There’s an oft-used phrase that I think fits very well for many of the unconscious social constructs we often (nearly always?) find ourselves trapped in:
The Circular Firing Squad
While the phrase is most accurately used to describe situations where groups are engaged in self-destructive and internal conflicts and recriminations, I’m bending it here to mean… well, actually, pretty much the same thing. It’s may not necessarily always be as destructive as the phrase implies (sometimes it may be Nerf weapons), but it still is quite similar.
What I mean here are all those situations where we are behaving in a certain way because we know everyone else expects us to behave that way, and we can see them all behaving that way… but the only reason everyone else is behaving that way and the reason they expect you to do so is for the exact same reason: they also think you, and everyone else, expects it, and they also are following what you, and everyone else, is doing.
Which can lead to unproductive and deleterious but also sometimes hilarious situations. Like how we often worry that we’ll be judged by others… when everyone else is also, simultaneously, worried they’ll be judged by us. So much so, that they, and we, are often not judging them because we’re too worried about being judged. It’s kind of delightfully absurd, isn’t it? How fascinating!
Of course, we do indeed often judge others – it’s a human thing to do – but our little and “normal” bit of judging is further encouraged and enhanced to an unproductive level by us creating and then living inside a context (or, more often, many contexts) that fosters and even demands judgement. “If everyone judges, then I’d better judge to! (And get them first)!“ is a first level of this, but additional contexts, such as that of vertical individuality, push it even further until we’re in a full prison where we spend 90% of our time judging others, and the other 90% of the time worried about being judged. No wonder we’re frazzled.
There’s a social capital “game” going on here, one that is, again, something quite human to do and not necessarily an issue. It may even be necessary for a vibrant community. But the unhealthy levels to which we play the game are driven only because everyone else is similarly playing it. We see people out to get us, but they’re only doing so because they think we are out to get them. And then we do go out to get them, because we think they’re out to get us, so we’d better get them first, which causes them to react in kind, which confirms our suspicions and… boom. We’re caught in the circular firing squad.
How easy is it to see these and free ourselves from them? Individually, it’s not that difficult. We can recognize and not choose to play the game, or to play the game on our own terms in ways that are productive for all. And the best part is that when we do so, we unconsciously give others the freedom to also forego the game.* We can engage in more authentic ways; we can be free and self-expressed and at peace. It’s a glorious thing.
The more we practice and lay down our metaphorical arms, the larger our circles of freedom become, and we begin to create new types of circular squads, squads of joy, love, support, excitement, creativity, peace, and more.
* Though it may take them a little while to get over their ingrained habits and fears.