When I was a teenager I found myself wearing thick black eyeliner on the rims of my eyes because my best friend at the time said it was cool. On her that is. On me it looked more like I’d been punched in the face by an angry kangaroo. My mom tried reason (just because everyone else is doing it…), fact-based evidence (mirror mirror on the wall) and history lessons (remember the time when…) but I was convinced that I had seen the light and she was just an old lady with an outdated opinion.
A few months later I found myself squeezing super glue into the keyhole of the Elementary Director’s office door, my best friend by my side hunched over, rubbing her hands and cackling evilly. That’s how I remember it at least. What happened after that was a pivotal moment in my life, one that blew my perception of people and the world to smithereens.
But for now, back to me vandalizing my school. Why did I do it? Because I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be a part of something greater. And at the time, that something greater was the bad but cool kids at school.
I forgive myself because I was a teenager and I did what so many of us do. For the sake of acceptance, we confuse conformity with belonging.
We compromise our values and beliefs so we can be ‘just like them’ and be allowed into some magical inner circle. But in ALL cases, it backfires in our faces.
My friend got caught (she had the reputation so she was the first in for questioning) and put all the blame on me. She plea-bargained and I got thrown out of school. The collateral damage was my self-esteem. How could I have compromised who I was to be part of ‘the gang’?!? I was so mad at myself. I also failed my year.
In the next school I didn’t use eyeliner or shorten my uniform skirt, I ignored the stares of horror when I came in from recess with my shirt sleeves rolled up and my face bright red from playing basketball with the boys. And eventually I found my small group of friends that wanted to hang out with me just because.
To belong or to conform? Both lead to acceptance, temporary or not. Conform and you’ll be a part of any group anywhere. Seek belonging and you have to work harder to find the right fit.
The difference? Conformity is harder to sustain and comes at a personal cost. Belonging is long term; you don’t expend energy to transform yourself.
When you belong, you are a natural part of the puzzle. You fit right in as you are. When you conform to gain acceptance, you pretty much have to slice and rearrange bits of yourself to fit into that particular puzzle.
When you conform, you give up a part of yourself. When you belong, you give a part of yourself. Conform and you are accepted for what you do. Belong and you are accepted for who you are.