Training Your Mind: Social Norms and Freedom of Choice
What are social norms?
According to the Oxford reference dictionary, social norms are “Common standards within a social group regarding socially acceptable or appropriate behavior in particular social situations, the breach of which has social consequences.” Social norms are unwritten rules of conduct; they are not legally binding rules, but are something that is expected from everyone in that social group.
History has shown that social norms are as intrinsic to all religious, ethnic, racial, and cultural groups as written laws or rules. We humans are social creatures. Our minds are trained to translate these unwritten rules into our own actions and reactions in our daily lives. We react to events in a way that we know to be socially acceptable for our social group. We dress according to the social norms of our group, we eat what is socially acceptable, we live where it’s socially acceptable, we associate with people that are socially acceptable for our social group.
Social Norms Create Stress and Anxiety.
Being social creatures, we crave acceptance from our families, friends, and communities. From the time we are infants, we start gaining an understanding of what makes us liked and accepted by others through life experiences. These life experiences are continuously training our minds to recognize the social norms of the social groups we are part of. To be accepted in a social group, we start changing ourselves. Over time these social norms become deeply ingrained in our daily lives, and become the basis for all of our actions and reactions.
Every one of us is a unique human being, and these forced changes over time start conflicting with our desire to be our own person, have our own thought process, have our own measures of right and wrong. The constant pressure of meeting the expectations to be socially correct slowly turns into stress and anxiety. When our focus becomes how others will judge me if I say this or do this, we start to live in the fear. Fear of losing friends or losing a job or losing a position of social prominence. Studies suggest that long term stress results in high levels of cortisol which can lead to an increase in blood cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and blood pressure. All of these are risk factors for heart disease.
Training Your Mind to recognize social norms and cultivate freedom of choice
One of the goals of our journey of training our minds is to cultivate freedom of choice which will reduce stress and anxiety. Recognizing the deep and unconscious impact social norms have in our daily lives, is one valuable step towards achieving freedom of choice.
In the early years of my journey, I often found myself struggling to come to terms with my fear of judgement from others, and losing the acceptance of people that were important to me. Before I embarked on this journey to train my mind, I had stopped voicing my opinions on any subject for many years due to a fear of judgement. Those years resulted in my gaining weight and suffering from anxiety attacks that I hid from everyone, including my best friend, my life partner. Eventually, through my quest of finding myself and daily reflection practice, I realized that I value myself much more than my fear of judgement and losing acceptance. I started choosing the social norms that made sense to me, the ones that I wanted to follow. This freedom of choice has given me much better mental and physical health over the years.
Daily reflection practice is a good starting point to recognize how social norms are defining our daily lives. This will help in cultivating freedom of choice. It can help us differentiate between the social norms we agree with from the ones that do not make sense to us. It is important to be kind to ourselves during daily reflection practice and not judge ourselves for the decisions we have made in the past.
We can start by asking ourselves questions like,
Why do I expect women and men to dress in certain ways for social events? What does my dress say about my financial standing in a social event? Why do I want a new luxury car? Why am I following a strict regimen of exercise and diet? Why do I want my child to attend Ivy league schools? Why do I want to be part of that activist group? Why do I want my daughter to learn to sing or paint or dance and be petite? Why am I sending my son to robotics or coding classes? Why am I expecting my children to go on a mission to a poor South American or African country?
This is your journey of training your mind to help you achieve your full potential! Remember to be honest and kind with yourself during this practice.