Shame floods my mind, my breath quickens, my heart pounds, I walk away even though I want to run. I’ve often felt flawed, alone and unworthy, it’s why I think of myself as socially anxious, an introvert. Woefully lacking in any skills todo with talking to others.
When I have made a faux-pax, a social misstep, shame flooded me, and I felt both hurt and angry with myself and others. Fear of such mistakes is what kept me socially anxious, and ashamed to be introverted.
But where does this scornful voice come from?
We suffer such shame when we don’t live up to others expectations, or our own. We feel worthless because we don’t think we’re good enough. It can be social skills, but a also your marital status, political leanings, social demographic, income levels, or vocation and more.
Their voices of condemnation become your internal voice of fear, doubt, shame, worthlessness. The tools you cut yourself with.
We’re not born with such ideas, we pick them up from those around us. They were given to us by the society and culture we grow up in. This is the Tyranny of the Majority as John Stuart Mill coined it.
Tyranny of the Majority
‘….you are a slave Neo, like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you can not smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind’MORPHEUS, THE MATRIX
The tyranny of society is the shaming those of who don’t conform. Through criticism, derision to ostracising, rejection, even at the extreme threats and violence. Which reminds me of John Stuart Mill and his major work, On Liberty.
In this work he looks at the relationship between society and the individual. One question he asks is, ‘to what extent does society have the right to impose itself on the individual?‘ To control their thoughts, beliefs, and actions?
There are two ways in which individuals are pressured to conform to a standard.
One is through government, with it’s laws, enforcements and punishments. The other by society as a whole, through criticism and threats, overt and covert. Or through some penalty of punishment. This is what he called Tyranny of the Majority.
It’s the primary means by which individuals are made to conform because we don’t encounter our governments as often as we encounter our friends, colleagues and family.
‘Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities… …Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.’John Stuart Mill.
Society beyond the government has it’s own imperative to judge and police its inhabitants. This is the collective moral code of the people and it can be remarkably intolerant and punitive.
The example that affects the socially anxious is the Extrovert ideal as described by Susan Cain in her book Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking.
Western culture once valued traits of temperance, self control, and modesty, but now behaviours associated with introverts are not only valued less but some see them as pathological.
‘…the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.’
In the Extrovert ideal, these values are held up as superior, based upon the assumption that to be healthy and happy individuals should be forthright, talkative and expressive. Introverted behaviours are considered inferior, even a mental illness. Society is often engineered to cater for the extroverts more than introverts.
Another example is the the capitalistic notion of happiness through consumption, which has been the creed for the past few decades. Our economics is built on the idea that we have to keep consuming in order to live a happy life.
This then is the prison of society that exists invisibly around us. We obey the dictates of society because we have told it’s better to fit in and conform.
The Internal Tyranny
‘Don’t Compare Your Insides to Others’ Outsides.’
However, this tyranny doesn’t stop with others. We grow up and adopt the values of society. The people around you, well-meaning have constructed this cage believing it’s in your best interests. Our worldview is spoon-fed to us, our values, identity, even aspirations. We’re all products of our culture, we all live in a context.
The moralising of others then becomes the internal monologue you hurt yourself with, and what keeps you small. The most insidious thing is we’re unaware it’s taking place, and each time we fail to challenge our beliefs they grew stronger.
Eventually we end up in a place we don’t want to be, lost and confused because life is not what you thought it was.
We don’t fit into the box that society is trying to squeeze us into. So we blame ourselves or we blame others.
Yet who is the one at fault here? Is it you that doesn’t meet other people’s expectations? Or it the unreasonable expectations and values of society, friends, family and peers?
My unhappiness was in part because I was ignorant of the role society played in how I think about myself. It demonstrates just how much ignorance governs our lives when we are not aware of why we do what we do.
‘The most powerful forces in this world are the one we don’t even notice.’Richard Collison
Our internal critique is a manifestation of what we’re told by others. If you’re said to be worthless enough times by people you look up to, you begin to believe it. If you fail repeatedly enough you feel powerless.
Sheeple – The Herd Mentality
‘So much of our suffering is trying to fit square pegs into round holes’
Another problem is there’s a part of us that wants others to make the decisions, to take the responsibility and power. Someone to take care of us because mediocrity is safety, to stay within the herd.
So we accept partly through choice, partly through ignorance the limitations placed upon us.
Being an individual means taking responsibility, and that’s tough. It makes us feel separate, alone, and vulnerable. Fighting back seems like so such hard work.
Instead we fall into passivity, a spectator to life not a player. This is what’s called in psychology as Learned Helplessness. We no longer believe ourselves capable of affecting change, (in scientific jargon its lack of self efficacy).
It’s how so many of us think. It stops us thinking for ourselves and lets others exploit us for their own ends. So we sleepwalk through life just doing as we’re told because safer.
Growth and change
‘He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’John Stuart Mill
Mill thought that individuals had the right to express themselves as it promoted not only their own personal development but also the society they belong too.
When you suppress ideas you impair growth and change. Stagnation sets in because new ideas are either ignored or silenced. Adaptation doesn’t take place, the individual and society suffer for it.
Authorities like governments, religions throughout history have wrongly thought that its ideas were the defined truth, new ideas were seen as a threat to this order.
The accepted conventional wisdom must therefore be constantly challenged. By criticising these ideas they are constantly tested to see if they retain their validity and truth.
Without contrary ideas, the truth remains untested and so become dogma. In this sense truth, can only be true if falsehood exists.
New ideas, diversity and eccentricity, each one of is an experiment in living. Many will fail, leaving us with the ideas, societies and lifestyles that work. It’s all a work in progress.
‘Waking up to who you are required letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.’Alan Watts
The prisons that stop us from growing, only succeed because were to distracted or ignorant to see the suffering the cause.
It all begins with awareness. To find happiness we have to start with becoming aware of these values society provides.
The most dangerous prisons are the ones you don’t see.
The world tries to squeeze us into definitions, pigeon hole us into types. In so doing it simplifies us, dehumanises us. This is the value of studying society is that it allows us to see these falsehoods and lies. Once seen the illusions lose much of their power.
Without awareness, we can’t even begin.
Responsibility, power and good boundaries
The next step is to take responsibility and power for yourself. Don’t play the victim or wallow in self-pity. Take action. There are things you can do.
It’s far too easy to blame others for our troubles. Their actions might be reprehensible, but we do have choice in our response. Who we hang out with, what we watch, who listen to.
I learned that I needed to be more careful about who’s company I kept, the media I watched, and the ideas it believed. I found my strength, my sovereignty by protecting myself better against the toxic influences that society injects us with. All this is done through asking questions, study and introspection.
It shows the importance of having good boundaries. To accept what helps us and filter what doesn’t. Without good boundaries we become vulnerable to toxic influences from outside. This is where the skill of Discernment turns up, critical thinking.
What foods we eat impact how healthy we are. The same must be true of ideas, thoughts, opinions of others. Think of a bad idea, in my opinion it’s the notion of Perfection as a value, and aspiration.
We need to pay special attention to what we let in and what we let out. We can cause suffering others through what we say and do.
To break free requires us to face the mistakes we have made. Our shame about our actions can poison us further.
We need to come to terms with the fact that we can’t change what’s happened and stop the war against ourselves. By attending to our pain with kindness we can accept our past and move on.
It’s about accepting what has happened and focus on what to do now so that we avoid the same mistakes.
Letting go is the hardest thing to do, yet it’s the fastest way to growth and happiness.
From my own journey, growth often seems more to do with leaving behind limiting ideas than adopting better ideas. Letting go of those things that cause us pain. Harmful relationships, addictions, bad habits, toxic narratives etc.
One of my biggest successes was to recognise my personal beliefs were the source of my suffering. I was chasing after answers, certainty, only to realise the desperation for answers was the problem.
Do the people around you accept you regardless, love you unconditionally? Do they want you to succeed, see you grow?
If not, maybe it’s time to find some new friends, and better narratives by letting them go.
‘Anxiety is the worry we have in fitting in, depression, the possibility we never will.’
Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch embodies a lot that’s written here. An Ubermensch is someone who rejects the system of values and rules society tries to foist upon them. Instead, he breaks free and chooses to live a life according to his own code.
It’s a seductive idea, but impossible because we are still social creatures. So we are stuck with a society that tries to squeeze us to an acceptable shape.
This is the paradox. Society and culture both blesses us with knowledge, security and empathy. But it can also keep us ignorant, ashamed, afraid. We need people to help us, but those same people may try to hurt us.
Society can propel us to greater heights, but it can leads us astray or hold us back. We define ourselves in relation to others. without them we can feel lost.
It’s finding a balance between you and society. Between who you want to be and who society wants you to be.
Some of the blame can be laid at society’s door and the values and ideas that are passed on. But it’s not so much as escaping society, but rather being the one who defines your place in it.
The solution is to forget trying so hard to fit in. Discover what life means for you, rather than have a package deal handed to you, make life your own. Think of it like a teams sport. It’s a collection of individuals, together: different yet the same.
‘Be unashamedly who you are’
The world has changed, what we need now is not factory bred people, cogs in a machine. Now we need artists, visionaries, entrepreneurs, craftsman more than ever.
Being yourself will always be a struggle, those forces of conformity cannot be defeated. You will be tempted to go back to being a sheep, yet you must resist. It’s time for you to step out of the shadows.
I’ll finish with this classic Brazilian story, story I discovered.
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Image Credit: Bulling by KungFuPlum under Creative Commons License.