Dear Agony Aunt,
About a month ago I went to watch The Greatest Showman and some of the scenes really resonated with me, especially the ones that explored discrimination. I started to realise that there are so many occasions where people expect us to be someone we’re not, even in everyday life. If we stray from expectation, we are shunned and pressured into conforming again. Starting university again has left me feeling this more acutely. How do you overcome the guilt of being different?
– Lost in the Flow
Dear Lost in the Flow,
First of all, there is absolutely no reason to feel guilty. Feeling guilty implies that you’ve done something wrong, and if being yourself is a crime, we have bigger problems to address. I think the university experience is a prime example of needing to fit in. With so many people in the same place, it is no wonder that groups form; like attracts like and individuals with the same interests tend to find each other somehow. When you’re with these people and your own hobbies and opinions don’t mesh well, feeling excluded and pressured is not unusual.
There are several paths you can take to address this uncomfortable scenario. The first is the easiest. It is also the option I would strongly recommend disregarding. You can conform and change the way you think – you can ‘fit in’. However, since this is our initial problem, this pathway is meaningless.
Conversely, you can find others with similar interests and interact with them. It isn’t easy at first, but when you establish that connection, it’ll make things a lot smoother in the long run. Although this is a reasonable approach to peer pressure, it still doesn’t address the issue completely. The additional problem here is that you give those who pressured you the implication that they were right to bully you because you were different.
The concept of ‘fitting in’ assumes that we have to be the same as everyone else. If we take a moment to actually consider it, say, for example, in the form of a puzzle, we can see that ‘fitting in’ is all about being different. It is only then that you can interact and form a greater picture. Now, how do we apply this to society? Imagine a community in which every single person had the same life – same job, same family, same interests and values. Nothing would get done, we wouldn’t progress, and if, by chance, we encounter a new problem, no one would be able to face the challenge.
It is important to have harmony and to get along with people. That doesn’t mean we forsake who we are and what we believe in, because it’s these parts of our identity that contribute to how we add meaning to the lives of others. I understand that peer pressure is a massive problem and it’s not easy to break free from it. I’ve been in that situation before and trust me when I say that I felt very insignificant and confused.
However, whenever possible, the last option – the hardest option – is always the most valuable. Start to see yourself as someone who is unique for a purpose, rather than by chance. When people question you, stand up for what you believe in. Challenge them back and initiate conversation and discussion. Introduce people to new experiences, and in the process, explore what they have to offer you.
Fear drives peer pressure, so if we can overcome that first obstacle – the act of accepting others and their ideas – then we are one step closer to escaping conformity. You mentioned The Greatest Showman and personally, I thought that the message in that movie was really empowering. Don’t be ashamed of expressing yourself – definitely do not feel guilty.
Feel free to be you. Everyone else will just have to accept you for who you are.
– Agony Aunt