By Joanna Cannon
How much time should your kids spend online?
Ten cool things you should be watching on Netflix
Clothes you shouldn’t wear after fifty
These are real headlines, telling us what we should be reading, watching, wearing and thinking. Magazines and newspapers are filled with shoulds and should nots, musts and must nots. But we don’t read these articles to find out how much time our children should be spending on the internet, or even what we should be wearing in any given situation. We read them to make sure we’re doing the same as everyone else. We read them to make sure we fit in.
On the playground, we first begin to notice the differences between ourselves and other children, and we start to mirror the behavior of a dominant group in order to be accepted by them. This mimicry continues into adulthood, and we often unintentionally alter our speech patterns, our expressions and even the tone of our voice, depending on who we’re talking to. Familiarity is the social glue that bonds people together, and we deliberately seek out the similar and the recognizable in order to feel secure. If we’re doing the same as everyone else, we must be doing it right, and finding a reflection of ourselves in those around us is a form of validation.
The need for acceptance is a basic human instinct – although some value it more than others. We all want to fit in, to belong. In order to achieve that, we often present slightly different versions of who we are, depending on the environment and whose company we are in. We might have numerous ‘editions’ of ourselves – for work, or at home, or even online. All tweaked and modified in order to be accepted in that particular situation (of course, the question is, are we being accepted for who we truly are, or merely for the version we choose to present of ourselves?)
This duplicity works very well for most of us, but some people only have one version of themselves to present. They are unable, or unwilling, to sandpaper themselves down to fit society’s expectations, and because their behavior or appearance doesn’t quite match the herd, they are pushed further and further to the periphery of a community. These are the goats all around us, stitched into the landscape of everyone’s day, waiting at bus stops and standing in line at the supermarket. We use very strange criteria to separate the goats from the sheep. Their hair might be a little too long, their clothes a little unconventional. They may choose to live their lives in a way we don’t recognize in ourselves. They may very well also have mental health problems.
As a doctor working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who unbelong. People who stand at the edge of life’s dance floor, trying to copy what everyone else is doing, but never quite getting it ‘right’. These are people who are only ever noticed when something goes wrong when we need someone to blame. The rest of the time, they are generally excluded and ignored, because who they represent doesn’t fit into the jigsaw of a community. As a society, we struggle to deal with the unusual and the unknown. We choose the ordinary over the extraordinary. In the quest for familiarity and reassurance, we reject those who highlight our differences, because those differences question our own choices and our own sense of belonging that we’ve been working on since the playground.
The true sadness of this rejection is that community support is a huge protective factor in mental illness patients. People are much more likely to remain well if they have a network of compassionate individuals around them. Isolation is a risk factor, not only for developing mental health problems but also for exacerbating pre-existing conditions. In an already disjointed community, the support for mental health patients is almost invisible. It’s not easy being a goat in a world full of sheep.
I believe there is a little unbelonging in all of us. We spend our lives attempting to disguise it, but if you scratch the surface of most sheep, you may well find yourself with a goat. Perhaps it would be empowering to embrace our differences, rather than fear them. Instead of living our lives in monochrome, it might be more fulfilling to search for the color, and the variance, in those around us, and we can then allow ourselves to be accepted for who we really are – not for the fragments of our characters we allow people to see. The view from the edge of the dance floor could turn out to be a much more interesting one we imagined, and we could very well discover that unbelonging is actually a belonging all of its own.
Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist with a degree from Leicester Medical School. She lives in England’s Peak District with her family and her dog. She is the author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.