When You’re Afraid of Swimming Against the Current: Being Different
Being accepted by others is a deeply instinctive need. Human beings are social by nature, happy when part of the group and sad when marginalized. When we feel excluded, a thousand-year-old alarm of fear goes off in the depths of our brain. We know that if we’re alone, we’re more vulnerable to any danger lurking around the corner.
This is where our fear of going against the current and being different comes from. This is also where our dangerous tendency to unthinkingly join the masses comes from. In principle, we’re terrified of being different than others.
“The supreme trick of mass insanity is that it persuades you that the only abnormal person is the one who refuses to join in the madness of others, the one who tries vainly to resist. We will never understand totalitarianism if we do not understand that people rarely have the strength to be uncommon”.
The concerning thing about this fact is that sometimes the prevailing social current goes against what is reasonable or desirable. The most obvious example is, of course, that of Nazism. Many people joined this sick, inhuman movement simply out of fear. They were all heading the same direction. As absurd as it was, a lot of people deemed it better to follow the current than to resist.
But this doesn’t just happen in huge historical events. There are also countless everyday situations where this happens. For example, it happens with bullying. Although many know deep down that it is not ok, they stay silent. Or they join the bullies, just to avoid fighting the current. What can be said about that fear? Is there any way to get rid of it?
The fear of thinking and being different from others
In a certain way we’re all encouraged to create a kind of character that represents us socially. This means that someone has told us what we should be like ever since we were born. What should I do and what should I not do? How should I act? But this doesn’t always — or even often — exactly match what we actually are or want to do.
To be a part of society and culture, we have to “distort” ourselves a bit. We have to respect the current, even if we don’t want to. Or learn to eat with silverware, even if it seems useless or complicated. It’s the price that we must pay if we want to be accepted in a human group. That’s why, in part, when we’re in society we play one or more characters.
Why do we end up accepting these rules of the game? Just because if we don’t, we are rejected or punished. Other people won’t accept that we’re doing what we want. So usually they’ll resist, subtly but powerfully, any position different from the group’s.
They put limits on us, but they don’t always explain it and we don’t always understand it. However, generally speaking, we learn to act according to their rules because we’re afraid not to.
Growing means becoming more independent and maybe being different
Some people never never get the chance to move past this childhood phase. When we’re little, adults tell us what to do. We get used to obeying, usually without knowing why. Good and bad are taught to us as absolutes where our opinions and feelings don’t count for very much.
Growing means understanding the “why” behind these norms, limits, and restrictions. It also means deciding how well it fits our desires and then acting accordingly. To do all this, we have to lose our fear of thinking for ourselves. It’s time to explore who we are, outside of the character we’ve learned to play.
When we recognize ourselves to be adults, we start seeing that we have resources to disagree with things and swim against the current. Of course, first we have to know what we do agree with. That will make up our convictions. And convictions are what give us strength for being different if need be.
Unfortunately, we don’t finish the process all the time. Sometimes you choose not to grow. It’s a tough job, demanding effort and perseverance. Not everyone is willing to travel the road from the character they’ve built to their real self.
Not everyone wants to come face-to-face with their fear of being themselves. But those who do — they get freedom. They also get a chance to design their own destiny, in line with who they really are.
Images courtesy of James Bullogh