Is Conforming a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?


The answer is: it can be a good thing, supportive of community, as long as you don’t sacrifice in order to conform. It can be harmful to you when done to avoid feelings of shame, of not fitting in, and wanting to be “good.”

Conforming to the rules or expectations of others without examining them can lead to all kinds of hidden rebellion that may violate your own values.

Think about how you were trained to conform from the time you were very little. Cultures of the world train people to uphold certain rules and behaviors.

Parents. Beginning as a child, doing what you are told, believing that your parents know what is best for you, and not questioning. When this goes well, a child will become integrated into the world around him or her. The child gets to fit in and belong – two very important supports of a good life. When going badly, children live in conflict between what they intuitively grasp as real, and the requirements to believe what is presented as real.

Teachers. Believing that they are right, doing what is expected without questioning, believing that high grades mean something about your worth as a human being. This is a shame-ridden use of learning, in contrast to the natural desire to learn all about one’s life and developing skills to live in good ways.

Church. Going because you want to be given the rules to follow to be a good person. This kind of conforming doesn’t allow the positive use of religion and spirituality that is possible when checking in with what is real for you.

Spouse. Doing what your spouse wants, treating the children like he or she does, and are monogamous because it is “right.” Listening to criticism, and making yourself into what he or she expects. Better to check in with oneself in order to see what is the best way to be a spouse and a parent.

Employment. Conformists will learn the nature of the job, and carry it out. They will seek approval and want externally defined success. However, they will have less ability to think for themselves, or to think well about a task that has no rules. They can’t access their creativity as well as others can, and they may inadvertently create conflict among others because seeking approval comes before a team approach to getting things done well.

All of us want to be ourselves, make our own decisions and choices, and maintain a sense of who we are. If we give that up, our spirit will rarely allow us to do it all the time. So we will use methods of maintaining a sense of control over our lives in spite of looking good on the surface.

The experience of this can require breaking some of the rules.

I’m going to give some examples of breaking rules in order to maintain oneself, but these very same examples could be for different reasons. For instance, affairs can be in order to break rules, but it can also be an example of Avoidant Attachment, a way to manage an unsatisfactory marriage, or a way to leave one.

Sexual acting out, including affairs
Lying – which goes with sex outside the marriage, but will also be done for its own sake.
Separating life out into compartments so that you may not even know that you are trying to maintain your sense of self. These compartments include work, children, hobbies, sports, friendships not shared with spouse and family, reading compulsively, and an infinite variety of others.

I counseled one sex addict about not just doing what his wife wanted, not just obeying her, but instead to set out to repair the marriage for himself. This might include the same behaviors, but they would be motivated by understanding, not by rule following. They include leaving his phone out for her to see, and putting internet blocking software on his computer.

Passive aggression is one outcome of being too good, too nice – too conforming. Getting the other person to feel angry, or to feel helpless and powerless, is a common way to get back at the one to whom the power is given. See the podcast on passive aggression for more information.

Since conforming for the sake of it isn’t a normal, healthy way of life, it must be an attempt to get as much love and attention as possible. This begins with parents, then becomes habit in school and in marriage.

One reason this is more common for men is that men are the bad gender, women the good, so of course he must believe her when she shames him. And then rebel in unseen ways.


My mother made me follow the rules until I went away to college. I did. But with no guilt, I created a life that included sex and alcohol and lying. I was obedient, but not a conformist. I didn’t think the rules were correct.

Many clients learn that they must either lie or do it their parents’ way. When the punishment is severe, such as long periods of being grounded, or phones taken away, lying becomes a habit. How does one counsel a child about their way of maintaining some control in their lives, while not harming themselves by lying. What if this is in conflict with knowing that making his or her own decisions and establishing boundaries would bring raging, blaming, and punishment from those parents?

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