Dissolving Tension Between You and the Group

Monday, July 22, 2019
Pasadena, California

Dissolving Tension between You and the Group

Firstly, you can’t completely dissolve it because, well, it is you.

You cannot completely divorce yourself from whichever group to which you belong.

For example, I’ve recently been interested in the podcasts, lectures, and interviews of Canadian psychologist and philosopher, Jordan Peterson. I had little interest in joining any group related to him, or anyone else for that matter. However, my interest in his ideas, creating a certain group identity for me, were greeted by sets of extreme reactions:

On the one hand, some people said:

Whoa, Alan, he’s so amazing! The public intellectual of our time, full of useful ideas, helpful to many around the world, and inviting of a much-needed discourse of ideas.

On the other hand, others said:

Are you kidding me? The guy’s an anti-woman, far right, misogynist who should be banned from speaking on university campuses.

I am not exaggerating, not in the least.

Of course, I’ve been greeted by some in-between statements, like “who’s he?” or “I heard he’s an intense guy.” But, for the most part, I’ve been exposed to these two extremes—often by people who haven’t actually even heard him speak.

How did such extreme group identities evolve, and how can they be dissolved?

As just noted, you cannot completely dissolve yourself from any group identity because you live within it.

Think of the various ways you define yourself:

Wife, mother, friend, physician, or Republican.

Each of these represents a group identity.

The way you view yourself, and they way others view you, become defined, at least in part, by your membership in the group.

If at a party of strangers, and someone approaches you to initiate a conversation, chances are you’ll rely on these group identities to describe yourself, at least initially. It’s called small talk, and for once, a phrase accurately describes a process. It is small because it’s superficial, lacks depth, and invites generalizations.

(These days, because of the polarization in the world-community, you might leave out Republican; But, then again, you may lead with it).

Let’s take them one at a time:

Wife, mother, and friend are well-established social roles, easy to understand by anyone you meet.

Physician opens potential doors to inquiry. Many types of doctors exist. The word will still place you in a relatively prestigious position. Some may feel impressed; others may make further inquiries of the subgroup of that particular group. If sophisticated, for example, the person at the party might ask,

What’s your specialty?

Here, multiple group identities pop into possible existence. If you reply surgeon, that implies danger, greater prestige, and, perhaps, suspicion.

Plastic surgeon?

Well, maybe you’re in it for the money.


That’s unusual for a woman, sadly, the person at the party might think. And, it implies risk, exposure to real tragedy like brain tumors, and membership in a particularly exclusive club.

Defining where individuality encounters group identity usually requires some degree of intimacy.

This ain’t easy.

The mid-20th century psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, famously wrote:

It’s a joy to be hidden; it’s a tragedy not to be found.

The simple statement captures the tension we feel regarding revealing our more personal selves to others. It’s nice to remain hidden behind our group identities, as noted above; however, we’re never really seen as individuals when seen only within our group identity.

Consider the infinite varieties of individuality existing within those groups. I offer one fictional depiction of this woman at the party, the member of the four distinct groups just noted.

Wife, for example, has infinite subsets. Perhaps she’s having a long-term extra-marital affair, rendering her not-the-greatest wife. Perhaps she’s separated, or well into the process of divorce. Perhaps, yes, she’s married, but her husband lives in Saudi Arabia and she sees him once per year. Or, perhaps she’s married, lives with her husband, and hates him every single second of every day with him.

The group indicated by the term, mother, similarly has infinite variations. Perhaps she’s overly involved, enmeshed, or way too distant from her children. Perhaps she’s Chinese (another group), grew up in China, and adhered to the one-child policy. She was an only child, and now she has but one child herself. Alternatively, what if she has ten children? The possibilities of how she individually manifests motherhood are, quite literally, endless.

You get the point.

I won’t belabor friend, because variations are obvious.

Republican is interesting, mostly because of our highly polarized political environment.

Did you vote for Trump?

These days, that could end friendships, or perhaps even render tenuous this fictional woman’s stature as mother, friend, or wife. Some husbands, friends, and children would disown anyone who voted for Trump.

Empathy and dialogue seem the primary means of resolving this tension between individuality and group identity.

Empathy means, naturally, deeply and openly listening to the other persons’ group identity, understanding where their individuality lies within it, and asking for more detail. This can apply equally to examining yourself as to being examined by others.

Just where do you lie within the group identity in which you find yourself?

Do others in your life show sufficient curiosity to find out who you are within the potential confines of the group?

These methods, empathy and dialogue, are, again, the primary means of bridging the endless tension between individuality and group identity.

Brief exchanges through text or Twitter or social media will rarely suffice to invite individuality into the light of day. In fact, these modern technologies are significantly responsible for the mob mentality painfully common in our era.

If you dare, identify your most prominent group identities—American, Hispanic, female, short-order cook, Democrat, progressive, a baseball fan, or whatever.

Then ask yourself:

What, specifically, are the sub-identities I display within each of these groups?

Invite others to ask you the same question.

Eventually, you’ll find liberation from being oppressed by the assumptions group identities brings—to self and other.

But, and again, you’ll never fully escape identifying with a group.

It’s just not possible. You’d quite literally go crazy because, no matter how oppressive, no one escapes group identity.

Carl Jung brilliantly wrote that, because the world is way too complex for our comprehension, we live within a dream-like bubble. Within that bubble lies a much smaller bubble of rationality. In essence, we form much of our personal dream, our story, from group identities.

Nonetheless, if you love freedom, and if you want to raise the flag of individuality, use empathy and dialogue to delve into the endless varieties of individuality thriving within your particular story.

(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom right, and signing up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)

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