Individualizing in a World of Belonging

When I was creating the title for this post, I wrote ‘individualizing’ and immediately I wondered: Is this actually a word? As it turns out, it is! But, I don’t know that the meanings of the word are quite what I have in mind, as most of the definitions seem to be about tailoring something to suit a person, or assigning a characteristic to something. What I am looking to explore is more along the lines of “becoming” an individual.

Human nature has an innate ‘group feel’ to it overall. We come into the world as an individual, however, we are immediately assigned a group; we belong to a family. Later we develop a group of peers that we associate with as well as being assigned a different classroom each year at school. We may become members of other groups by choice, including special interest groups like the drama club, or we join a sport and become the member of a team. As an adult, we develop this even further by establishing a career and joining an organization. This might open up new group options, as we may be a member of a specific team. This may trigger associations with colleagues where we become a member of a second peer group through work.

So, with this intense focus that seems to define us in the group called Human Beings, it can be difficult to re-define ourselves as an individual. Because other members of each group may try to influence us, it might seem uncomfortable to stand out. As part of a family unit, we may become afraid of being the ‘black sheep of the family’ when our personal views and choices differ from the mainstream. This is also true when forming friendships. Thoughts of not being liked, or being rejected because of these differences may cause a person to hide certain aspect of themselves in an effort to fit in.

Those of us who strive to be different and choose to celebrate their individuality are often ostracized, and in some groups made fun of, reaffirming the belief that showing individuality is a bad thing. On the other hand, hiding significant parts of who we are may not be healthy either. In my own personal experience, I was not only the black sheep of the family, I was the black sheep of every group I was ever a member of! There are reasons for this of course, but the initial outcome was that I did feel rejected a lot of the time in my groups, at least at the time. This didn’t really bother me, because I was content with who I was and not overly concerned about what other people thought of me. The most important part for me was that I did not lose myself in the process. Fast-forward several (and even many!) years later, the feedback I received is that my individuality was seen as my greatest strength and an inspiration to some of the members of these same groups – many even communicated that they wished they had the courage at the time, to do the same.

This led me to my current belief that individuality is indeed important, and it is also celebrated by people even if they do not articulate this at the time. I think we connect with other people through the various different groups we belong to throughout our lifetime, but we also connect to others through our sense of individuality. People like differences; it brings a uniqueness into all of our interactions with others. If we were all the same, how un-interesting would life be, really? We explore our individuality through the choices that we make; what we wear, who we associate with, even our career. No two people can be exactly alike, because we all make different choices, and we have different experiences.

I think a place to start in connecting with others via differentness could begin with discussing the choices we have made or are planning to make. We can find common ground with others through our choices, but we can also be empowered to make individual choices for ourselves as well without feeling a sense of judgment because of them. Perhaps we are still flocks of sheep, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add colour to our lives, and to ourselves. Not only do we need more black sheep, we need blue, green, and orange ones too.

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