Continuing the theme of societal expectations and my failure to satisfy them, I write today from a more detached perspective. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to me like everything ‘they’ tell us is wrong, but I do believe society hands out a map for life that is supposed to lead us to contentment but instead points us toward angst.
We’re told to work hard and prove ourselves better than others, so that feeling superior will fulfill us. We’re told to find the ideal partner, move into the ideal house, and send our kids to ideal schools, so that we’ll be rewarded with parental pride and progeny who will sustain us in later years.
The problem is, not everyone succeeds by such demanding measures. Come middle age, few of us have achieved what we expected when young.
Perhaps we never reached the pinnacle of our field of endeavor or suspect we chose the wrong field. Perhaps our marriages failed, or we never raised a family, or we started a family but it fell apart.
And even for those who did manage to follow the map’s guidelines, how gratifying does success feel? Does worldly attainment outweigh a lifetime of unrealistic expectations layered on by family, associates, and the community at large? Or does there remain an undercurrent of insecurity, a deep-seated sense of unworthiness?
Where is the problem? Is it with the individual who doesn’t feel like he or she measures up to society’s standards? Or is it with the standards themselves? How healthy is a culture that rewards only the ‘best’ and regards the merely ordinary as failures?
More and more, I’m realizing the answer is: NOT VERY HEALTHY.
I didn’t choose my personality. I didn’t decide to become someone who is skeptical of experts, who isolates, and who jumps from project to project. These tendencies were perhaps partly inborn, but they also resulted from the tenor of my upbringing: from arbitrary household rules, repeated separations from friends and family, and a lack of positive regard. In compensation I learned to mistrust authority, to resist forming connections, and to seek recognition by trying one gambit after another. The very behaviors about which I long felt ashamed were conditioned into me. How fair is it for me to blame myself for having been raised in an inconsistent, rootless, and dismissive way? Isn’t how I turned out exactly what you’d expect from a temperamental introvert brought up in such an environment? And yet it takes a conscious effort for me to resist judging myself by merciless standards that don’t take my formative experiences into account.
Each of us was formed by genetics and environs. We didn’t create ourselves, yet we take the consequences to heart. Where we fall short, we could look to all the conditioning that led to our falling. Where we rise high, we could feel gratitude for whatever advantages made our attainments possible. Instead, we lay claim to it all: blame and fame become ours alone.
This leads to shame on the one hand and egotism on the other. In twelve step programs, people sometimes express this by saying they “feel like the turd the world revolves around.” This is hardly is a recipe for fulfillment, yet it is a predictable result of cultural standards that insist we look better than others while feeling inadequate in ourselves, standards especially toxic for those who experienced significant adversity during childhood.
How much healthier it would be to remain true to our inner natures, to judge ourselves according to our own values and circumstances while allowing others the same freedom. But society makes this difficult.
In other words, our culture handed us a flawed map. We need feel no shame about losing our way.
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