I’d like you to please welcome a new writer on the Yopp platform, Eleni Stephanides! She’s here to talk about the complexities of conformity: the damage it can do, and the benefits it can yield when used well.
CN: discussion of the emotional impact of neurodivergence in a neurotypical society, brief mention of theoretical death by plane crash
“We could say that Old Survivor was too weird or too difficult to proceed easily toward the sawmill. In that way, the tree provides me with an image of ‘resistance in place.’ To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system.”
The year was 1996. As my then-six-year-old self put the finishing touches on her drawing, I looked over at the sketch of the girl next to me. It was elegant and pristine, matching (almost entirely) the image we’d been assigned to reproduce.
What I had drawn, on the other hand, looked nothing like it. It was my own rendition, with countless details changed. At the bottom of the picture, I’d written a story to explain what was happening.
This was common for me in art class. A woman with a turban became a monk carrying a bowl of fruit. A sewing machine became a friendly boat. That day, a man carrying a staff turned into a scraggly androgynous stick figure running a mop with a brick-like head across a nondescript floor.
The silver-haired teacher circled the room to assess our progress. I remember she smelled like cherry incense that day and wore a flowy floral dress.
When she reached my chair, she paused and peered down at the paper.
“Oh! That’s…” and then she trailed off. “…Not the assignment,” is what I imagine she wanted to finish her sentence with (and she would have been well within her rights to do so).
It wasn’t just in art class that I veered from the assigned task. As a kid, I disliked adhering to certain conventions, rules, and parameters. Even though I was capable of following instructions under certain circumstances, there were others—particularly the ones that made no sense to me—I struggled with more. When my parents set a limit–whether it was over time spent on the computer, with friends, or bedtime– I wanted to know the Why.
“That’s just how things are,” they’d say.
“But that’s not how they should be,” I’d retort.
The Pokemon I identified with most was Pikachu, the yellow squirrel-like creature who refused to stay inside his Pokeball. Every time his owner attempted to contain him, he’d swat the ball away with his lightning bolt tail.
When people don’t conform on at least some level, society devolves into anarchy and chaos. Yet it’s also true that conforming to the mainstream rewards some groups more than others. Those able to effortlessly conform are in a position of privilege as a direct result of this ability.
So why do some of us resist conformity at times, if going with it confers so much benefit?
Our system doesn’t take individualized needs and temperaments into account
As a kid, I often felt like the square peg. Peers and institutions enforced conformity by incentivizing heteronormativity, hyper-extroversion, and the valuation of action or doing, over thoughtfulness and contemplation; speed, and linear achievement was valued over the slower, more meandering way. These were the forces attempting to push that square shape/peg into a circular hole.
Conforming to the typical high school experience and presenting as straight when I was not, wasn’t leading to happiness. Joining a pack with whom I didn’t deeply connect also did little for my well-being.
At times encouraging conformity carries with it an assumption that we know someone better than they know themselves— or, that in the face of the common good, their needs are unimportant.
Neurodivergent folks. LGBTQ+. Kids with mental health issues. There is so much diversity of experience that to fit it all into one streamlined box of behavior is as oppressive as it is unrealistic. Women also learn to conform and concede to others’ wishes more often than men do.
Conformity leads to group contagion, which can create a domino effect of harmful behavior
Resistance to conformity can also stem from the understanding that certain bonding is held together by the unsavory glue of petty and hurtful behavior. As Sapolsky wrote,
“Conformity relates to social and emotional contagion where, say, a primate aggressively targets an individual just because someone else is already doing so.”
More specifically, group contagion is defined as “the spread of behaviors, attitudes, and affect through crowds and other types of social aggregates from one member to another” (APA Dictionary of Psychology). It’s harmful because if people are just carelessly following, they’re not using their critical thinking skills to determine whether the behavior is actually innocuous.
I once witnessed an instance of harmful group contagion when out on the road: a station wagon ran a red light after the Buick in front of him did. Later I saw it in pedestrians—one crossing despite the red light, the others mimicking him.
Not wanting to sacrifice authenticity
As Gail Honeyman wrote (from the point of view of her protagonist in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine):
“By careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy.”
Conformity is difficult for neuro-divergent folks for this reason. We might feel cramped, contained, small and artificial when we’re forced to sacrifice our authenticity. Any accolades or validation we receive might feel hollow or precarious because it was earned based on a falsity. It comes at the cost of our personal integrity.
“Living under the ceiling of societal conventions, I often bang my head,” I wrote back when I was in high school. “I break things. Because the room’s too small for me to flourish. I want my possibilities to stretch their branches high into the sky of a different world.”
Clearly, there are plenty of reasons to resist conformity. Still, to those of you who already do, I think there are some circumstances under which a slight amount of conformity can be beneficial and not completely sacrifice our authenticity.
I think back to my art teacher and wonder if, when confronted with how to respond to me, she felt suspended between two competing instincts: enforce the guidelines and parameters? Or encourage my creative tendencies?
Too much resistance to conformity and we risk crossing into hyper-individualism. Too little, and the vortex of societal expectations and roles selected for us by other people may swallow us whole. We may lose what makes us ‘us’ to the homogenous masses. We may fail to self-actualize.
It’s important, even necessary, to occasionally push past our comfort zones. Resisting doing exactly what we want one hundred percent of the time is key for harmonious relationships, as well as for individual growth and expansion of our skill sets. I see how under certain circumstances, an obsession with individuality carries with it a certain amount of conceitedness—if we never conform, we’re essentially saying our way is best.
And maybe it is best for us; it’s no one’s place to tell us how to think and behave on matters that have more to do with our own individual journey and self-actualization than theirs.
Still, no one is a human island. We all relate to others. Complete refusal to conform would work in a world where each of us was an entirely separate being. And that world sounds lonely.
There is value in the cooperativeness and collectivism that conformity often makes possible. Others have lessons to teach us. Different points of view can shine a light on our blind spots. Conforming, if only slightly while still honoring our innate preferences, can add richness to our lives. It can also protect us and keep us in check.
Take the following example of a hubristic pilot that Dr. Steve Orma writes about:
“Bob doesn’t consider the advice of a professional whose expertise is guiding pilots safely to the ground. Bob does it his way to show what a big man he is. He evades vital information that would have helped him land safely, and instead, he crashes.” (drorma.com)
Perhaps an understanding of his motivations for anti-conformity could have allowed him to see that, under certain circumstances, there can be exceptions. It’s possible to honor your individualism while still listening to the knowledge of authority. The two aren’t entirely mutually exclusive.
I also have no doubt that an anti-conformist mentality helps those of us who have felt societally undervalued to honor our own unique vision. Quietly sticking to our guns trains us to treasure our hearts and minds. It intimately acquaints us with aspects of our inner worlds and authentic proclivities.
That these internal assets hold value is an important reminder to carry close to our hearts. What may be most important is understanding our motivations—so that when we do conform, we know it’s coming not from peer pressure, but from a grounded place within.
Eleni Stephanides is a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter who enjoys writing about psychology, queerness, and social justice. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, Peaceful Dumpling, The Mighty, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium at https://medium.com/@