There is a definite need for conformity in any society. I conform to social norms every time that I get in my car and drive on the correct side of the road, obeying the speed limits and using my turn signals. I conform when I pay the taxes that our government uses to provide services that benefit me and other members of my community, be it on the city, state, or national level. I conform when I wear clothing outside, when I pay my utility bill, when I keep my yard neat, when I say "Excuse me" when I pass in front of another person.
But there are also many ways in which I don't conform. My shoelaces never match, and they're never the same ones that came in the box with the shoes. I don't wear suits and ties, for I find them constricting and uncomfortable. I don't buy the latest fashions, and I don't buy books or see movies or watch television shows just because they're popular. I don't adopt patterns of speech just because everyone around me talks a certain way, and I have a car that's functional and comfortable and inexpensive, not impressive.
Conformity at its root is not a negative thing. Our conformity helps others to be able to depend upon us, which is a great gift to give them. When our actions are somewhat predictable, others can feel more at ease around us. This type of conformity is the result of conscious decisions on our part, decisions that we will be helpful, contributing members of our communities.
On the other hand, there is what I call "blind conformity," and that's the type of conforming that is not the result of any thought or desire for the greater good. This is the type of conformity that causes us to make decisions based on what we think other people will think of us. We buy certain brand names because the people we want to impress will be impressed with our taste if we do. We do certain things because we believe that we're doing what we're "supposed" to do based on the ideas and reactions of other people. We engage in a great deal of destructive behavior, be it smoking, drinking, casual sex, drug use, vandalism, or any of a number of such behaviors because we want others to approve of us.
The simple fact is, though, that if others approve of us only because of our willingness to conform to what they think is right or proper, then those people very obviously aren't worth it. Their approval should mean nothing to us if it's conditional, based upon only our conformity.
Conformity is strongest when we're in our teens and trying to fit into our own place in the world. But it's not limited to the teen years, and almost all of us continue to make blind decisions based upon what we believe others will think of us. The man in debt who pays $40,000 for a new car or the woman who has a closet full of expensive dresses or shoes that she almost never wears, but which she bought because she knows that her friends or associates approve of the brand names are deciding to buy not based upon realistic criteria, but upon a need to conform.
They need to be seen being "right." Doing the "right" thing, buying the "right" car or clothes.
But we don't need to be right. There are tons of people out there who will accept us just as we are in just what we're wearing.
When we conform blindly, we sacrifice our individual authenticity, our unique personalities. We don't allow people to know us as we are, but as we think they want us to be. We'll never be doing more than playing a role, though, as if we were actors in a play or a movie.
Breaking away from conformity takes courage, and it takes complete honesty at the moment of making a decision. We must be honest with ourselves and ask "Am I doing or buying this because I want to, or because I think others will approve of me if I do?" And then we must be brutally honest with the answer, for only then can we start to make decisions based upon who we truly are and what we truly want and like.