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Not Fitting the Narrative │ Challenging the Shoulds

written by Erin Garwood, M.A.

“Just try to fit in.” We may say this to ourselves in a new group or an unfamiliar social situation. But what does it mean to fit in, and why do we tell ourselves to do it? Evolutionarily, we have needed to be a part of groups for safety, comfort, and overall survival. Often this need to fit in is accompanied by “should statements.” I shouldn’t be so upset. I should dress this way to look professional. I should not say, do, or think anything different than most people. My question to you is, why?

            Why should you be anything less than angry? Why should you wear something that does not truly represent who you are? And why should you ever be expected to feel shame about your identity? The societal structure that created many of the shoulds we all live by today was and is not actually representative of the people living within it. The majority culture has dictated the appropriate norms for how people should identify, wear their hair, love others, and behave in the “professional” way.

            Most people will not ever fit into this idea of normal, this narrative of what it means to be a human. Not fitting the narrative can create feelings of sadness, isolation, disappointment, and shame. To add complexity, many people will experience these outsider feelings for not one, but multiple aspects of their identity. Their intersectionality will increase feelings of exclusion from more than one group at a time. Take for example, a female medical student who is a woman of color and identifies as bisexual. Every day she defies what it means to fit the narrative simply by existing in the culture that was not normed on her. She notices the shoulds every day when she is told how to act professionally, wear her hair, and speak to her attendings. She is reminded that she does not fit the narrative, not because there is anything wrong with her, but because it was a flawed and limited narrative to begin with.

            I will not suggest that if this student can simply take pride in her identities, other people will become accepting and life will be easy. Experiencing any one identity outside of the dominant narrative may make life more difficult for her, and any emotional experiences she has because of her exclusion, are valid. I am, however, suggesting that she allow herself significant grace in challenging the shoulds that make her feel out of the norm in the first place. She deserves to feel and express her emotions in the way that feels best to her. She deserves to dress and style herself to her own satisfaction and no one else's. And she deserves to love whomever she feels attracted to. These aspects of her identity are part of what makes her uniquely herself and it is the narrative that needs to change to fit who she is.

So back to my very first question: what does it mean to fit in and why do we tell ourselves to do it? We tell ourselves to fit in because it is often the safest way to survive and navigate through the social and professional should’s.

 Now, let’s reframe the question. When will the shoulds change so people do not need to force themselves to fit in? When will the dominant narrative adapt to allow for all voices to be heard, all hair to be professional, and all emotional experiences to be valid? Maybe more importantly, what are we doing to make that time be now?


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