From a social psychology standpoint, conformity is the “act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors” to the norms of a group or a society in general. Many would argue that conformity is a part of our basic instinct as human beings. Indeed, it can give us a sense of security and assurance. Different societies and cultures may have varying norms, but it is generally accepted that not conforming to social norms may lead to isolation and ostracization. Often we laud the people who choose not to conform to these standards because it gives them a chance to show their own individuality, yet we don’t always consider the benefits and drawbacks from making such choices.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I do consider myself to be a maverick, especially amidst people my own age, mainly because of my cultural and traditional values that tend to align more with the older generation in Pakistan and India. So, in that sense, I don’t really conform much with American society. I often wear traditional Pakistani and Indian clothes when I go out, even for small errands because I feel comfortable in them, even if people do look at me strangely. I do make myself more noticeable in that way. For me, that is a lot of what nonconformity entails: making yourself stand out by doing the opposite of what is socially expected, or even socially acceptable.
It is important to think about the psychological costs and benefits of living authentically and whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits. Defying societal norms to a certain extent has a satisfying outcome because it shows you who you are as a person and when you find people who accept you for who you are, you know that they care about you enough to not worry about how “out of the box” your thought process and actions may be.
However, this idea made me think about a conversation I had when I was in high school with an elderly woman I met at a senior center I was volunteering at. She told me that she had bipolar disorder and wasn’t diagnosed until her 50s (even though her children had asked her many times to get psychiatric help over the years), and because of that her children had a very tumultuous upbringing because of her mood swings and her erratic behavior. She said that she loved being a free spirit and she loved not caring about what other people thought. But throughout the course of this, she told me that while she was thrilled that she lived her life the way she wanted to, to the fullest, she paid a hefty price for it. Because even though she was physically there for her children and her family, emotionally and mentally she wasn’t and couldn’t connect with them. Even when they told her later in life that she may have a mental illness, she refused to believe or even acknowledge the possibility.
This really struck me because being the child of South Asian immigrants, I do live a life of nonconformity (for the most part). I wear my traditional clothes, which really make me stand out, I only listen to Pakistani and Indian music and I adhere more to Pakistani and Indian culture and traditions than I ever have to American ones. And although I have been lucky enough to have friends and family who not only accept and love me for who I am, they are sometimes slightly bothered by it because they feel that I am consciously ostracizing myself and making myself stand out. But I’ve never really cared about that because I always felt that anyone who wanted to be in my life would have to accept me for what I am, with all my quirks.
Besides, I have always revelled in being different; it makes me feel unique, especially as a minority in terms of my cultural heritage and even in my traditional values, something that is not as prevalent amongst the people in my generation nowadays. However, I like feeling unique, not dismissed. There is an important distinction there. I realize that being in the minority can often mean being pushed to the side and being outvoted. I can remember instances when the people around me acted as though, because I was outnumbered, my choices, needs and input were not even worth acknowledging or given any thought, something I did not appreciate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When speaking about the elderly woman in the nursing home, I realize that having bipolar illness and not adhering to social norms are two very different things: This woman had a mental illness, whereas I am just doing what makes me comfortable in a way that makes me stand out. But it made me realize that sometimes we do this at the expense of others and that in some ways if you don’t conform, you’re likely to be very lonely and even perceived by others to be somewhat selfish. It’s as if someone is saying, “You can live your life in this way if that’s what you want, but be prepared to live it alone. Don’t be surprised if people shy away from forming long-term relationships with you.” Because people will only accept your personality quirks to a certain extent; It shows them that you care.
It’s the age-old question about whether you change yourself for someone, and if so how much. Because on the one hand you feel like if they love you for who you are they wouldn’t ask you to change, but then you feel that compromising a little bit shows that you do care about their needs as well. It is a question that I don’t know how to answer and most likely won’t know how to answer for quite some time. I do feel like there should perhaps be a balance, but where that balance is is different for each individual. I don’t even think I’ve found it for myself yet in the sense that I know who I am and what I want to be like, but I sometimes struggle because I know that it sometimes makes my family and friends uncomfortable. So, I'm learning to find a balance between who I am and my relationships without compromising my identity.
I know that often people who see me or talk to me would have a hard time forgetting me because of how different I am, whether that is in a good way or in a bad way. I like to think, though, that when people see a person like me who is generally comfortable in her own skin, that they would be inspired to show their own individuality and stand out themselves. After all, in the wise words of Dr. Seuss, "Why fit it when you were born to stand out?"