Social control, political correctness, group think are all ways of describing the pressure to act or feel a certain “correct” way in order to be accepted and loved by the people that are important to us. Usually we think of these as negatives. But they’re part of life. Handling them can be a genuine life-changer for us, really putting us in the driver’s seat of your own life as never before. Let me show how social control may open doors for you.
But what is it? We humans have a deep and primary need to belong, to be accepted and valued. But on the other hand we also have a powerful need, a primary value if you like, to be our unique and individual selves. These two forces – social acceptance and individual authenticity – are in a balancing act, if not an outright conflict, every hour of the day. If you’re not aware of this balancing act, it’s very likely that it’s in your life but you can’t easily see it.
Getting clear about the conflict and knowing how to navigate it, because it’ll never go away, is one of the most powerful things we can do to find our own unique way. It puts us right in the driver’s seat of our own lives – if we’re prepared to take the responsibility. Let’s isolate this important slice of our life and have a clear look at it. See if you recognize it in your own life.
As in all conflicts or tensions, there are two opposite poles. One is we fear being kicked out, disapproved of, ostracized by those who are important to us. We fear this will be our fate if we’re too much out of sync with group consensus, if we fail to fit in enough. Often we respond to this by not allowing ourselves to say what it is we really believe or want. At other times, we may not even be able to think it, to admit it to ourselves. We might censor ourselves in front of our work mates, people we’re with in workshops and growth communities, our neighbours, and not uncommonly, our partners and families. The people that are important to us, in other words. These ties that bind can exercise a social control and this social control can be stronger or more effective than any army in limiting what we say or think.
So that’s one pole, the social control!
The other side of the tension kicks is the pressure to stand up for our values and what we really believe, group be damned. If we experience ourselves as not valuing or standing up for ourselves as an individual, we feel we’ve failed and can get down on ourselves. This is a primary source of high levels of anxiety and depression. But it can also be the shrinking before taking the next step in our work or career, because we don’t want to screw up.
Please remember, especially if you think I’m making this up or overstating it, social control is, by definition, not easy to see. It’s invisibility is the source of its control. And in the modern world with its shifting cultural values and memes it’s very difficult to know which group to be loyal too.
To get a better sense of what I’m speaking about here, how ubiquitous it is, take a look in the rear view mirror at how it showed up in history. Think of the church for example. Everyone took it for granted that the definition of reality as set forth by the church was simply right and correct. No one spoke out in dissent, not for long anyway, and few even thought anything different than the orthodoxy. This was not conscious social control on the part of the church or the priests. Even the ones who lit the fires to burn the Inquisition’s heretics thought they were doing God’s will. Either they didn’t question what they were doing or they hid their questions from themselves quickly, because that’s how social control works. It shows up as normal, as “just the way it is.”
Social control is a special kind of invisible because it’s not easy to see even when it’s pointed to. That’s because we’re invested in things being true or that way and to doubt it can cost us heavily. But we can take back what we’ve given over to social control and group think and chart our own way.
Taking it back will affect us in all parts of our life. It’ll change the way we show up as agents and doers. It helps us clean up our emotional life and take back our projections. It’ll directly affect the way we’re able to mature and develop our ideas. It even affects the way we wake up spiritually to the one life the mystic’s talk about.
All of this is possible, none of it is easy.
Here’s a visual metaphor for how human culture moves forward or evolves. Think of it like a giant amoeba, a blob made up of millions of individuals that finds its way forward over time, in response to the prompts of history. No individual can exist outside of the blob, and the blob exerts a tremendous conforming pressure on each of the individuals to stay inside it.
No one is coercing us overtly, of course. It’s just that we naturally and seamlessly conform to the dictates of “reality,” to what everyone knows to be true. We conform in other words, to life in the blob. And we do it continually. The fact that what the culture offers may not be true, or may not be what we as an individual need now, or even that the culture needs now, is seldom examined or discussed. New ideas and advancements come through individuals as creative leaps.
There is a way out of this, an amazing and powerful and beautiful way that gives unending gifts. It’s simple but not easy. The way is to examine our own individuality, what we really think, and really feel – what we’re really doing – in a dedicated space with others who are doing that too.
We can’t look at a relational problem all by ourselves. You can’t do it all on your own. I can’t do it on my own either. None of us can. But we can do it with others. It’s a group venture, a “red pill” to take that changes everything.
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