“Wow, I can’t believe we haven’t spoken since high school! What have you been up to?”
“I’ve been travelling! I’ve been to more than 30 countries, just got back from 7 years in Latin America. I’ve been working freelance online and singing jazz, and now I’m starting my path in holistic therapy, which makes my heart sing! My life has been full of adventure and learning, I’ve overcome some serious mental health stuff, given up drinking and smoking, and I’m pumped for a new direction in healing!”
“Oh. But tell me… you haven’t found The One yet?”
From a popular perspective, I’ve failed at life in many ways.
I grew up in a standard nuclear family in the ‘burbs of Adelaide where I felt we were offered a template for life, without much discussion of alternatives. Finish school, go to university, get a good job. Get a promotion, work harder, get married, buy a house, have a couple of kids. Get a bigger house and a bigger TV to put in it, go to Bali or Thailand once a year on your annual leave. Create financial security and save for your retirement, when all this work will be worth it. Drink wine every night to relax, and feel reassured that you must be doing it right, because everyone else is doing something similar.
It’s a valid life choice and I support it, but it’s just that. A choice. Instead of choosing that, I left Adelaide for London and spent 13 years travelling overseas which ended in 5 years in Brazil, where I sang jazz in bars and weddings and taught English online. I drank a bunch of mind-altering plant medicine in the jungle, studied transpersonal counselling and started my practice as a hypnotherapist, travelled some more, became a nude model, got my tubes tied and discovered I’m happiest single.
I’ve adopted and thrown off a number of spiritual practices and paths, changing them regularly like the proverbial mystical underpants and now going divinely commando. It’s not that I enjoy the cool breeze on my most vulnerable parts, it’s that all those underpants were designed by and for other people and after a brief time of wearing each, none of them fit quite right. Nothing seems to fit quite right.
Now I’m a 42-year-old pink-haired undergrad psychology student who lives in a van and travels full time. I don’t like stability, I don’t want security, and I never miss having a romantic partner. The longer I stay in one place, job or relationship, the more unhappy I become, and I am most content with an abundance of travel, my own company, sunrises and warm weather.
I am also plagued by insecurity and doubt. Beautiful landscapes, outrageous freedom and endless adventure keep it at bay for periods of time, but every now and then it shakes me awake at 2am whispering urgently… “What if you’re doing it wrong? What if you’re just failing at this lifegame? My god, what if we’re running out of time to fix it??” When I pause to compare myself to others on the issues that society deems important, these fears are highlighted. I don’t have a family, a good job, a ‘home base’, retirement savings, or possessions outside of what I’ve tetrissed into my little converted Hiace. Unlike my camping table and solar panels I don’t fit snugly anywhere, and this makes me, and other people, really uncomfortable. Social psychology has some answers to this, and if you’re nodding with enthusiastic understanding as you read this essay, you might be interested in the research.
According to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, we build our identity and ideas of ‘self’ based on the groups that we identify with. In line with this theory I might categorise myself as an Australian 40+ woman, a vanlifer, a psychology student, a hypnotherapist, polyamorous and politically left-leaning amongst other things. These social identities give us a framework on how to act and form attitudes, basic ‘norms’ that we tend to comply with as part of our groups, and group membership provides us with guidelines within which we can make decisions. Groups evaluate themselves positively against other groups, and when we sign up to them and adopt their norms, it gives us the opportunity to do the same for ourselves. In short, groups provide us with a sense of belonging, positive self-esteem, and certainty about ourselves and the world.
Except I’m an Australian who cringes at the flag as a sign of racism, refuses to celebrate Australia Day or eat kangaroo and spent much of my adulthood overseas. As a van traveller, 99% of the people I meet are either grey nomads or young European vanpackers, and in more than a year on the road, I’ve never met another 40-something solo van traveller, or another travelling student. I’m a psychology student who does not like classrooms and is twice the age of my classmates, I categorise myself as polyamorous but seldom seek relationships and identify as demisexual. Hypnotherapists make fun of psychologists, who they deem ineffectual, my psychology degree is full of digs at the failures of hypnotherapy, and I’m trying to navigate the two worlds to integrate the best of both. I’m a 42-year-old woman who is neither a mother nor a career woman, has never desired children and has no instinct toward ‘nesting’. And the result of all that is a whole lot of people looking at me incredulously asking “Really?”. And the result of THAT is a constant nagging feeling that I’m doing it all wrong, coupled with shame that I’m not attracted to the things that are ‘right’.
According to Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, we constantly compare ourselves to others across a number of domains to understand who we are, judge our own progress and evaluate ourselves. We compare ourselves to others who are like us to make sure we’re doing the right thing, so we can feel assured and validated. But what if there is nobody else who seems to be like you? What if you compare yourself to other people based on your gender and age and see that in socially salient domains you continually come up short? I have a whole lot more freedom and independence than most other women in their forties, but those dimensions are generally regarded as immature, irresponsible, or ‘running away’ from ‘reality’. Not having this framework of reassurance and certainty is a perfect petri dish for breeding uncertainty and anxiety. The path less travelled is overgrown and weedy for a reason.
Group conformity serves to make the world more predictable, allowing us to make some assumptions about how people will behave. Like it or not, we DO judge books by their covers. We utilise categories or ‘schemas’ constantly, using physical characteristics or the barest noticeable facts to make judgements about people before we’ve even exchanged words with them. If people don’t fit into our coherent, predictable schemas, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Despite a long list of positive references, whenever I begin a new housesit I can see the owner scanning my physical characteristics, making a note of my flip-flops, dreads and unmade-up face, asking questions to try and figure out what category I fit into before they leave me in charge of their home and pets.
Which brings me to the Negativity Bias. Anything we perceive as being negative is going to become the most obvious factor in how we judge someone, which social psychology suggests was an evolutionary advantage. If you meet someone who is warm, friendly and generous but has trouble making eye contact, or is secretive about some part of their life, you can bet you’ll hone in on that issue and judge everything else through that lens. She seems untrustworthy, perhaps she is being friendly and generous because she wants something? In my case, I often see people form their judgements of me based on my ‘failure’ to have a stable home, family or career, and the pink dreadlocks probably contribute. ‘Schemas’ or stereotypes are cognitively adaptive and slow to change, so once someone has formed that judgement it becomes very difficult to shift — in fact, research shows that people will overlook information that challenges their judgement and seek out clues that confirm the beliefs they already hold. And since pretty much everyone believes their way is the right way and holds some level of fear of the unknown, you can see how being ‘different’ starts to create a whole lot of discomfort for everyone.
And yet, those of us who choose it would never go back to cramming our round selves into square holes. Once you’ve broken out of claustrophobic moulds and ill-fitting templates and put even a toe on your honest individual path — whatever they may be — it’s nearly impossible to seriously consider them an option anymore. I don’t want to make choices based on how well I fit into the world — I want the world to stretch to make space for me, and those people like me, and those people completely different to me, and those completely different to anyone. The world would be a real boring place if everyone was just like you, after all.