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Fit in or F Off

Do you find yourself making the effort to 'fit in'- to your workplace, your university or your school? Perhaps even at home or socially. Do these environments require you to think, act, behave, dress, or do things in a particular way and to be a particular sort of person? Does this constant effort to 'fit in' drain you? When you make this effort to 'fit in', you are being someone you are not; you are masking something about yourself and letting others shape how you should be.

Wouldn't it be great if you could just be yourself? Wouldn't it be great if you enjoyed a culture where people are encouraged to be themselves and they are valued for who they are? No need to mask differences - of personality, mental or physical health, gender, race, religion, sexuality, patterns of thinking, ways of doing things, choices of personal style and presentation and so on. In this culture, which I call a culture of evenhood, you can be yourself, you feel comfortable, resilient and happy. You can perform and be effective by doing the things that you are good at, in the way that you know best and by displaying your true and whole self.

Let me tell you why this isn't an idealistic nirvana, but an easily achievable and realistic aim. Come on a brief thought-experiment with me.

Start by imagining the most resilient creature you can. Create a picture in your mind's eye of that resilient, contended creature that is able to fulfil its purpose and desires; without stress, obstacle or unnecessary challenge. If I were asked this question I'd choose a chunky-looking, silver-backed gorilla, who I'll call Resilient Trevor.

​The next step in this thought experiment is to zoom out a little bit. Look at your creature in its natural environment. I'd think of Resilient Trevor as living in a lush jungle - a comfortable, warm place, surrounded by fruit, fresh running water and the company of other gorillas. Here, Trevor can be himself, fulfil his purpose and feel contented.

Now for the really interesting part. What I'd like you to do next is move your resilient creature to a totally different environment. I'm going to put Resilient Trevor in the Antarctic.

Remember - this experiment is all about the most resilient creature you could imagine; but what's happened to its resilience now? I think Trevor would find it extremely challenging in this cold, hostile environment, with only fish for food and the company of penguins. If he continued to just be himself, he wouldn't last long.

What options are there to improve Trevor's resilience and wellbeing.

One option would be for Trevor to adapt and 'fit in'. Trevor would need to work hard at evolving himself into something more closely resembling a Polar Bear - with extra layers of fat, thicker fur, the ability to catch fish and feeling comfortable with the company of penguins.

This adaptation, or evolution, is properly hard stuff - exhausting, challenging and unlikely to result in a good outcome. Given that we're using our imagination in this thought experiment, we could work hard to manage the situation - to improve Trevor in our mind's eye to help him evolve and 'fit in' to this hostile environment.

There's a second option though, that's far easier for Trevor. This alternative solution is for Trevor to return to an environment that he feels comfortable in. His natural environment. The lush jungle.

So, what do we learn from this thought experiment?

The first lesson is that resilience, contentment, inclusion and belonging is neither absolute nor intrinsic. You and I can never be infinitely resilient - regardless of the environment we are in. Our resilience depends on our environment as much as it depends on ourselves. My ideal environment is highly unlikely to be your ideal environment. What right have I got to impose my way of being, doing and behaving on you. And vice versa. Yet we see this all the time in the cultures that we experience when working, studying, socialising or living.

The second lesson flows from the first. If you feel like you don't fit in, if you feel like your resilience is suffering, if you don't feel included - this isn't about you, it's not about you lacking resilience, it's not your fault. You are a wonderful human being; able to perform and be effective in the right environment. If you are required to 'fit in' to an environment that doesn't suit you, don't beat yourself up and certainly don't allow anyone else to tell you that you need to adapt or that you need to become more resilient. Perhaps they need the feedback that they ought to treat you with a sense of evenhood and let you be yourself, value you for who you are, trust you, be kind to you, show you compassion and care.

The third lesson is that you have choices when faced with a harsh environment. Of course, sometimes you might want to stretch yourself, be challenged, learn a new skill or develop a new talent. If you consciously make this choice and are comfortable with the decision you make, then you can accept a certain level of discomfort, while you work hard to achieve your goal, knowing that you will be happy with the outcome. But if this is not your goal, then you have an alternative choice; which is to not accept the harsh environment you are in. Instead, you can create or ask for an environment that you feel more comfortable in, which helps you be yourself, so that you can perform and be effective.

Having learned these things, what can we do to create this easy and achievable nirvana in which we can be ourselves? First; ask yourself: "what does a challenging day look like for me?" Define that challenging day - raise your awareness of all the big and small things that happen in your life that seem hostile, that require you to work hard to fit in, that chip away at your inner resources and damage your resilience. Once you can define what it is about your working, studying, home or social environment that you find challenging, then you have worked out exactly what your personal Antarctic looks like. When you've done that, you can make choices about how to handle those challenges. Second; ask yourself: "what does a good day look like for me?" Again, define what a good day looks like in intricate detail. Once you can define what it is that helps you stay resilient, to feel included, to be yourself and to perform and be effective, then you have worked out exactly what your personal lush jungle looks like. When you've done that, you can make choices about how to spend as much time as possible in an environment that works for you. Third, one of the best things you can do for each other is create a culture of evenhood - show kindness, respect, humanity and compassion to each other. Encourage the people around you to be themselves. Value them for who they are. Help them perform and be effective. And ask others to treat you this way in return, so that you can be yourself and feel valued for who you are.

Fourth, tell others what a good day and what a challenging day looks like for you. In a culture of evenhood, your colleagues, friends and loved ones will support you to have the environment that works best for you - so share with each other what your personal lush jungle looks like and what your personal Antarctic looks like.

Those four things are remarkably easy to achieve.


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