Recently, on a flight home from New York, I met an interesting young woman. She was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties. I was travelling with my four-year-old daughter. I must have looked tired, shabby and slightly annoyed. We had been on a whirlwind trip to New York to celebrate the marriage of our beautiful friends, Riccardo and Fillipo. We had literally just left the wedding lunch to catch our 20-hour flight home to Sydney. After a few introductory pleasantries, she told me she had been travelling a lot for her work over the last few months and had just spent a week with family and was going home to San Francisco. She was excited about a potential new job opportunity and also confided about how deeply unsatisfied she was with her current career and life. She was currently enjoying much financial success but the stress and meaninglessness of what she was doing for work had led to a reliance on sleep medication, constant worry and a
number of other potentially stress-related health ailments. In reference to my daughter she told me that she had been thinking a lot lately about her biological clock – she was single and scared that she would not find a man she would want to settle down with. She also shared with me that she had increasingly thought about having a child on her own, but was scared that after years of being driven by her own whims and desires she would not be able to cope with the change of focus that comes with motherhood and the dependence of a child. She discussed quite openly her internal struggle between knowing what she wants – a simple, more honest and values driven life- versus the fear that if she abandoned the corporate money-churning machine of big industry she would find herself “behind the 8-ball”, feeling like a failure, or letting the ‘sisterhood’ down by admitting she’s not ambitious. I immediately recognised many of the internal conflicts and struggles I have seen time and time again with my patients but also some of the conflicts I myself experience. What was rare was the beautiful and courageous openness that she had and her insights into, what generally are, deep internal processes.
The crossroad she was finding herself at was the same crossroad I often find myself in. Even years after making my decision to take the path I am on, I still often find myself at this crossroad again. The conflict arises from a clash in values. The value prescribed and handed down to us by social learning, media, and through comparing ourselves to others –the value of being comparable and similar enough to the peer group I identify with. This leads to constant questions: Do I have enough? Have I done enough? Am I living a similar enough lifestyle to my peers? Do we have a similar house? Furniture? Will my children go to a similar school? Have similar opportunities? Similar experiences? These social comparisons are a natural and evolved mental process. Once early humans began living cooperatively in social groups their chances for survival were maximised. They could now share goods and resources, divide necessary activities amongst themselves, help each other and achieve things that required people power. They could also look out for and protect each other. This huge evolutionary advantage, led to a potential huge evolutionary dis-advantage – social exclusion. Social exclusion, social isolation, social rejection now became as threatening to early humans as the potential fatality of being devoured by a lion. In order to avoid such a threat, the social processing part of the human brain started to develop in leaps and bounds. This of course is that part of thinking that is acutely aware and sensitive to other people, and in particular, processing what other people may be thinking or feeling about us. Even a relatively young baby shows very developed signs of “summing up” a person when meeting them. They may look cautiously even worriedly at a new person; they almost expect the person to make a smiling/accepting face. If this does not happen, they may smile themselves – constantly seeking signs of social acceptance (safety). A child may begin to cry and seek out safety from known others if the new person does not show these signs of acceptance. The child may become visibly distressed if a person does not show them signs of social approval.
The social brain is entirely devoted to making sure that we do not end up on society’s scrap heap. Not only is it processing information, but also it is evoking the experience of many feelings – feelings of fear, stress, hurt, distress, safety, happiness, joy, and many others. It is doing this, to create the motivation for us to keep ‘working on’ social acceptance – just like hunger pains signal for us the ongoing need to stop and eat (or if you are anything like me, a slight change in weather patterns can signal this need, a new song on the radio, a commercial break on television…. I think you get the picture. Yep! I am NEVER going to forget to eat).
There are lots of individual ‘rules’ we pick up from very young about the way to ensure our ongoing likeability. A lot of these rules are completely dependent on our socio-cultural experiences (our parents, our environment, where we live and where we grew up, the media and advertising we are exposed to, education) and possibly some inherited predispositions (such as care and compassion) and other biological factors. Many of us aren’t even aware of these rules and how often they dictate our behaviours and frighteningly our choices and life directions. There is one big overriding general rule when it comes to ensuring social approval and social acceptance and that is: BE SIMILAR TO YOUR PEERS or SIMILAR ENOUGH TO THOSE MAKING THE DECISION. Now, of course, ‘those making the decision’ is arbitrary. It is possibly quite individualistic and can be different according to place, time, demographic. However, there is much to be said about ‘popularity’. Those who are perceived as most popular tend to set the benchmark – and of course, no matter where you are on the social ladder, there is usually another rung above that you can compare yourself to. When we define ‘popular’ this again does not refer to some societal consensus – popular to you, in terms of whom you aspire to, the group and people you most identify with is very individualistic. Even those who state their independence from social peer pressure, will likely have some clear human role models they are comparing themselves to (all be it, role models that embody a sense of individualism and non-conformity). It is evolution to want to feel a part of a group – even if only theoretically or philosophically defined. Social conformity and social acceptance also feels good. It invites a sense of safety and support. It inspires intimacy, closeness and warmth. Comparing yourself to others, aspiring to be like them, learning from their actions, following their lead is a great way to achieve a similar life. It is not a bad thing at all.
The danger, is when some of our ‘rules’ about how to gain and maintain social acceptance, clash with our actual values and desires. Quite often, we begin to take on the values of the ‘popular kids’ even if they are not the group we are truly most similar to, or the group we want to be most similar to. For example, in the corporate world, many women complain about the behaviours and practices of many of their male managers. They often identify a “boys club” popular group that they do not feel that they will be accepted by. They may not agree with many of their perceived work ethics, practices and principles but many women find themselves years later adopting many such practices, making decisions about important aspects of their lives based on the perception of the ‘popular’ group and if of course, this was not a group whose practices, values and lifestyles you approved of – you end up with a life you don’t much approve of either. There may be many perks to this lifestyle – for example, higher income, more choices, greater luxuries and a higher standard of living and many of these things and opportunities may indeed provide you with much joy and happiness. However, from most reports, these joys and happiness are fleeting. The biggest giveaway: there seems to be a never ceasing cycle of wanting and needing more, more, more to feel the same level od satisfaction. There is an explanation for this too. It’s called HEDONIC ADAPTATION. This principle states that contrary to what we believe, more of what makes us happy will not make us feel happier. In fact the more we get and achieve the less exciting the getting and achieving becomes. It’s the flipside of our ability to be able to tolerate and habituate to unpleasant situations and experiences.
Research into happiness and it’s causes however, is increasingly showing that there is a way for us to achieve and maintain a sense of happiness and satisfaction with our lives. Firstly, we need to ask ourselves which ‘popular’ group we are identifying with and which ‘popular’ group we are following. Are they the same? If so, are they the groups we truly feel connected to in terms of what we value and in terms of internal fulfilment and importance? If not, we need to identify our values, identify what kind of lifestyle would bring us such fulfilment and then start looking around for role models that foot that bill. Then, with great courage we need to slowly disentangle ourselves from the behaviours and actions of the ‘popular group’. There will always be the fear that this will lead to the perception that others will think you are a failure or giving up on the dream… BUT that’s there dream and not yours. Trying to live in someone else’s dream may be a nightmare for you. You’ll also need courage to face your own inner critic who for years has adopted beliefs that the pathway to happiness lies in another direction.
I don’t know what lies ahead for that beautiful young woman. She may be lured into another high paying work contract (just one more and then she’d have enough to not have to worry) she may decide to have a child and experience motherhood. My hope and wish for her is that whatever she chooses, she chooses based on her absolute and deepest desires and not out of fear of missing out, or not fitting in or letting ‘the sisterhood down’. I hope she has the courage to see that making lots of money may cost more than she’ll ever earn.
Dr Maria-Elena Lukeides