Rohit Malekar

July 17, 2021

The Conformity Trap

And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they all were put in boxes
Little boxes all the same
And there's doctors and there's lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

This is from the song "Little Boxes" written and composed by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. It was a hit when Pete Seeger released his cover version in 1963. The rest of the song is a satire on the then-emerging conformist middle-class attitudes in the U.S.

In more than one way, this song never became old.

A Personal Story

For the better part of my adult life, the worry over how I am being perceived occupied more mental bandwidth than it should. This was specifically true during making new relationships at work or doing a large group presentation. 

Whether it is the urge to always have the right answer or the desire to conform to the accepted patterns of presentation or necessity to portray a certain personality - all are attempts to fit in and have the same root. 

Ignorance and denial - part unawareness and part inability to accept who I am as a person. 

The Effects - Imitation for Conformity is Taxing

A wise friend once told me:

It takes extreme effort to appear as someone who you are not, it takes zero preparation to be who you are.

If our mind is preoccupied with worries about how we are being perceived, we lose the opportunity to make a genuine connection. This is true when we are meeting someone new one-on-one or on the stage delivering a message to a large audience.

When we consistently struggle to bring our true selves into our interactions at work, not only is it exhausting but we rarely can belong to the community.

Breaking the Trap - Self-Awareness and Acceptance

My relentless craving to seek external validation was rooted in my inability to accept who I was as a person.  Realizing that the shortcomings don't define me and are a mere snapshot in time helped me embrace myself as is. I found solace in co-existing with the very vulnerabilities I was wary of.

As ironical as it may seem, once I appeared who I was with all my flaws, I found greater acceptance.

That freed up a tremendous amount of mental energy to focus on the right things versus worrying about the perception others have about me. Bringing my true self, along with all my shortcomings in every conversation, 1:1 or on stage, irrespective of the audience was liberating. 

How? Find a Place of Belonging

I could offer you the list of books I read or mindfulness workshops I attended, but it is a fallacy to assume the same will help you. What you need to find is people and an environment that empowers you to be who you are today while attempting who you want to be tomorrow.

Things can only transform when they are fully allowed to be what they are.

Use your best judgment to pursue the transition sustainably. Don't forget to enjoy the ride. 

The Silver Lining

If you are in a similar boat, know that life lessons that emerge from a deep-rooted shortcoming have a silver lining. These often require extended experiential learning that lasts years but if done right, it creates such a paradigm shift that the learnings become an integral part of your identity.

Once you embrace your vulnerabilities and still bring your true self to face the rest of the world, you never go back.

Allow me to wrap it up with a verse of my own -

Ask no kid ever
“Whom do you want to
Grow up to be like?”
Since no sapling ever
Wished onto itself
Every leaf and every branch
In the exact shape like
The tallest tree on the pike