good to go and can be yourself no matter what they say.  

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