There’s a High Cost to Fitting In and It’s Not What You Think
Ah, good ‘ole peer pressure. It seems like we just can’t escape it, even in our twenties. That’s right: even as a young adult, you may find yourself doing things you really can’t afford to do, in order to fit in with the “in crowd”. For example: everyone has walked into a Starbucks at some point in their life and ordered a coffee or a latte (FYI: give a celebrity’s name for your order instead of yours, it is hilarious). Sure, you can get a coffee pot and brew your own coffee at home, saving you time and money. But you want that Starbucks coffee, in a Starbucks cup. Do you know why? Because walking out of that shop with that cup in your hands says, “Hey everyone! I’m just like you! I went into a store and paid for a popular product! Please accept me!”
Fitting in is important to everyone, no matter what those after school specials told you when you were younger. Everyone wants to fee l like they belong. I work in a library at a college, and this is something I encounter every day. Students are unable to borrow anything if they have a fine of five dollars or more on their account. Whenever they approach my desk and I swipe their ID card and I see a five dollar fine on their account, I have the pleasure of informing them they need to pay the fine first or they can’t borrow. A look of shock mixed with horror slowly takes shape on their faces. My favorite reaction is “I can’t afford that!” Meanwhile, there’s a venti latte in their hand….
Then there are the people who try to fit in by using accessories…especially the ones they can’t afford. When I was younger, I worked in a department store. A young woman — probably in her twenties — came in to purchase a pair of Tom Ford sunglasses. She used two credit cards, a debit card, and cash to pay for them. As I swiped one of her credit cards and waited for the authorization, she told me that she had to have them because “two of my friends have a pair that look just like those!” Wow. I smiled as I placed the sunglasses inside their case and put the case into a little shopping bag. I thought to myself, she probably just spent the last of her money to buy something she couldn’t afford because she wanted to fit in with her friends. She wasn’t thinking about how she would pay for lunch or a metro card for the rest of the week or if she would need money for an emergency. The need to fit in was so great, it outweighed all of those other things that one would deem more important in life.
But, I’m not judging her. We’ve all experienced this, even if we didn’t act on it. I’ve turned down lunch and dinner invitations from friends and co-workers simply because I couldn’t afford to go. At the same time, I’ve spent money on certain articles of clothing because other people were wearing it and I wanted to look just as cool as them.
The funny things is this behavior isn’t one that magically emerges in adulthood … it’s something that starts when we are children. Think back to your elementary or middle school days. Other kids in your class were wearing certain brand names or participated in certain sports or activities after school. For me, that moment came in middle school. Most of the kids in my classes wore Fila sneakers. My mother was a single mother who couldn’t afford brand names like that. However, one day, after school, she surprised me by taking me to the mall and buying me a white and burgundy pair of Fila sneakers. When I wore them to school the next day, everyone noticed, and I received a ton of compliments (a few kids even commented that it was “about damn time” I wore something good). Kids who had never really spoken to me before, were suddenly talking to me, and I have to admit, it made me feel good. It made me feel normal.
There’s a cost to fitting in that we don’t realize until we are much older — and that’s that we often realize (a bit too late in life) that we spent most of our time on earth suppressing our authentic selves just to conform to an image that society has created. Living your life for other people robs you of your internal happiness. And that’s just not a way to live.
Fitting in feels like a necessary evil. We are social creatures by nature, and we need to belong to a group, however big or small. It’s a natural part of what glues people with common interests together. We want to be able to say, “Look, I’m just like you!” We don’t want to be thought of as incapable, or unworthy. It’s okay to want to fit in. However once you have come to a stage in your life where you recognize that “fitting in” doesn’t make your true self happy, then you should make the active decision to not kill yourself trying to be like everyone else. If you’re going to wear a specific piece of clothing or participate in a particular activity, do it because you want to, not because it’s popular. You can fit in without changing who you are. After all, Oscar Wilde said it best: “Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken.”