Such is the rat race.
What's the long-term affect of this?
We end up seeking external approval and external goals in our lives, and we forego living in the present moment because we are fixated on some future outcome. We mistakenly believe that happiness is obtained only by achieving those external goals.
Social programming is the set of instructions we learn (from others) to fit in with society. It comes from family members, teachers, peers, colleagues, and others. We end up doing what most people we know are doing rather than explore the many options that are available to us. Perhaps we are overwhelmed or pressured by those around us to do things "their" way or because "that's the way it's always been done." If this is the case, then our decisions are made by default, meaning they are not "conscious" decisions; we don't always take the time to explore them to determine what is right for us. This is intellectual laziness.
It's not always easy to make decisions that go against the grain. Oftentimes, those close to us may feel threatened or confused by our choices when we diverge from the ones they are making. And we may find ourselves frustrated and defensive when we feel unsupported and misunderstood. It can be downright exhausting having to explain (or reexplain) ourselves (though we do have the right to tell them to respect our choices).
It takes testicular fortitude to break away from social programming. The key is not to eliminate all of your external goals, but to create goals that are meaningful to you, ones in which you enjoy (not dread) the day-to-day process of realizing them.
To break free, choose your own goals, not the goals you were programmed to adopt. Examine your values and principles. Are they yours, or society's? Here's a test: if a goal makes you feel unhappy or distressed, then this goal may not be for you. If, on the other hand, it excites and energizes you, then it's worth pursuing. How aligned do you feel with those goals?
Once you've selected your goals, follow your vision. Move forward by taking the necessary day-to-day steps. This will take persistence, consistency, and courage. Following your vision can leave you feeling alone, but the more you think independently, the higher your self-esteem and confidence will be. Independent thought is by no means a social process; it is a solitary one. If you find yourself feeling alone, it's okay. Embrace it and remind yourself of what's important to you in your journey.
Understand that breaking free doesn't happen overnight. It is a life-long process. If you are feeling enslaved by societal norms, perhaps it's because you are feeling enslaved within. Look honestly at your life. Which habits, beliefs, and expectations are holding you back from excelling in life? How is your past holding your hostage? If you're willing to challenge the mental constructs that enslave you, a natural desire to do something about it will arise within you.
Your life belongs to you and so do your decisions. As you take control of your consciousness and learn to think for yourself, you will grow in your awareness of the programming that surrounds you on a daily basis; and by remaining steadfast to your vision, you will begin to make choices based on what is real and true for your -- and others' -- highest good.