The perils and promise of stepping out of bounds

I ran across a word the other day that intrigued me. As a writer, my favorite words are those you peel, like an onion, to uncover layers of meaning. With deceptively simple words like outstep, you need to look twice to see the inconsistencies in how it’s defined.

Outstep /aʊtˈstɛp/: verb: to step beyond 

Synonyms: to excel, outperform, transcend

Seems positive and inspiring, right? We can step beyond our own perceived limitations and boundaries to become our best selves. And just as the simple act of stepping doesn’t require a lot of energy or effort, outstepping our own boundaries can sometimes be as easy as questioning our inherited assumptions and beliefs.

Yet the dictionary’s example usage paints a less flattering picture: rude, blasphemous, unreasonable. Our society is constructed in a way that frowns upon those who color outside the lines.

“He outsteps the moderation of his predecessor in office”

“A program which it would have been almost blasphemy to outstep”— J. C. Stobart

“The author’s claims don’t outstep the bounds of reason

While one could blame society, religion and government for dissuading non-confirming behavior — after all, sheep are easier to control — it’s likely more attributable to our brain wiring. We’re programmed to believe there’s safety in numbers.

Herd mentality is “the idea that the individual members of a herd relate, behave in a similar fashion… and that’s so that they don’t stand out and appear different than their group mates.

If they act too much out of the norm, more often than not they’re singled out and identified by a predator – and don’t survive very long.”

– Pat Thomas, general curator at the Bronx Zoo, CBS news story

Outstepping is often a solitary job

Crabs are easy to catch due to one human-like trait. Once the first one enters the trap to get the bait, others follow. Eventually the bait is consumed, yet the crabs don’t leave. Herd mentality is so hardwired that if any crab dares escape, the others will not only prevent progress but go as far as to kill the offending crab who dared to outstep the bounds.

This so-called “crab in a bucket” mentality is used to describe members of a group who try to diminish the self-confidence and halt progress of anyone who dares to go beyond the group’s bounds of acceptable performance.

Which means it’s hard to reap the positive benefits of outstepping — authenticity, confidence, satisfaction in a life well lived — when you’re in an environment that doesn’t encourage that way of thinking. The person who dares to step outside the norms of their family, community or work environment risks sabotage and ostracization. The Emerson ideal of self-reliance is not all that attractive to social-minded humans.

“You can go your own way

Go your own way

You can call it

Another lonely day”

– Fleetwood Mac

Loneliness is optional.

I was locked into a world of “should” for decades, living an inauthentic life because I couldn’t imagine an alternative that wouldn’t jeopardize my existing relationships or my ability to support myself. Until eventually the pain of holding back exceeded the fear of the unknown.

I find the people with whom I best get along are outsteppers themselves. They get me, I get them. And I’m meeting them all the time on my journeys. There are as many ways to outstep as there are humans on this earth:

  • Selling everything to live a nomad lifestyle
  • Speaking out against injustice sanctioned by the group
  • Risking stability for a family in favor of finding harmony
  • Reaching across the aisle to collaborate with the opposing party
  • Extending a helping hand to “the other”

Are you an outstepper?

I hope you, dear reader, are an outstepper… or you’d like to be more of one. In what ways have you outstepped bounds recently and discovered more freedom on the other side? What’s holding you back from taking an outstep?

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