There is an innate need in us to belong. We survive better in a herd, and there is an ancient longing to be accepted into a group whether it’s a family, a political party, a religion or even the PTA.
These groups or “systems” are collections of human beings organized around an emotional center. The emotional center can be a person, a set of rules, a last name, a tradition. But membership almost always comes at the expense of our individuality—we must sacrifice some of our beliefs, some of our individual preferences, some cherished behaviors such that there is a constant tension between “togetherness and belonging” and “individuality”.
Like a solar system, in which some planets are in and some planets are out, you can feel the gravitational pull of the system. You are assured membership because you conform to certain norms, to behave or dress in certain ways, to hold certain ideas, or to be deferential to a leader or someone else in the system. This pull or pressure can feel overwhelming as it seems you will be cast out of the group if you disagree or fail to behave according to the group’s standards. And the specter of being cast out is tantamount to existing in an eternal sea of nothingness. Though you cannot see any of this, the invisible process is as real as gravity.
Groups (even nations) are on a continuum of control: North Korea would be an example of a country on the high end of the continuum for control and conformity. There are very harsh consequences for even the slightest deviation from the norm or any suspicion of disloyalty. You can lose your life at the whim of those in power. Families, though they probably won’t put you to death, can be very harsh emotionally–and can certainly cast you out for “wrongdoing” or violating their norms or values.
On the other end of the spectrum is the loving, generative family system in which individuals are prized for the unique expression of life that they are. Few of us are lucky enough to come from such a family and sometimes it seems as if families like this are as rare and fabled as unicorns. Recall the cartoon from the 90’s of the Functional Families Convention with 1 person in the huge auditorium!
The lower on the continuum of control, the healthier the system. The more people are allowed to be themselves and continue to be granted membership in the system, the more the system creates individuals who are free to think, create, and become who they really are.
In the case of a family system, members cope with this togetherness/individuality problem in different ways. Some people cut off completely from their families of origin or create a geographical solution to the family pressure. But there is a better way. It is possible to strengthen your sense of self so you have a stronger immunity to the emotional pressures of a system. You can get the benefits of membership in the tribe without the liabilities of control and manipulation. When you are able to strengthen your own sense of self by really looking at what you fear the most you can gain the confidence that you will be OK with or without the support of the group. You can then express yourself without fear of the consequences.
In the end, you must have the courage to say “I’m going to show up here as myself, even if it causes others to reject me. I am strong enough to go it alone.” And you must believe you are strong enough to live life with only yourself to depend on. You cannot want or need something from the system you wish to be independent from. And if you are able to do this you become the change agent for the entire family and patterns begin to shift that may have existed for generations.
The cost of being yourself may indeed mean alienation from your family of origin or any system you belong to. However, the cost of not being yourself may be far more expensive to you in terms of your long-term health and happiness and the wellness of future generations.