You’re nothing more than a niche occupant
I live in a niche.
Chances are, you do too — whether or not you’re aware of it.
Allow me to explain.
Many years ago, I used to jog several times a week. Occasionally, a running buddy would accompany me. And depending on who that running buddy was, my endurance and general levels of complainy-ness fluctuated enormously.
When running with my septuagenarian dad, I tended to adopt the role of ‘pseudo personal trainer’. Throughout the run, I would spur him on to ‘Push through the pain!’ and ‘Keep going!’
In hindsight, I was probably an absolute pain in the proverbial, and cannot comprehend why he put himself through the torment of jogging with me. But interestingly, on such occasions, I almost never noticed my own peripheral lactic acid accumulation or fatigue.
Running with fit, age-equivalent exercise buddies was often a different story altogether. In this permutation, I often adopted the role of pathetic, puffed out Sharon, and my workout whingeing escalated accordingly.
It was almost as though I was harbouring some sort of undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder whereby slightly different contexts elicited entirely different personas and fitness levels.
I resisted the urge to submit myself for psychiatric assessment, and opted instead to observe those around me in the hope that maybe I wasn’t the only one engaging in this weird behaviour.
To my relief, I soon realised that the phenomenon did not apply exclusively to me. And nor was it restricted to the exercise sphere.
I observed hysterically funny friends (known to induce milk ejection via nostril in passing conversation) adopt a passive ‘observer’ role in the presence of a stronger comedic personality. People I knew to be outgoing and bubbly in intimate settings presented as almost subdued at parties packed with inebriated extroverts. Millennial females — the go-to office ‘techsperts’ in their baby boomer-dominated workplaces — would automatically defer to their male partners for any computer-related issues arising at home.
It was almost as though, once a particular ‘niche’ was occupied, human nature would seek an alternative ‘vacant’ role to fill. Listener. Introvert. Damsel in distress.
If this niche-filling theory was valid, it could prove a useful psychological tool.
Simply being aware of the ‘niche’ effect could empower us to make different choices and consciously bypass less desirable roles.
Our millennial female could identify her propensity to activate ‘damsel in distress’ mode in the presence of a techy male. This in turn may spur her to problem solve her own computer complexities at home, elevating her competence and confidence in so doing.
On a challenging run, I could personally opt to adopt my powerful, positive persona in place of my pathetic one, rendering the exercise experience a more pleasant one for all parties involved.
There may even be some ‘niche theory’ applications to drive behaviour change in others.
Historically, we have been taught that modelling ‘good’ behaviours can help people be better. But what if we’ve been getting it wrong all along, and the opposite is actually often true?
Say you have a family member who’s feeling sad and sorry for themselves. What if, instead of cajoling them in an upbeat tone to abandon the 2L ice cream tub they’ve selected for their dinner, you tone down your own mood so that the ‘depressed’ niche is occupied and they’re forced to find an alternative one? Or how about occupying the ‘helpless/useless’ niche to encourage someone with a proclivity for passivity to take some initiative?
I’m not saying it will work in every scenario. Indeed, I foresee that certain niches may be large enough for others to squeeze into right alongside us. Some may even be so large as to suck others in. Like the ‘eater of everything in the house’ niche, the ‘angry/aggressive’ niche, and the ‘bitchy gossiper’ niche. These particular ‘black hole’ niches should be carefully identified, and occupancy avoided.
But black holes aside, I reckon that niches might just be a powerful well of untapped potential.
Which ones will you choose to fill?