From the very moment that we’re born, we’re inundated with messages about who we are (boy! girl!), what group we belong to (Brit Milah! Baptism!), and what that means about what’s expected of us (Future President. Rebel.). We are taught the “proper” way to behave, and given very specific expectations about what is appropriate for the role that we pay.
These expectations, or social norms, are often taught to us as fact. They’re presented as “the way things are done around here,” without much consideration for context. In reality, norms are often relatively arbitrary and can change dramatically over time. For example, heels were worn by powerful men in 17th century France, women only started shaving their bodies in the early 1900s, and diamonds only became equated with engagements starting in 1947.
Some norms, like flushing the toilet and washing your hands, are pro-social behaviors that serve to protect our society’s health. Other norms, like saying “please” or “thank you” or “sorry” support our ability to function easily in groups. We learn these expectations and internalize them, meaning we integrate them fully into our own actions and belief systems. As a result, we start believing that flush and say “excuse me” are good, and that those who don’t are bad. We even apply these judgements to ourselves, feeling guilt, shame, or embarrassment when we intentionally or unintentionally deviate from this norm.
Part of growing up is maturing, and part of maturing, socially and cognitively, is being able to differentiate between ourselves and others, and differentiating between what we believe to be true and what others believe to be true. We see and expect this transformation when they join different friend groups and subsequently change their behavior. We expect it less of ourselves and other adults, but experience the change all the same. This often happens when we, or someone we love, goes through an experience that calls into question that which we have always assumed to be true. We start to see things less as black and white (abortion is always bad) and allow for nuance (abortion may be medically necessary) and alternative viewpoints (you may choose it for you, even if I don’t choose it for me).
Many adults go through this “waking up” phase when they suddenly realize that a particular norm isn’t law or Truth but the way that some folks choose to live (or alternatively, have been trained to live). Popular norms, such as drinking to have fun, keeping up with the Joneses, and explaining away actions with the phrase “boys will be boys,” begin to be questioned individually, then by larger and larger groups until the norm becomes obsolete and another norm, such as sobriety, mindful spending, or personal responsibility, carry more social weight and pressure of compliance.
With maturity and wisdom come the objectivity, self-awareness, and openness to consider your own actions in the context of the world around you and the ability to live out your own values in acts of moral courage. By nonjudgmentally recognizing a variety of points of view and embracing the tensions and paradoxes they bring, we are able to stand in integrity and make thoughtful, conscious, and intentional decisions about who we want to be and what we expect of ourselves.