Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 2 2020

Standing Out vs. Fitting In

It's a bizarre seeming paradox in human behavior: as social animals, we want to fit in and be part of the group for safety and support but also want to achieve social status and stand out from the crowd in areas where you excel.  How are those two ideas true at the same time, and how do you balance those desires in your life?

Well, the balance is struck in the sense that people want to stand out in socially desirable ways.  Some people pay a lot of money for fancy clothes or accessories to demonstrate their wealth, fashion sense, or social status.  Others work hard to be the best in a sport that many people like such as baseball or football.  Intellectuals work hard to study and know the insights of others and then carve out a new finding or field of their own.  So you have to both stand out and fit in to get the most benefit from your efforts.

What happens if you go too far in either direction?  Well, if you wear your underwear on your head, you'll definitely stand out, but now you no longer fit in.  In fact, someone might commit you to a facility where they believe that you will fit in better.  If you blend in with the crowd, however, you'll not be noticed and will have a hard time distinguishing yourself to form strong friendships—you might even be sacrificing your sense of self and individuality for the sake of not disrupting the group dynamic.  So both extremes have a high risk of throwing you off.

Yes, there are the select few who consider themselves to be "loners" and don't think about this balance or even being part of a group.  There are also bold rebels or trend setters who do things their way and gain a following, such as someone who decides to be a nudist or go swimming in freezing water.  In these examples, however, these people are just finding things they're interested in and not letting existing group pressures force them to compromise on what they want to do or who they want to be in life.  Those people are truly the bold, as they put themselves out there and stand out because what they like is truly different from what is common.  Imagine if you could communicate with the dead, for example, and you had to live the rest of your life not only being different but also having everyone think you were crazy or a fraud.  These kinds of people have to make critical decisions because their interests fall outside the social norm and so standing out and fitting in cannot be balanced like they could with unique takes on socially accepted activities.

Fortunately, we live in a world today with the internet and fast travel options where you can find people who share your interests, so there are few people who truly have to "go it alone" and risk isolation to do what they want.  Another fortunate aspect of human behavior is that most groups will adapt slightly as a whole to its members and vice versa, so people are willing to, say, have someone who dresses differently or acts differently as part of the group.  So even if you do stand out, you can fit in.

Another set of seeming paradoxes:

How do all these work?

Well, if you stand out in a way that leads to judgment, you may wish to hide it to fit in.  For example, as someone who has trouble with eye contact, small talk, and engaging in back-and-forth conversation, I try my best to consciously overwrite my genetic tendencies by deliberately making eye contact (even when it hurts my listening comprehension), rehearsing quick stories to tell to get past the initial 5 minutes of a conversation (even if I don't want to talk about such things), and I mentally cut myself off knowing that I've run out of the time that most people would take to explain an idea or tell a story (even though my brain is telling me that I'm not finished and am missing key details).  It feels weird to me, but it avoids the common responses I would get otherwise that signal that I violated social conventions and so they're going to disengage.  There are plenty of examples, from people who wear clothes they don't like or attend events they don't care for or even get into games or activities they don't even fully understand.  It feels better being accepted than getting the dirty look of judgment for not sharing in the social norm, so people make those decisions.

On the other hand, being "normal" or average makes people want to stand out.  Children's movies are full of these themes, where there's the frustrated adolescent who wants to do big things and feels "stuck" based on the group or town he or she is in.  There is the boy who's overlooked for being nerdy or dorky and dreams of standing out as a great athlete or someone with a great car.  There is the good-looking girl who wants to be recognized for her achievements or the unconventional-looking girl who wants someone to recognize her beauty.  Everyone wants to feel special, and standing out or having a unique quality—as long as it is appreciated and doesn't alienate—can do that.

Finally, and this one is particularly interesting, standing out for an ability or attribute—regardless of whether it's praised or derided—makes you want to find a group where you do fit in.  The best example is the best in a field: people who stand out in a sport or profession don't stay where they stand out; they go where they fit in while leaving that group to communicate with others sometimes where they do stand out.  For example, star athletes all fight to make a professional sports league, and then when they do, they might become just above average vs. being the best where they came from, but then they go to public relations events or even just to go shopping and get constant praise from fans for their work.  The same applies to actors who congregate in specific locations like Hollywood or scientists who fight to do research at the most prestigious universities.  They all go where they fit in, but then they create products or research that affects society and get accolades from journalists and community leaders.

So what is going on here for all of these paradoxes to exist at once?  Well, it shows the eight concepts behind finding meaning in your life coming together.  The point of life is growth, and you'll grow more with support.  Therefore, you want to fit into a group to get the support you need and grow more (e.g., the actor or athlete whose peers or competition push them to be the best they can be), but you also want validation from the group both for how you fit in as well as what makes you unique and special.  You want to feel like you're making the right choices, have the right ethics,  believe in the right things, and want things that others deem to be good.  However, if you really want, believe, or choose something that others don't like, you will either take the chance to stand out or let peer pressure talk you out of being yourself.  You'll feel nervous in the former scenario and like you're not being true to yourself in the latter, giving you critical feedback as to how you view your own behavior and what you might want to think or do differently to do what is best for yourself going forward.  These decisions will lead you to pursuing the right experiences that will help you become the best version of yourself and find the right new support when you are worried of negative consequences.  By doing those things, you'll eventually find the right balance of fitting in and standing out that you can live with (even if it's suboptimal because you decide to hide part of your true self).

There's no perfect ratio of standing out and fitting in that I can recommend to you, as only you'll know what balance you want to strike between the two.  Only you'll know how much you care about your peer group's opinion vs. the broader community's opinion, how much you prefer to stand out vs. fit in, and where you care to be similar to your peers vs. different.  But whatever you choose, there will always be a ratio—no one is currently living in a Bizarro World scenario where they live entirely differently than everyone else (e.g., living under water and vacationing on land, sleeping on the ceiling, wearing pants for a shirt and a shirt for pants).  There are physical and biological constraints forcing many similarities that are difficult or impossible to change.  However, you'll know when you've found the right balance when you feel like you can be yourself when you want to, you can fit in or acquiesce when you don't mind, and you stand out where it makes you feel special and unique and not like a freak or an alien (unless you want to feel that way, in which case you're being true to yourself).  When you find that balance, you'll know you are living life on your terms and choosing where to follow the group for the greatest benefit to yourself and the people you care about.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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