The delicate balance: between belonging and individuality

          Human beings are innately social. We are made to connect with each other, something that social psychologists call <<eagerness to affiliate>>. Except for cases such as autism and very few people with characters prone to ostracism -anomalies-, we all look forward to bonding. Because, in fact, we need it. We are internally ‘wired’ for that.

          However, such inclination to have friends, to build relationships and to socialize coexists with other kind of motivations. Once we are included in a certain group, for instance, we may seek standing out within it. The friend who always arranges parties, the most energetic player in the team, the most ambitious employee of the department, the cousin who always acts up in family meetings…

          One of the most intriguing alternative motivations -when it comes to fulfilling that drive to relate with others- consists in a concern (not minor at all) to keep a certain distance from the demands that surge in any relationship. Anthropologist Michael Wesch holds that people crave both connection and freedom. Such dichotomy generates a tension that leads us to sometimes open up… and close off in other occasions. As Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris highlight (authors of We Feel Fine) we are frequently torn between building relationships and maintaining freedom from the constraints that those relationships impose.

          This might be, in terms of relationship dynamics, one of the hardest challenges of our modern life. We must surely know that girl who went through a lot of pain to seduce her boyfriend but nowadays has strong arguments with him about preserving her personal space. Or that guy who is not able to conciliate work with social life. None of these people are inconsistent. It is just that, as everyone, they face a particular unease derived from the internal conflict of interests.

          What happens underneath is that we carry within diverse systems struggling to get satisfied. Particularly, our eagerness to affiliate finds itself counterbalanced by our requirement of independence. We need both to belong (to a team, to any network of relationships, to a two-part bond) and to be individual (having our own and original attributes, our genuine features which make us unique). We cannot allow losing our being condition, our essence, no matter what we are part of. Neither do we tolerate isolation in blind defense of a personal characteristic: we’ll end up by giving in. As soon as one system eclipses the other, everything turns messy. It is a matter of delicate balance.

          This anthropologist Wesch is wise indeed in observing that many modern linking tools have allowed us to find this balance. Technologies like blogs or social networks such as Facebook and Msn offer the promise of connecting without the constraints of commitment, which is why they have become so successful. There is a particular combination of physical distancing with emotional exposure (through pics, for instance) which provides some kind of à-la-carte recognition: accessible every time we turn the computer on. No need of getting exposed to flesh and bone rejection.

          Still, I believe this has cons. In terms of technology, social networks are very rich and über-exploitable new tools. But if they are assumed as the only palliative –as a spare wheel- to achieve balance between belonging and individuality, we’ll get bogged down. This emotional design we carry within, although in our modern life causing the tension derived from opposite motivations, has been forged after many thousand years of tête à tête evolution. Face to face. The best way to reach the delicate balance is by practicing in real experiences, not simulated ones.

          Let’s pay attention to what happens when we are kids. We’ll find the naked way in which we build our social skills. Since we are children we know very well how to use a personal feature that makes us stand out from the rest in order to attract friends and gather them around. Probably the speed at the playground, or (for boys) the best toy car, or else (for girls) the prettiest dress. We would put one system at service of another so as to synergize its effects: we exploit what makes us unique in order to achieve recognition and belonging, finally truly embraced.

          That is just one example, but I want to make it explicit: it is only that way we will get to learn to drive ourselves among all our needs towards our peers. Otherwise we could end like Groucho Marx, who used to say “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”. Pure contradiction. Or like a classmate of primatologist Robert Sapolsky contending that “a relationship is the price you pay for the anticipation of it”.

          I know people who seem to dissolve every time they start a new bond, not being autonomous any more. I know many others who go with the flow without even stopping to ask themselves if that’s what they truly want. Without paying attention to their inspiration. On the other end, I know fierce individualists who would moderate their own interests for no one at all, and finally find themselves completely isolated. All of them suffer.

          Throughout life experience we should manage to be part of what we want without having our most intimate freedom weakened. Thus, we’ll achieve to work in an organization not feeling a number. We’ll achieve to make friends and keep the characters that make us unique and exceptional without getting confused by fashions or massive tendencies. We’ll achieve to avoid being misled by fulfilling expectations of others. Those ‘others’, of course, we also love and need.

          The delicate balance between belonging and individuality, both equally worth.




  • Kamvar, Sep and Harris, Jonathan (2009), We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotions; Scribner, New York; (p.17).
  • Sapolsky, Robert (2005), El Mono Enamorado, y otros ensayos sobre nuestra vida animal; Paidós Ibérica; Barcelona, 2007; (p.95).
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