It does matter what others think

I'm definitely an advocate of authenticity.  To some degree, we do have individual identity.  I think that people should feel a degree of freedom to voice their own opinions and do the things which make them happy. Gay people should feel comfortable dating someone of the same sex, including showing affection in public and getting married.  Someone with a proclivity for art or music or science should feel free to pursue a career in that field.  I believe that allowing for people to freely express themselves is a good thing.  However, I feel that one of the great lies of our modern individualistic society is "It doesn't matter what others think."

We are social animals.  We have evolved the trait of forming social groups.  This has many advantages over being individualistic animals.  We can band together to protect each other from predators or to hunt prey together.  We can specialize and have different individuals perform different tasks to improve quality of life for all.  Our brains actually reward us for doing nice things to other people.  We feel good when other people approve of our actions and we feel bad when other people disapprove of our actions.  This is what makes us social animals.  And it's not a magical process.  It's a perfectly explainable chemical reaction that happens inside of us.

I have come to the conclusion that we don't really have individual identity.  That is to say I cannot be a complete and whole person in total isolation.  Part of who I am is individual.  But a large part of who I am is determined by the people that I associate with.  The things that they say and think and do affect the things that I say and think and do in a big way.

As an example, I don't enjoy sports.  I don't any close friends who play sports with me.  I've known myriad people who play or who enjoy watching sports, but the close friendships that I've formed have been with people for whom sports plays a minor role in their life.  What would happen if all of my friends were athletes?  I believe that I would be athletic as well.  Does this mean I'm not being authentic by being un-athletic now?  I don't believe so.  I think that sports isn't part of my identity either way.  I can "be myself" just as easily with or without sports.  I have played basketball with friends many times and I've even enjoyed it.  There were times when I'd feel a desire to improve my skills at it.  But at the moment I have no friends who have invited me to play and I don't feel anything missing in my life because of that.

It seems apparent to me that the way other people view us plays a large role in who we view ourselves to be.  When people are kind to me or tell me that I'm a kind person and treat me as such, I'm more inclined to be kind.  When people are unkind to me or tell me that I'm an unkind person, I'm more likely to be unkind.

I see lots of posts on Facebook about "Don't try to change me."  Some are positive affirmations of authenticity.  Others are sassy or bitchy.  I think there is harm in going too far in the push for individual identity.  We are not individuals living in bubbles apart from other individuals.  We are a society.  The things we do and say affect other people around us--as they should.  When we say something positive or negative about someone else, those words have an impact on other people.  It is important to be aware not just of how our actions affect other people, but of how other people's actions affect us.

While I was Mormon, one of the effects of surrounding myself with other Mormons was that I didn't allow myself to be gay.  It was a part of myself that I kept hidden because that was something that was unacceptable in the society I was a member of.  When I decided that I could no longer hide the fact that I am attracted to other men, I was estranged from that society and found a new society where such expression is freely allowed.  I made gay friends and open-minded straight friends who affirmed my new decision of coming out of the closet and living as an openly gay man.  This helped me be more comfortable expressing myself in this way.

We say things like "It doesn't matter what other people think." and "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." to help alleviate some of the pain that we feel when someone shows disapproval of us.  But these are lies.  It does matter what other people think and words can hurt very much.  Sometimes hurting someone with words can be a good thing.  If someone is doing something bad, speaking up and saying that you disapprove of eir actions can help em see that such action is undesirable.  When someone feels hurt, ey will reflect on what ey's done and possibly change.

So much of our identity only comes from those around us.  It is not individual identity.  It is group identity.  I am a math teacher.  I cannot be a math teacher as an individual.  I can only be a math teacher in the context of a society.  I need students to teach.  I need colleagues to associate with for effective feedback on how to be a better teacher and to collaborate with on research.  Whether I'm a strict teacher or a funny teacher or a boring teacher is all affected by how I interact with my students, my peers, and my superiors.  If I get significant negative feedback, I am motivated to change.  If I get significant positive feedback, I am motivated to continue doing what I do or to do it to a greater degree.

Should I be skinny or fat?  Active or lazy?  Should I like Star Trek or Bourne Identity?  Should I eat organic?  Should I wear baggy or form-fitting clothes?  Of course, these are all choices that I can make on my own.  And I can even do research in order to make an informed opinion.  But these are also group choices as well.  If all of my friends are physically active, I will be too because they'll invite me to play basketball or jog or swim with them.  If all of my friends are Doctor Who fans, I'll watch Doctor Who with them.  If all my friends tell me I look good in baggy clothes, I'll buy more baggy clothes.

What we say does matter.  How we make people feel matters.  What other people say about us matters.  How they make us feel matters.  It's important and helpful to be socially aware and socially responsible.