No matter how much of a free thinker you are, it is impossible to escape the structures placed upon you through which you have come to know about the world. The way in which society expects us to live is strongly influential and it powerfully impacts our idea of what constitutes as a “good” life. Cultural norms run deep, affecting our perceptions and choices in ways which we are often unaware.
Feeling the pressure of today’s society
Our societal milieu is outcomes and performance based. There is a constant pressure to be the best, to outdo your neighbor and to win at all costs. We are told that if we do not maintain this competitive edge we will fail at life. Therefore we strive to be the cleverest, the thinnest and the fastest. Consequently, we have become a society of manipulative and conniving beings. This way of being borders on the sociopath, as the only bottom line we look out for is ourselves, while treating everyone else as collateral damage.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting around 40 million adults. In 2012, an estimated 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode within the year. Clearly we are not coping with the pressure and not only are we harming others in our quest to the best, we are also harming ourselves. Moreover, we are destroying the planet and all the natural resources we depend upon for survival. It isn’t difficult to see that this mind set is not serving us well. It doesn’t take a genius to look around and to see that that our “win at all costs” attitude is actively helping us to fail. So why do we continue to cling so tightly to it?
At the core of our nature, we are social creatures. Human beings have a deep need for acceptance and belonging, which is very difficult to overcome. Those who speak out against the evils of the world tend to be ostracized. This is one of the deepest human fears – rejection. So while we try to sculpt our lives to match our individuality as best we can, we still ultimately march to the beat of society’s drum, however faint.
So what’s the answer?
Awareness is always a good place to start. Take note the next time your hand feels forced or you feel ‘there is no other way’. What societal expectation is in play? You may not be able to change anything, but at least you are no longer an automaton or a sheep blindly following the flock. You are aware and as soon as you become aware, you start becoming more responsible. Maybe next time you’re faced with an impossible choice, you will identify room for compromise. Perhaps avenues you hadn’t considered will start to appear.
The truth, the real truth, worth repeating over and over again, is that all our decisions come down to a choice between love and fear. We fear being excluded so maybe the answer is to begin to include others. We fear rejection, so maybe we should focus instead on acceptance. We fear the fear itself, so maybe we should begin to practice compassion. This may not solve all our problems, but it reminds us that change happens one small step at a time. Never underestimate the power of a single smile or a small act of kindness. It is the only place to start.