Normal is inherently othering, divisive, and reductive.
Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)
The word “normal” comes up a lot in our society.
We use it as an aspiration, “I just want to be normal,” or as a judgment, “that’s…not normal,” it’s even used like it’s a synonym for healthy, “that’s perfectly normal.”
I believe that all three uses are problematic for many reasons; but primarily because these homogeneous expectations have a very toxic effect on our mental health.
I feel that this is true even for those who feel they’ve achieved this mysteriously lauded act of mediocrity, but it’s especially toxic if you’re born in a body that excludes you from this supposed normality.
During my school years, the adult world told me that I was one of those lucky people, that I was normal, and that this was definitely a good thing — that I’d do just fine in life because of it.
I always knew it wasn’t quite true, and certainly faced much teasing despite this supposed normality, especially early on, and I certainly struggled to adjust to adult life more than my peers — but at 37 years old, I learned that I’m even less normal than I realized.
Last summer, I was officially diagnosed with Level Two Autism.
Society convinces us that we need to be less of ourselves in order to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.
This curveball brought many feelings, many of which were good, especially through the initial process of self-diagnosis; learning all about how my particular neurotype works while finally connecting to a community of people who quite literally think like me. There’s been much self-acceptance and empowerment since the diagnosis, it’s hard to explain the lightness that has come from knowing the physiological reasons as to why I am the way I am.
But, unfortunately, those weren’t all of the emotions. It was also really hard to learn that I was not only not normal, but that having tried so hard to pretend like I was had helped send my body and mind into malfunction.
After my diagnosis, I was tormented with endless painful memories slicing through my consciousness, each even sharper through this new lens; often making the other people involved seem cruel. Sometimes it even made me give up on humanity at large because most of them weren’t even “bad people” they were f**king normal people. It was horrifying, especially once I learned how high Autistic suicide rates are.
“Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.” ― Brené Brown
The combination of that emotional maelstrom plus not having anyone to talk to about it brought continuous Autistic meltdowns, which led to dangerous public scenes, seizures, a terrifying mental break, and neurologically-disabling Autistic burnout that I’m still fighting nearly a year later.
The most overwhelming upset was, and is, because Neurodivergent people are made to believe we need to spend our precious mental energy on acting “normal” to be accepted and survive. (FYI: Faking your neurotype doesn’t leave much energy for the important stuff.)
And we aren’t the only ones — in addition to systemic issues and individual biases, BIPOC communities are given the burden of code-switching, which has toxic effects on mental health. As a fellow Medium writer puts it, “Code-switching causes more harm than good because it creates tension between self-expression and social acceptance.”
There are many more examples of how already-disenfranchised communities have to bend and twist to squeeze into “normal,” and it’s not at all limited to those who’re in bodies perceived as different in some way — there are all kinds of ways we can be “too different,” “too much,” or “not enough,” and they rarely have anything to do with lacking integrity or kindness.
Additionally, when crises happen in people’s lives, they often feel as if they’ve been thrust from the safety of being perceived as normal.
Whether it’s with issues regarding abuse, finances, rape, or the many other ways life can unexpectedly go pear-shaped — people who’re already going through a lot often then also have to deal with shaming from the people in their lives, as well as fearing they’re perceived as “having baggage,” or being “too broken.”
We wind up feeling like we have to hide in some way to be safe, which often leads to going through difficult times alone.
In my case, others continually encouraged me to hide the (many) ways of being I know now are Autistic, and it took me over 25 years to see that the opposite is true — we must show up authentically to have any shot at finding true acceptance and belonging.
“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ― Maya Angelou
We’re all being taught the wrong message.
In effect, society communicates that our whole selves aren’t enough; it actually manages to convince us that we need to show up as less of ourselves to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.
Plus, it’s just a scam! The idea that being seen as “normal” keeps us safe is just an illusion, a test to see how far we can bend before we break. And if you look at the headlines in recent years, it’s easy to get the impression that the time to snap is upon us…
If you ask me, we’re collectively losing our shit because we’ve been convinced that we must be something we aren’t to survive, that we must be “normal,” because everyone else is and that’s just the way we like it.
But normal isn’t a freakin’ thing. (And it never was.)
Screw Normal, Go Be Your Best You
Comparison is about conformity and its paradoxical message is to “be just like everyone else, but better.” — Brené Brown
While some folks might truly feel they are whatever is presently considered “normal,” it’s safe to say most of us find the expectations dictated by the concept to be FAR too tight (to say the least ) — so we have to squeeze ourselves into an uncomfortable mold, conforming to unwritten expectations that don’t suit, and, mental health-wise, there’s a heavy price to pay for this self-erasure.
To prioritize being normal is to decide that *who we are* isn’t safe. This is not an okay expectation! And it does not improve the lives of those working to oblige, it very often does just the opposite.
When we squeeze ourselves into whatever’s currently typical, when we spend our days trying to “be normal” — we wind up wasting our energy and focus on losing ourselves, rather than on becoming our best selves.
I love the way another Ascent writer describes the empowerment of tossing conformity aside, saying her whole self is “far more powerful than the Swiss cheese cutout I used to be.”
And of course it is!! We need our whole selves to thrive.
7 Reasons to Stop Trying to Be “Normal”
Let’s break it down, here’s 7 reasons to stop trying to be normal:
- “Normal” is not a thing. I moved from city to city, hoping to find a place where the whole me was considered “normal,” and while I never found it, I did discover that there’s actually no such thing. While it’s most definitely possible to feel not normal, and some people do feel it more often than others, normal is just an illusion. Life isn’t that simple.
- It upholds toxic norms and power structures. The concept of normal is a moving target that’s defined a million ways, but most influentially by — and for — the people in power; the people in charge of media, the people at the top of the ladder, the influencers of our world. It’s an ephemeral nonsense concept that serves to uphold the status quo through shame. It’s bullshite, we don’t need it, and we certainly don’t need to waste our energy pretending to be it.
- The concept is inherently othering. As discussed above, “normal” leaves a lot of people out. There’s just far, far, faaaar, too many ways to be not-normal, and humans are a beautifully diverse species — and we’re stronger for it! Diversity is an evolutionary advantage, it’s a good thing that we’re all different. We need to start letting people share their full stories, and we need to start fully listening to perspectives and experiences different from ours. Working to understand each other better is the only way to improve things.
- Fitting in is very different from belonging. My life changed when I started reading the work of sociological researcher, Brené Brown. I’ve already shared a couple of quotes of hers, but here’s one more: True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world — our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. In other words, when we squeeze ourselves into normal-shaped molds, we give up our ability to know real belonging due to denying our authentic selves a voice.
- Save yourself mid-life crises (or end ‘em). Trying to be normal is basically committing to the role of who we think we’re “supposed to be.” And if we look around, it’s easy to see that this often creates long-term commitments we can’t keep. How many of us wind up totally rearranging our lives halfway through because our original choices don’t really suit who we are as we start to really know ourselves? What if we could save all the fuss by simply living true in the first place?
- John F. Kennedy said it sucks. In his more dignified words: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
- It’s not important, kindness is. Normal is often used in a way that suggests some associate the concept with integrity, with being good, “someone nice and normal,” but they are completely different things. They have nothing to do with one another at large, but especially in societies where marginalized societies report systemic ill-treatment. It’s easy to see that normal is very often a big jerk. Acts of compassion and understanding are demonstrations of integrity, not looking or acting a certain way.
When we simplify the human experience to one word, it reduces people to stereotypes and pits us against each other.
As a species, I think we’re ready to graduate from this Us vs. Them paradigm that leaves nearly everyone scared to be seen as “them,” and all of us competing against each other instead of working together. (And we’ve got some very real problems to solve.)
We have to stop trying to put each other in boxes, we’re all wildly unique people — that’s the beauty of humanity! It is not something to hide.
Screw “normal.” We don’t need no stinkin’ boxes.