Children quickly discover that the most effective technique for survival involves conforming to their parents’ or caregiver’s values, regardless of whether the adults’ values are healthy or appropriate. Rarely does anyone intervene in a relationship between a parent and a child simply because a child is learning maladaptive behavior. Eventually, without being fully aware of it, most children adopt versions of their parents’ values.
If asked why they’ve embraced certain beliefs, most adults don’t claim to have reasoned things out. Instead, they cite authorities recognized by their social group or, startled, they insist the validity of a particular value system is obvious or ordained. Real awareness of the origins of their beliefs is unusual. Internal conflicts and self-doubt are easily attributed to the harmful influence of unseen spirits or the sordid side of human nature.
No matter how often we’re told that individuality is something to appreciate and that we’re all endowed with the right to be who we really are, conformity is the rule. Ostracism is the penalty for believing a little too eagerly that we can be true to ourselves. Some people can’t handle ostracism. It takes enormous strength and at least a little support from others—affiliation for which a person must qualify with some degree of compliance.
And yet, denying who we really are and what we truly believe is a form of hopelessness. It’s a serpent whose bite is painful and obvious.
We don’t choose either individuality or conformity. We constantly struggle to find a good place between the two. The effort is lifelong, and it never, never gets easier.