The cages you live in: Understanding social conditioning

I’ve done my research and learned this: Ten is when we learn how to be good girls and real boys. Ten is when children begin to hide who they are in order to become what the world expects them to be. Right around ten is when we begin to internalize our formal taming. Ten.

Glennon Doyle

I bet that little quote has you feeling a little bit alarmed. I bet you have a bunch of questions running through your mind.

  • Have I been tamed?
  • Wait, what – am I tame?
  • What parts of myself have I hidden?
  • Have I been caged? Do I even know that I am caged??
  • That thing I don’t really like, but that I feel like I need to do, is that because its some sort of “formal taming” that I have internalized?

But, here’s the thing — writing like this is really compelling, ButAndAlso, it is related to one woman’s journey and how she chose to frame and present her journey to you, the reader.

Here’s the other thing to remember:

Human beings are social animals. A large part of how we show up in the world is influenced by our social and cultural conditioning.

On one hand, this is actually important — it’s not really “taming”. Understanding how to behave appropriately helps us to fit in to society and be accepted by our peers. In fact, a large part of childhood development and learning occurs within a socio-cultural, political, and historical context.

On the other hand, social conditioning does have its problems. It leads to the development of unconscious biases — which shows up in the way we respond to questions of race, ethnicity, caste, gender and more. Problems like blind consumerism and unquestioning devotion to hustle culture stem from social conditioning. Social conditioning also gives rise to herd mentality and susceptibility to propaganda.

Oh, and by the way, social conditioning starts between the ages of 8 and 10, but it never stops. We are exposed to social conditioning throughout our lives. Which is why the influencer industry is so hot!

Our tendency to align our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of the people around us — which is also called conformity — is not inherently positive or negative. It is simply how we develop psychologically. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a downside to conformity.

If conformity is driven by fear, it is often negative. As an example, the Holocaust illustrates the dangers of unchecked conformity and blind obedience to authority.

Which is why, as Margaret Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” Though that is easier said than done — we all tend to fall into social and cultural patterns with our thinking. But when we learn how to think for ourselves, it becomes easier for us to decondition ourselves.

A word for the wise: deconditioning takes time and sustained effort, and more often than not, a crisis of identity leads to a period of focused deconditioning.

The cages we live in: the influence of social and cultural conditioning

Make yourself fit. You’ll be uncomfortable at first, but don’t worry—eventually you’ll forget you’re caged. Soon this will just feel like: life.

Glennon Doyle

Again, it sounds so compelling. Because whose life isn’t a bit uncomfortable?

It’s a seductive idea: a life of ease, without any discomfort, where everything flows. Entire businesses have been built on selling us this idea. But, newsflash: discomfort is a part of living. And we do, often, need to fit in — at least to a certain extent — too. Just ask anyone who has been ridiculed and bullied for being too different.

There’s a reason why we are all looking for our tribe or community — that’s where we can be more fully ourselves, with people who understand us much better. There is a place for being rebellious and radical, too, and many of us take up those roles and spaces. But again, nuance is important. It’s much easier to be swept up by a compelling story than it is to sit back and critically examine it.

The fact is, much of how we live our lives as adults is predicated, for good or bad, on our social and cultural conditioning. We pick up cues on what relationships and success look like from what we see modeled around us at home and in society.

A lot of the things we acquire are also driven by the influences we are exposed to — be that within our social circles, on social media or through advertising. To a large extent, this creates the aspirational goals that we set for ourselves in our teens and early 20s.

Many of us end up going through life constantly looking at our external environment for validation. When we are unsure of what course of action to take, we more often than not poll friends or family. We tend to look to public opinion or societal mores to determine if we are living our lives well, if we are successful, and to determine what we should want, feel, think and value.

But at some point, you may begin to question if what you are chasing truly matters to you. If the constant consumerism is really making you happy. If the success you have been chasing is what you really even want anymore. This often leads to what is called a dark night of the soul or a crisis of identity — a time during which you question your sense of self or place in the world. This can happen at various times throughout our lives, particularly during periods of significant change, such as the start or end of a relationship; after graduation; when we switch jobs, careers, or cities; or even during the recent pandemic.

Breaking the cage: how to decondition yourself

“Culture affects us. It’s transmitted to us through different processes, with socialization—our internalization of society’s values, beliefs and norms—being the main one.”

Dalton Conley, Professor of Sociology, New York University
Photo by Joshua Abner on Pexels.com

Dealing with a dark night of the soul can be difficult. Suddenly, things that you took for granted are called into question. The foundations on which you built your life so far seem shaky or crumble completely. You could feel a loss of your sense of self, unmoored and unsure of where you are headed, with no light to guide your path and no shore in sight.

While this can be a challenging time, remember that the liminality can be fertile and that looking inside for answers can yield the richest fruits.

Here are some questions that can help you determine if what you’re pursuing really matters to you, of if it’s just part of your social conditioning.

  • Why do I want what I want? – Is it something that you need? Something you think you cannot live without? Why? Or is it something that you think you need (due to cultural messaging, because all your friends have or want it)?
  • How long have I wanted it? – Is this a new desire? Or have you dreamt of achieving it since a long time?
  • Is there a specific person behind what I want? – What gave rise to this desire? Was it a friend or family member? Does it seem like an “unmissable opportunity”? What will happen if you miss it? How will it impact your life?
  • What do I get after I achieve it? – Happiness? Growth? Personal gratification? Prosperity? Or are you doing it just for the sake of doing it?
  • Are you just settling down with what is convenient or known because it feels too difficult to search for your own answers?
  • If there was a possibility that you may not succeed in obtaining your desire, would you still pursue it?
  • If no one were to know of your accomplishments, would you still do it?

Flying free: living more authentically

I looked hard at my faith, my friendships, my work, my sexuality, my entire life and asked: How much of this was my idea? Do I truly want any of this, or is this what I was conditioned to want? Which of my beliefs are of my own creation and which were programmed into me? How much of who I’ve become is inherent, and how much was just inherited? How much of the way I look and speak and behave is just how other people have trained me to look and speak and behave?

Glennon Doyle

Untangling your sense of self from societal expectations is just one part of the puzzle. Then comes the more difficult task of determining what it is that YOU want and developing the mindset that will allow you to go after it.

Very often, we become masters of rationalizing our frustrations. We believe that we have no option but to stick with a job we hate or a marriage that has grown stale because that’s what adults do. We become, as British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott put it, “too good”. We’re unable to say no, because that’s how we have been conditioned by our earliest caregivers, who “would have viewed the expression of their authentic feelings as a threatening insurrection they had to quash.”

According to Winnicott, such individuals need to learn how to be “bad”, by which he meant that we would need to find the inner freedom to do the things that we want to do even if it appears disconcerting to others. No one else can ever answer the most important questions of our lives, because their “instincts about what’s acceptable haven’t been formed on the basis of a deep knowledge of our unique needs.”

In other words, we need to look within to find the courage to be free, which means to no longer be beholden to the expectations of others…to be devoted, even though it may seem difficult, to meeting our own expectations.

We do this by taking the time to question our beliefs and desires, to get quiet and listen to ourselves. By developing the confidence in ourselves and our own inner compass to take radical decisions and stick with them By daring to imagine a truer, more meaningful, more whole-hearted life for ourselves. And by being willing to act in accordance with what we learn.

“Don’t let the expectations and opinions of other people affect your decisions. It’s your life, not theirs. Do what matters most to you; do what makes you feel alive and happy. Don’t let the expectations and ideas of others limit who you are. If you let others tell you who you are, you are living their reality — not yours. There is more to life than pleasing people. There is much more to life than following others’ prescribed path. There is so much more to life than what you experience right now. You need to decide who you are for yourself. Become a whole being. Adventure.”

Roy T. Bennett

Glennon Doyle did get one thing right: we are all living in cages, many of them dictated by our society and culture. We do need to get out of some of those cages, but some of cages are also an essential part of helping us to live as functioning, contributing members of society. Some of those cages are the rooms that you come to inhabit — they may need some re-arranging from time to time, but not all of them need to be dismantled and rebuilt.

Get your nerd on: A fascinating report on how people learn – available to read online: How People Learn II

All of Glennon Doyle’s quotes are from her book, Untamed

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4 comments

  1. I am certain, the Universe conspired to make me read this post. This post is exactly what I needed to read today. Throughout the post, I was nodding my head. Each and every word in this post echoed what I think and feel. I cannot thank you enough for writing this post. I only thing I desperately feel like doing is giving you a tight hug. Such a lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for pointing me to this post Shinjini. What a wonderfully in-depth write up! You’re so right when you say that when we have confidence in ourselves and can depend on our own inner compass we can shed conditioning and take decisions the way we truly want.

    Liked by 1 person

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