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Individuality Within a Group

By Oscarina Majokweni (Counselling Psychologist)

The group and individual are not independent and separate, but are intimately connected and fundamentally inseparable. One cannot celebrate the individual without celebrating the “group” and visa versa (Jetten & Postmes, 2006). In addition, Jetten and Postmes (2006) further postulate that many philosophers struggle with the distinction between individual and collective interest and that there is a fundamental tension between the two; they appear to stand in opposition. For instance, Hobbes (1650/1931) concluded that the relationship between the individual and the collective is fundamentally conflictual. As a result, the integration of individuality within groups is a continuous working process within ourselves and with those around us.

Large group seated in spiral

For example, a client once shared that she has difficulty in meeting with her friends and felt overwhelmed when in the midst of her family. She came up with excuses (‘no petrol’) to avoid meeting her friends. Yet in actual fact, she knew the roots of her difficulty. She perceived herself as a person who would not fit in the group or have anything valuable to share. She thought that she was different to her friends in terms of lifestyles. The friends always enjoyed who she is but it was hard for her to believe this. As she continued therapy, she began to understand her background and deal with her past, which made her appreciate her individuality in different groups. She said, “coming to see you has been such a complicated process. I am learning to understand myself and beginning to be more accepting and comfortable in my own skin in different spaces.”

People are born individuals. However as they develop, they become part of different groups such as their families, friends and the larger society. The family may groom parts which may differ from those cultivated by the society. The mother gives birth to a baby who has a personality with different facets. For example, a baby is born calm, always smiles and loves people’s attention. Yet her environment will have an impact on how she changes. For instance, the parents may let her cry alone for a long time, ignored when in need of attention and miscue her communications. This may lead to baby being withdrawn and learning to do things for herself. As she grows she may not be comfortable in being part of crowds, rather enjoying one-on-one friendships and interactions. Her character may be regarded as introverted and private. Moreover, the society focuses on the person’s nationality, racial and generational group, and cultural practices. A person grows to be a South African, black African, Xhosa speaking, Christian Millennial, for instance. These categories may reflect differently at work and other organisations which connect to the person’s individuality. Thus personality and history mould character and one cannot separate the individuality from a group.

However, the conflict that arises in differentiating the individual and collective interest makes it hard to integrate the parts of a person to a whole. People play different roles in different groups. A person may be a mother and wife in a family and her role can be the nurturer and the organiser.  She is in charge and her children expect her to protect them from danger. But this may be a challenge when she is in friendship circles as she may want to organise all the events and not share responsibilities. The other friends, coming into the group with their own histories and characteristics, may find her difficult and dislike her. They may want her to play a different role, for instance to be the joker and nurturer. It is at times difficult for people to accept one’s character and make use of it in a positive manner. Janis (1982) suggested that cohesion suppresses individual voice and that disastrous decision-making outcomes were the result of a lack of individuality in ordinary group members (Jetten & Postmes, 2000). For example, it may come naturally for a mother to be a nurturer to her children. However, it may not be easy to do this in all spaces as she may want to be nurtured herself. Her friends expect her to be a nurturer and this may create turmoil in her, yet she may fulfill this role without voicing her difficulties to create harmony in the group. This could result in her feeling that her needs are not met in the group. It is therefore very difficult at times to differentiate and identify the appropriate needs for you and the group.

The ultimate goal may be to accept and understand the self and the different aspects in groups around us. Therefore an individual continues to reflect on who she is and how she impacts the different spaces, which may be difficult because of the deep emotional roots that may be conscious or unconscious. The different groups have diverse dynamics which need to be respected and brought to awareness. Therefore it is a continual, working process to integrate and celebrate individuality within groups.

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