By Farah Hussain Baig, LCSW
A culture that encourages trends and conformity can leave many who march to their own tune feel strange, less than or inadequate. Evolution would suggest that it’s “safer” to follow the herd instead of going out on your own. After all, it’s human nature to want to fit in. At a basic level, conformity can be seen with material items such as the latest gadgets or fashions, to more complicated like personal and political beliefs, physical appearance, or sexual orientation. But what happens when broader social norms are unrealistic or incongruent with who you are or the principles you value? How can we teach ourselves and others that to be different means unique, rare, and special…not bad, weird or strange? Messages both direct and indirect shape how we see ourselves and the world around us. So where do these messages come from? How can everyday experiences or silent internal dialogue translate to positive core beliefs, not negative ones?
Be Conscious of Your Inner Dialog. Every moment of the day, a feeling is being triggered internally that influences scripts that have been written since the day we were born. Some of these scripts are accurate but some are distorted. Pay attention to your inner dialog and identify what is useful and what could be toxic. This narrative can, and will, influence the choices you make in life. Therefore, it is important to verify what we are telling ourselves, and if it is not true or productive, change it.
Radical Acceptance. Radical acceptance is a skill learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), where there is complete and total acceptance of one’s reality. By letting go of what you cannot control you can begin to heal and move forward to create change in an authentic way. Acceptance doesn’t always come easy and it is often accompanied by a natural grieving process. Expect to feel sad and angry, this is healthy and normal when we have experienced pain from our reality that is out of our control. This challenging, but necessary, process helps to channel time and energy to areas where real growth and change is possible.
Changing the Script. We are our own worst critic and tend to hold onto negative core beliefs tighter than positive ones. When examining these negative scripts, reflect on how you’ve internalized them in the first place and try to refute them with logic. Try to focus on your strengths. We often take for granted the good things in life and the same can be true about positive personal attributes. If you still struggle in this area, think about what you would tell a friend and say it to yourself. Once we change our narrative, we need to maintain it and doing so can be difficult if our environment doesn’t nurture this healthier dialog. If the people around us feed the negative scripts, it might be time to reevaluate those relationships.
Look Around You. What supports do you have in place to nurture positive messages and your authentic self? Living authentically will be seen and felt by others and will ultimately draw the people you want into your life. However, it might also alienate people who you’ve identified as friends in the past, but who may not allow you to be your best self in the present. Finding people with similar values, interests, or life experiences can be emotionally corrective. When you do find new friends or social groups that better align with who you are, approach them with cautious optimism. It can be intoxicating to finally feel heard or accepted so be mindful of your emotions and let these new people earn your trust. Changing the pieces and even people in your world can be difficult, especially if it means shifting relationships with loved ones. This process can be particularly challenging so don’t be afraid to seek out professional help.
Teaching Self-Love. If learning to love yourself and speak positively of your unique differences feels new, and at times uncomfortable, you are not alone. It can, however, be easier to learn these skills earlier in life rather than needing to reprogram ourselves later. Instilling this perspective of self-love starts with parenting style. In order to instill this perspective in children, parents need to genuinely practice what they preach. This may even require their own personal journey of self-exploration and self-love. Start affirming your children are special and unique in genuine ways each day. Be cognizant of comparing your children to others as it immediately sets up an arbitrary measuring stick. Look at the people and the influences around your children the same way you would for yourself, both peers and adults. Be open to who your child would like to be and how they want to spend their time. Within appropriate boundaries, let them be guided by their own voice, it will teach them early they are accepted just as they are.
Embracing our uniqueness, in a world that makes it difficult to be different, can be a challenge. For some it can be an enormous lifelong struggle of identity development. Be patient with yourself and know you are not alone. Give yourself time to create a new dialog, it doesn’t happen as fast as you would like. As you work to become the best version of yourself, it may never feel 100% natural or even work 100% of the time, but the goal is not perfection, it’s acceptance.