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Saturday
Sep252010

Fitting In

This past school year I volunteered to be a reading tutor in a local elementary school.  I was assigned a kindergartener and a second grader.  Over the course of the eight months I worked with them I got to know them, and how they interacted with their classmates, quite well.  At age 5 (kindergarten age) children don't place much emphasis on fitting in.  They aren't terribly self-conscious, and interact with their classmates pretty freely and fluidly.  There are no cliques, and very little teasing or bullying.  Two years later, in second grade, the picture for many children has begun to change.  They begin to develop strong attachments and antipathies to other children, and teasing and bullying start to occur.  By the time children have begun middle school, and adolescence with its hormonal changes kick in, fitting in becomes hugely important: it's the primary means, other than family, for a child to feel grounded during a time of wrenching changes in their fundamental being. Later, fitting in helps buffer the insecurity of the teenage years. Being popular is a primary preoccupation of a large percentage of high school students, and achieving it can bring many rewards.  But what about later?  How important is it to fit in, and what are the trade-offs one makes to do so?

Fitting in consists of observing the behavior of others and then attempting to copy it, and it's a practice that can continue to yield big dividends later in life.  For many adults, it's important to fit into a corporate or organizational culture so as to ensure career advancement.  Most adults also carry the concept of fitting in into their social lives, joining clubs, congregations, or moving to neighborhoods that enhance their sense of security and perhaps their status.  Unfortunately, the drive to fit in and the efforts required to do so can fundamentally skew the trajectory of self-actualization that is so central to healthy personal growth.  When most of your attention is focused on how to fit in with others, there's too little emphasis on cultivating the unique talents and personal characteristics that make you who you truly are.

Fitting in can be a particularly disruptive phenomenon in romantic relationships, particularly for my clients who suffer from a chronic sense of loneliness.  When they meet someone they're attracted to and interested in, and who returns the initial attraction and interest, they expend a great amount of effort in trying to be just what they think the other person wants.  Many times these clients do indeed succeed in "hooking" their target, only to find months or years or even decades down the road that there's a fundamental mismatch that winds up ending the relationship and creating intense remorse and pain.  Also, it's often virtually impossible to accurately gauge what the other person is really looking for.

It's essential to trust that being true to who you genuinely are will attract the kind of person with whom you will most comfortably relate.  That doesn't by any means suggest that you'll attract a carbon copy of yourself. There is truth to the concept of opposites attracting, and to the balance provided by the marriage of ying and yang.  Furthermore, being true to who you are certainly doesn't mean that you should never compromise. Compromising is a perfectly valid expression of empathy and caring, and if you are an empathetic and caring person the compromises will come with relatively little pain.

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