Underneath It All: Peeling Back Societal Bullsh*t to Reveal a More Whole You

A month to shake off the societal madness, find the mental peace beneath it, and try on new ways of living. 

My bookbaby, Underneath It All: Peeling Back Societal Bullsh*t to Reveal a More Whole You, is a 3-part book dedicated to helping people in modern society shake off harmful conditioning that narrows the way we see one another, ourselves, and the point of this whole living thing. It aims to open up potentiality for authentic expression, living more consciously, and having more fun whilst doing so.

  • Part I defines and details Societal Bullshit, also helping you to identify what it means to you personally and how you’re affected by it, using tales from my very-lived life to illustrate examples of the negative effects it can have on people, as well as plentiful research to expand and back up my points.
  • Part II will teach you to calm your mind so you can watch it for thoughts of toxic society ick—I promise it’s in there, we’re literally trained for it—by challenging you to a 30-day meditation challenge, slowly increasing your time as you go, and offering various styles so you can find something that works for your needs and preferences.
  • Part III will help expand your boundaries by challenging you to complete 20 out of 30 (quick) Adventures: you’ll be doing random acts of kindness, fessing up your truth, making stuff, and generally connecting to life in real and refreshing ways; accompanied by four inspiring stories of lives lived with bold authenticity. Parts II and III include space to write thoughts, draw impressions, or paste pics/mementos.

Together, it’s an average of 20 minutes a day or so, longer if you get creative with it. The world is a strange and disorienting place, but the one-month growth project that is Underneath It All will help you to better orient yourself within it by teaching you to examine how societal bullshit’s crept into your mind and providing guidance and (often fun) strategies to get centered in your actual you, your whole you.

By the end of the month, you’ll feel like your perspective on life has gone through a refreshing cleanse, and so has your mind—which is really your home, if you think about it. (And the lease is for the rest of your life…)

I just got started seeking representation, so stay tuned, friends. ❤

Autistic Adults and Autistic Parents Need To Come Together

There’s a knowledge gap, and it needs to be filled.

August 21, 2022

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

There’s a divide of understanding within the autistic community, one that can get quite contentious online: autistic adults and parents of autistic children. I think a root of the problem is society telling parents they’re responsible for raising kids in a manner conducive to doing things in neurotypical ways, the “normal” way, and parents at large face a lot of homogenized expectations and judgment for noncompliance.

But when a child has different neurological wiring, a different neurotype, normal expectations and activities can actually overwhelm their nervous system, making it even more difficult to do things like process language and verbalize. And autists are expected just act like we’re not experiencing this kind of agitating or even painful neurological overwhelm when we are, something that leads to all kinds of trouble, like autistic meltdowns, which are terrifying. During meltdowns, sometimes it truly feels like my brain is going to catch on fire from all the misfiring and pressure, then finally just explode.

They. HURT. And we don’t choose them. And we don’t get to decide when they end.

These kinds of internal autistic experiences have been treated as if they’re irrelevant, as if autists just have behavioral issues and need to learn how to “act normal,” something that makes us even more vulnerable, and we’re already unnecessarily dying decades before our peers.

Bridging the knowledge gaps between us and allistic (not-autistic) folks needs to happen and it won’t without help from parents of autistic children — the hard truth is that you’re the ones society listens to, not us, and we’re dying from the societal apathy. We need parent allies to really listen and to help our voices be heard.

Here are 10 takes on this gap from other autistic adults, starting with a couple of autists who are also parents of autistic kiddos:

  1. “I fall into both of these categories. I wish that there was more understanding of the different communication styles rather than people jumping down each other’s throats all of the time. I wish that functioning labels would be done away with and that the parents would stop speaking for us and listen to us instead.” A.M.
  2. “I am autistic and so are my children. I’d like parents of autistics to understand that they need to pay attention to what is going on and how their child is interpreting the experiences around them. As much as they can at least. They can’t understand truly but they can watch out for say, how a child might be handling someone having a crush on them or trying to interact with them in some intimate way. 
    .
    And then they need to not approach their autistic kid with morals and judgments the kid may very well not understand. I was raised in the church and things just never made sense, yet when my parents would address whatever the issue was, they’d do it through the filter of something that already didn’t logically make sense to me. Your kid won’t understand what you want or mean if you aren’t speaking a language they understand. They may have to set aside what they think they ‘know’ and approach things differently, potentially without some things (like religion) being the primary measuring stick of a moral code.” S.L.
  3. “That when they talk bad about my autism, they are talking bad about me personally, because I don’t see myself as separate from my autism.” A.F.
  4. “That [autistic adults] often do really understand what it’s like to be an autistic child and we can help them if they listen to us. We can provide insight from an autistic perspective that they may not even consider as a possibility. Yes, parents often do know best, but when your child has a different neurology than you, why not ask the people who share that neurology for help? After all, we want what’s absolutely best for our future neuro-kin generation and will fiercely do whatever it takes to protect them. […]
    .
    Saying things like “my child is more severe than you are” or “you can’t speak for my child because you’re not the same” isn’t helpful. We understand their experience even if it’s not the same as ours. And if you’re saying that me (a mostly speaking autistic person) isn’t the same as your nonspeaking autistic, you’re right. I don’t know that experience because I grew up speaking using my mouth words. But then why not connect with other nonspeaking autistics who do know and understand your child from that perspective? There’s so many types of autistic people in the world; you’re bound to find one that has a similar experience to your child.” M.S.
  5. “They are not the ones with autism and that they have to help that person develop a system/ anything to move through life. I just feel like I was told how to feel most of my life and now I’m on my own idk how to process my actual feelings now that there’s ppl who want to listen. 🤷🏽‍♀️🤷🏽‍♀️” K.N
  6. “Understanding that we aren’t doing ‘bad things’ for the sake of being malicious 99% of the time. I remember having meltdowns and being told I was ‘ungrateful’ and throwing a ‘tantrum’ when the reality was it was like something else had taken over me and turned me into an anger monster. I was never in control until I came down from it and I was blamed for ruining outings and embarrassing my parents. Same thing with not being able to or not wanting to do a task or go to an event. They took this as me being defiant. The reality is they never listened to what I was actually saying when I said no and instead framed me as a defiant child. Talking to your autistic kid on a more peer level will help you communicate better and they will tell you what they need. You just have to listen and learn your child’s language.” S.S.
  7. “That it’s often a journey to understand our own feelings and symptoms. We don’t always have the answers, but that doesn’t mean others should speak for us.” C.T.H.
  8. “What bugs me the most is the idea that something is ‘wrong’ with their child. This whole grieving how they expected their child to turn out or how they wanted their life to be or their kids life to be. Disabilities are not bad, don’t need to be fixed, your child doesn’t need you grieving the loss of the abled child you wanted. Secondly, stop exploiting them on social media to ‘help other parents’ or ‘spread awareness’. Thirdly, I wish they would realize that societal rules are completely made up. Your kid doesn’t need to speak, use fake pleasantries, have fun at amusement parks etc to be loved, respected, or to enjoy life.” C.H.
  9. “That everyone is different. I really wish that was emphasized more. There is no ‘stereotype’, everyone still has their own personality.” S.G.
  10. “That we aren’t unintelligent just because we can’t/don’t communicate the same way. I’ve noticed the same problem within the deaf/HoH community; if you can’t or don’t speak (or can’t speak well) people don’t take you seriously or assume you must not understand normal speech. I can understand you just fine even when I don’t know how to respond or am unable to.” B.N.

Societal Conditioning is Losing Its Grip, Let’s Help

Advocacy movements are changing harmful norms, but they can’t do it alone.

Still from ‘They Live,’ a 1988 cult-classic, very clever take on societal conditioning, and great follow-up to reading about this topic. (Image via letterboxd)

Social conditioning is a lot like air, we hardly notice it, and yet it affects every aspect of our lives.

It’s defined as ‘the sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society,’ and it looks like going to school, interacting with peers (especially “fitting in”), engaging with pop culture, adapting to work environments, etc.

These things shape the way we view the world and interact with others.

And right now, Americans are learning that our “air” has some fiercely toxic issues.

Though there have always been Black advocates speaking up, nearly a decade ago The Black Lives Matter movement finally brought national attention to the fact that we most definitely do not live in a post-racial society (which has been clearly reflected in demographic statistics for decades) — and yet our public schools essentially teach that the ’60s brought equality to our country.

Generations were taught that we’re “a nation that doesn’t see race,” learning that ignoring our racial differences was helpful; and this conditioning has led to continued societal disbelief and inaction in regard to the very real racial disparities in the US. It’s horrifying.

Then the #MeToo movement busted onto the scene in 2017, exposing the harmful misogynistic norms that women have been dealing with in America all along — and making a lot of us pretty furious about all the “sugar + spice” conditioning that basically trained us to put up with harassment and abuse, all in the subconscious pursuit of trying to be the “good girls” society told us to be.

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

And though disability advocacy movements haven’t yet caught the nation’s attention, we’ve been yelling for a very long time. From extensive issues with accessibility (for wheelchair users and beyond), massively-funded nonprofits that actually work against us (*ahem, Autism Speaks*), to a society rampant with inspiration porn in place of actually informing people about how to work with our different needs; to excessive government focus on “preventable illness” and little-to-none on the myriad of conditions that can’t be, resulting in a blame-the-patient culture that’s really hard to survive —we’ve got a lot to be upset about.

All-in-all, America has a white-supremacist, sexist, ableist (+!) set of social norms; and they need to change, fast.

While developments like oodles of (brilliant) intersectional entertainment, advocacy movements regularly trending on Twitter, and increased diversity in politics are helpful and encouraging; we also need our societal conditioning to change in a structural way, in our government and healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and how media is sourced and distributed.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

For example, those same public schools teach young minds that Thanksgiving commemorates a peaceful celebration of unity between settlers and Native Americans when history shows that the opposite was true. And this propaganda is taught by teachers who are overwhelmingly white, with a lived racial experience that 4 in 10 Americans cannot relate to.

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

We need schools that teach actual, factual, history, and it needs to be taught by teachers who represent the demographics of the students in this country.

Now let’s pick on the media. Television and magazines propagate impossible ideals, corporate support/dependence, and harmful norms that serve to protect the status quo — which isn’t surprising since six white-male-led companies control the vast majority of the media, often resulting in news coverage and bias that benefits those already on top.

The “normal” office space is also rife with room for improvement. The constraints of “acting professional” usually have more to do with not causing waves than treating colleagues with respect — and this conditioning serves us in the exact same way as the “sugar + spice” bullshite, helping to maintain the toxic status quo through unspoken demands like code-switching.

The effect of our present societal conditioning is that people are expected to “fit in” in order to move up in life, which is functionally racistsexist, and ableist in application — ensuring that the people on top, stay on top.

(And we’ve only talked about 3 offensive ists harming our society! There’s plenty more.)

It might “make waves“… 😮 (‘They Live’ film still provided by Universal Pictures, via Fonts in Use.)

How to Help

Norms are changing on our screens, now it’s time to securely bring inclusive changes into the schools, offices, and community spaces of the United States.

It’s time to check ourselves. And it’s time to speak up against harmful norms.

Everyday. Everywhere.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

But it needs all of us.

Here are 6 ways we can help detoxify the effects of societal conditioning:

  1. Learn, learn, learn. We need to educate ourselves in areas where we have societally-suggested knowledge gaps (or even misinformation), carefully ensuring that what we’re reading was written by a member of the affected group. This can take some effort, but it’s worth it to ensure that what we’re reading is truly the perspective of the community affected. (There are lots of advocacy personal essays on Medium, so you’re at a great place to start.)
  2. Inspect our language. Our culture is rife with popular terms that are actually offensive to our many vulnerable demographics, and even well-meaning can people offend. (We’re practically trained to, via societal osmosis.) And it’s important to pay attention to aspects that aren’t usually considered; such as more subtle aspects of discrimination (ex. for ableism, hurtful usage of words like ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’), phrases like “that’s just the system” that subtly stand up for the status quo. And it should go without saying, but this applies to every space — not just those where minority groups are present.
  3. Request change from the leaders of our society, especially politicians and corporations. Be it an email to your local political representatives about the harm of letting misinformation masquerade as news, no longer supporting an offending corporation due to sexist advertising, or calling out a celebrity for the societal ramifications of an ableist action; individual complaints add up and are often (eventually) appeased.
  4. Request change in your environments. Again, individual input matters! When enough of us ask for changes in respect to well, respect, leaders have to respond. And there are now training programs to help educate employees, students, and communities on how to better accommodate one another, so why not encourage one?
  5. Speak up when you’re affected. We need to speak up when we’re hit by the negative outcomes created by societal conditioning, or it will seem like “we’re fine with it.” If a teacher only calls on the white kids, if women in your office are paid less than men, if you’re being treated as if your disabled needs are irrelevant, or anything else of that nature — now’s the time to speak up.
  6. Learn to welcome the different. Even when we try not to let it, subtle-yet-constant conditioning affects how all of us see the world, often creating anxiety around allowing new experiences and people in. But in addition to being the inherently more kind thing to do, diversity has proven benefits; the more perspectives, the more coherent the collective understanding will be.

Inclusivity, attentiveness, and compassion in regards to our differences need to replace the societally-pervasive dinosaur mentality of “that’s just how things are done.”

And it starts with us.

Resilience and Compassion

I love this quote. After going through a difficult time, any semi-reflective person is likely to do some thinking on their weaknesses and faults; because how else does one avoid making the same mistakes?

But it’s easy to overdo ‘er. It’s common to not only own one’s errs, but to define ourselves by them, if only unconsciously. When you decide that you’ll never be good enough, things improving seems impossible. And the mental place of “why bother?” is no breeding ground for resilience.

Compassion for ourselves helps us get to a place of seeing ourselves as stronger and wiser for our mistakes, which makes trying again seem worth the effort and potential risks.

And compassion for others is how we become able to look at the world, and the people in it, as potentially trustworthy. This enables us to put ourselves “out there” again, one of many daunting-but-essential parts of getting to a place of resilience.

Becoming resilient is generally a prize that must be hard won, but the goods are mighty good indeed.

7 Must-Know Autism Terms for Autists and Allies

A lil’ knowledge to help you be an effective self-advocate or ally

Meg HartleyJul 12 · 7 min read

Originally posted on An Injustice, I appreciate claps (you can do 50!) and follows over @ Medium! ❤

For people who are Autistic, knowledge about our neurotype — how our brains work — is incredibly empowering; and for those who care about us Autists, knowledge is empathy.

The present public perception of Autism is based mostly on neurotypical (NT) observations of our behavior. Focus is on the social implications, with people often referring to how we “seem,” but the internal Autistic experience is far more crucial for people to understand.

We need people to understand how it *physically* feels to be Autistic. It’s the only way our society will learn to stop unwittingly harming us, and better learn to include us.

Since we live in a society that was literally designed for a different neurotype, a different kind of brain, we are persistently expected to do things in a way that works well for most people’s brains — but that very often conflict with our own cognitive processes.

It causes very real problems, even for those who can mask their Autistic traits.

For me personally, it feels like pressure in my brain during tasks or environmental stressors (light, sound, conversation). I was able to pretend it wasn’t happening for years, but eventually, that masking took a toll on my brain, and I started having unexpected outbursts; which eventually turned (back) into full-blown meltdowns and body-wide physical pain.

In addition to the horror of the meltdown itself, which can last hours and involve self-harm, there are also other repercussions; the biggest being the loss of functionality and disabling neurological exhaustion, but there’s also potential consequences for actions during the meltdown, as well as shame.

And in addition to adapting to NT processes, we have to constantly observe and adjust our behavior to the NT norms. It’s just too much.

Additionally, since Autistic representation in the media is very narrow and often misleading; people at large have no idea what it feels like to be of Autistic wiring, making it even harder for us to explain, especially given that so many of us struggle with efficient verbal communication and executive functioning difficulties.

Too much of the onus is put on us, and far too little on those whose neurology isn’t struggling with the task at hand. We need to be met halfway. (Desperately.)

I hope defining these terms in language that aims to explain how these experiences physically feel will help both Autists in better articulating their own experiences—dealing with neurological malfunction is confusing, to say the least! — as well as helping NT allies better put themselves in our shoes.

Of course, I can only describe how my experiences feel, the adage of “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met ONE Autistic person” always applies.

Knowledge really is the beginning of all empathy, it can create a bridge between people who have a chasm of differing life experiences. One person speaking up in an otherwise indifferent room can make all the difference.

7 Must-Know Autism Terms for Autists and Allies

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash
  1. Executive Malfunction: This term refers to our struggles with planning, remembering information, problem-solving, organization, and time management. This is one way to get that painful brain pressure I was talking about. For me, it generally happens whilst trying to use technology, verbalizing, remembering, filling out forms, doing finances, or when in Autistic burnout (see #5), freakin’ anythiiiiiiing. Ugh. It can be very problematic and can lead to expensive errors, dangerous meltdowns, and further loss of functionality — and yet, an executive malfunction does not indicate intelligence deficits, we’re just struggling to do things in a way that wasn’t designed for our different neurology.
  2. Meltdowns: I’ve gathered that to the observer, Autistic meltdowns look like a “tantrum” or “freak out’’; but what’s happening is actually neurological overwhelm, often due to sensory overload. Despite how it looks, it is a very physical issue, not just emotional. *And they. Are. Terrifying.* For me, at first, it feels like a huge overflow of anxiety in my body, as if on a malfunctioning rollercoaster and desperately want off, but I’m trapped…then I just kinda, for lack of a better term, go berserker. I want to stop, to behave rationally, but I can’t. It’s awful, almost like watching myself from the outside.
    .
    And in addition to the horror of the meltdown itself, which can last hours and involve self-harm/suicidal ideation, there are also other repercussions; the biggest being the loss of functionality and disabling neurological exhaustion, but there’s also the potential consequences for actions during the meltdown, and crushing shame, which can lead to worse. So, when an Autistic person says they’re fending off a meltdown, it’s crucial to take our needs seriously, because this issue is a very big deal and, at large, very misunderstood by the Allistic, or not-Autistic, community — especially regarding Autistic adults.
  3. Shutdown: These happen for the exact same reasons and need to be taken just as seriously as a meltdown, even though it may not seem as serious. An Autistic shutdown is the brain’s way of directing all that overwhelm inward instead of outwards, causing the person to become non-responsive. For me, these usually happen after a meltdown, like my brain is just…done. (I’ve heard them described as something experienced in place of meltdowns as well.)
  4. Going Nonverbal: When this trait is severe, this is completely literal; some Autistic people are nonverbal their whole lives. For me, this feels like my brain’s built a steep mountain around itself for protection, and eeeking any communication out (even typed) feels, and often is, simply insurmountable. It’s usually just when I’m dealing with burnout, but can also happen for brief periods when I’m overwhelmed.
    .
    For me, at the worst (*knocks on wood*) I can still mumble to myself, or my dog, but the words are likely to come out wrong and/or slurred and take immense effort to get out — which can lead others to very unfortunate conclusions, in addition to overexerting my already-taxed brain, which leads to further malfunction. So, via the hard way
    , I’ve learned to just not verbally communicate on those days!
  5. Autistic Burnout: This mofo deals us extremely intensified problematic traits, usually after a time of intensified stress or exertion. Here’s a technical definitionAutistic burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterized by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.
    .
    Everything from navigating the internet, to making calls, and driving can become a HUGE deal when you’re in burnout; it’s a very disabling condition made worse by blank stares and suspicion when we try to explain why we aren’t able to meet usual expectations. I’ve been fighting this mofo for over a year, but have experienced it for a duration as short as a few weeks, and have talked with other Auties who report it as short as a few days. Rest is the only way to get out of it, but think about resting your brain…it’s not exactly something our world is arranged for, is it? Ooofta.
  6. Special Interests (SpIns): Clinically, this is where they accuse us of having “rigid/restricted interests,” but more knowing researchers are pointing out they’re our best shot to career success. In fact, that’s precisely how I’m writing this article despite burnout! These obsessions (Neurodivergence and writing here) seem to nourish our brain, like they somehow fuel it. They can be lifelong, or change with time, and most of us have more than one.
  7. Stimming: Another community favorite! It’s described by clinicians as “repetitive motor movements,” and it looks like us moving our bodies differently than NTs, or otherwise doing things to engage sensory feedback — like playing with goo, staring at sparkly things, or touching velvet. These actions soothe the brain in a similar way to SpIns, and are often reactions to environmental, mental, or emotional stimuli.
    .
    It’s common to have different stims according to what happens, for example, I tend to handflap when I’m overwhelmed, I wiggle my fingers in front of my forehead when I’m thinking, and when in shutdown I love me some visual stimming. Some of us can mask the movements, but it’s bad for our brain function, so please exercise consideration and empathy before insisting we refrain. (See #1–5.)
Stimmmmmmmmy awesomeness. FYI: Enjoying staring at it doesn’t mean you’re ND! NTs stim too, usually in different ways, stress balls and pen-clicking, etc — but whatever calms the brain works, I would not be at all sad if NTs also carried around sparkly goop and such! It could even help normalize us. (Image via Giphy)

With so much change needed it can be overwhelming, but it really does happen with one piece of knowledge at a time — individuals create change in this world. It’s the only way it can happen.

Why I Stopped Trying to Be “Normal”

Normal is inherently othering, divisive, and reductive.

Photo by Dan Parlante on Unsplash

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 peopleIt 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.”

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

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

Photo by davisuko on Unsplash

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”

Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

Let’s break it down, here’s 7 reasons to stop trying to be normal:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. John F. Kennedy said it sucks. In his more dignified words: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
  7. 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.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

Cannabis can make you more creative—but it’s complicated

By Meg Hartley
Published on May 3, 2019· Last updated July 28, 2020

Cannabis and creativity are often portrayed as linked, with their connection seeming culturally agreed upon. From creativity-themed cannabis products, to stunning hand-blown bongs, artist testimonials, and the popularity of “puff and paint” art classes, anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly says creativity and cannabis are kindred indeed.

But people have a lot less to say when it comes to the why’s and how’s behind this commonly-accepted phenomenon. Is the link between cannabis and creativity authentic? Here’s what current science has to say about it.

Blood to your creative bits

Research has revealed that creativity is associated with the brain’s frontal lobe, and that cannabis consumption increases cerebral blood flow (CBF) to this area, which makes it more active. As reported by Jasen Talise in the Berkeley Medical Journal, experiments done in 1992 found that CBF increased after cannabis consumption. (These findings were confirmed by further research done in 2002.)

Talise spoke with Alice Flaherty from the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, who said of CBF, “When subjects with high and low creativity are compared, the former have both higher baseline frontal lobe activity and greater frontal increase while performing creative tasks.”

Such activity stimulates creative output in two ways. First, it activates the area near the brain’s nucleus accumbens, which Flaherty found correlates to increased creativity. Secondly, the frontal lobe serves as the headquarters for something called “creative divergent thinking.”

Divergent thinking vs. creativity

Divergent thinking is a common scientific measure of creativity. It is a type of thinking that explores many possible solutions and typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, non-linear manner. Put in other words, divergent thinking employs methods like brainstorming, creative thinking, and free writing to come up with outside-the-box ideas.

For an example of why scientists connect this kind of thinking to cannabis use, we’ll quickly travel back to 2001. In high school, a friend of mine’s room was a 420 oasis, home to many people’s early cannabis experiences—and the walls were covered with evidence of this exposure, thoughts scribbled in marker, so creative I can still remember a few nearly two decades later:

“I feel like I’m running through Jell-O.”

“Levametation.”

“I’m a butterflyyyyyyyyyy.” (Drawn in the shape of butterfly. Author may have been involved.)

When it comes to cannabis and creativity, dosage is key.

“Levametation,” the word in the second example, was created for a decidedly outside-the-box game show proposed by its author. It combines “levitate” and “elevation” to describe a process in which cannabis smoke would hang in the air after rising from the floor below, subtly smoking out the contestants. (Cleverest whilst unwittingly stoned wins!) So in this case, divergent thinking came in the form of brainstorming various names to describe an invented process that’s as dubious as it is imaginative.

In day-to-day life, divergent thinking is commonly employed whenever you list numerous possibilities to come up with innovative options; from how to raise Q2 fiscal earnings, to how best use that Costco supply of albacore tuna. Or more broadly, you use divergent thinking whenever you’re working to open your mind in various directions and to new potential solutions. We’ll go over a few widely-referenced studies that measure this kind of thinking to discern how cannabis use affects creativity.

Low doses help, big doses hinder

Leafly covered one such study in 2014; it concluded that when it comes to cannabis and creativity, dosage is key. The study found that in low doses (5.5 mg THC), cannabis slightly improved two aspects of divergent thinking: fluency, or the number of responses provided, and flexibility, or the variation in answers.

And, not surprisingly, scores were significantly raised for originality, or the uniqueness of responses. However, when the dose was increased to 22 mg of THC, scores were markedly lower in most categories. (Elaboration, or the amount of detail provided in explaining a response, was low all around—but was slightly higher in the placebo group.)

Getting low creatives high

Another study done in 2012 divided participants into high creativity and low creativity groups, then tested them both sober as well as under the effect of cannabis. The researchers had participants bring their own cannabis, so keep in mind that some variation in potency and chemical composition is to be expected here. Cannabis had little effect on the high creativity group, but after partaking, the scores of the low creativity group were actually boosted compared to those of the high creatives.

Basically, this study found that if you’re not already creatively skilled, then cannabis might help you to get creating. And if you’re already creative, this study says cannabis isn’t going to affect your creativity very much.

A chicken-and-egg situation

The results from this final 2017 study suggest that the people hanging out in my friend’s marker-covered bedroom may have been more creative to begin with. It found that cannabis users both self-reported being more creative as well as veritably scoring higher when their creativity was tested.

However, the study also tested personality types. It used a popular measure called the Big 5, and found that cannabis users scored higher on “openness to experience.” Because this measure reflects high creativity and imagination traits, these findings lead the study to conclude, “While cannabis users appear to demonstrate enhanced creativity, these effects are an artifact of their heightened levels of openness to experience.”

These results pose a bit of a chicken-egg dilemma: does cannabis use improve creativity or do creative people just tend to like cannabis?

In the end, see what works for you

As with other areas of cannabis research, there’s a lot of work to be done in regard to studying the link between cannabis and creativity. But, in summary, research suggests:

  • Cannabis increases cerebral blood flow, which points to stimulated creative output.
  • However, too much THC can actually hinder creativity, while a smaller dose has been found to help a little.
  • Cannabis can make less creative people more so, but has little effect on those who are already creatively advanced.
  • There are more creatively advanced people within the population of cannabis consumers.

In the end, scientists don’t have a hard conclusion on this very abstract matter. So if you’re already creative and attest that cannabis does further increase your ability, or if you do your best work after 20 mg of THC, then how scientists predict you’ll score on a specific verbal fluency test isn’t particularly relevant.

Do what works for you. And if you’re still figuring out how cannabis affects you creatively, try playing with different dosages, creative activities, strains, and environments to see if cannabis can help you tap into your inner artist.

How Tarot Cards Saved My Life

Meg Hartley for Ravishly

06.26.18

CW: graphic suicidal thoughts

I love the tarot. This deck of 78 archetype-based cards has been a guiding force in my life for a few years now. I start each day by drawing two cards for guidance, and then further consulting the deck sporadically with specific questions in mind. 

Last fall, one of those specific questions saved my life.

Let me back up a bit: this has been quite the year. In addition to current homelessness and health debacles, I’ve been to the mental hospital twice. My mother died from suicide 20 years ago, and I have clinical depression — something I’ve described as “suicide thought storms.” It’s something that I shamefully managed on my own with meditation and cannabis for over a decade, but couldn’t handle alone any longer once my body became excruciatingly painful due to fibromyalgia and severe B12 deficiency, which nearly killed me in 2015. (Because it can do that.) 

In the spring of 2017, about a year ago, I had to check myself into a hospital for several days because I feared that I wouldn’t survive the night. I had just gotten a denial of Disability payments, a hope I’d been clinging to far too tight, and felt utterly without hope. And it happened all over again last fall, hopelessness to the point of very literally wanting to give up. I moved to California between the two incidents (for my health) and was staying with a friend from college. Two days before the second time, I had gathered that they were going to kick me out — and I didn’t know anyone for hundreds of miles. 

I was going to be homeless. 

The thought was too much; it had been so hard for so long. I just couldn’t do it. I decided to kill myself. I rather peacefully accepted that I couldn’t take it any longer. That it was finally time to end all the pain and struggle once and for all. 

I was going to take all of my Amitriptyline pills and never wake up.

But for some reason, I gave myself a tarot reading before taking them. I’ve been doing my readings for about four years now, ever since a professional blew my mind with her accuracy and helpful wisdom. They’ve helped guide me through the hardest times of my life, keeping me hopeful before my diagnoses — during all of the terrifying cancer tests, all of the painful waiting. And then through two years of near-complete isolation when I was too ill to leave my studio apartment without help. Being able to connect to my inner wisdom in such a clarifying way gave direction to my intuitive feelings, enabling me to use them, rather than just ‘having feelings’ about potentials.

Once again, they came to my aid again last November. I laid out a Celtic Cross and for the “What lies above” card, the best possible outcome for my lethal plans — where I expected to see the “Death” card — was the four of swords reversed. 

The four of swords is a resting man that appears dead. When a card is reversed, it refers to the negative aspects of the card. A common interpretation for this one: a coma. The other cards also laid out the situation with great accuracy and told me nothing of mortality or endings, but instead to work harder and be more realistic. That might sound like a downer of a read, but I found it to be empowering — if something is my fault then I have the power to fix it! This positive thought flew through my mind, then was quickly drowned in the river of mental despair.

But it was enough. 

The flash of hope spurred indecision about my fatal plan, getting me to Google to see if I actually had enough pills to do the job; and it turned out that I didn’t. I just would have wound up with severe brain damage or…in a coma. Without a gun, which I feel like I should be legally prohibited from purchasing, I didn’t have any way to do it with a guarantee. I fell asleep, eventually, desperately trying to think of other ways I could successfully do it in the morning. But when I awoke the depression had lifted to survivable, thank god.

About 36 very rough hours later I again checked myself into a mental ward for my own safety, homeless, but not without hope.

A Step-By-Step Guide For Mapping Out (And Achieving!) Your 2017 Goals

MindBodyGreen, January 6, 2017
By Meg Hartley, mbg Contributor

A Step-By-Step Guide For Mapping Out (And Achieving!) Your 2017 Goals
Photo by Stocksy

Word on the street is that 81 percent of resolutions fail1, and a number of us start losing steam even within the first week of January. One of the main reasons we don’t achieve our goals? We get busy and forget about them! Here’s one foolproof, step-by-step way to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year:

1. First, map out your top goals for your year.

What are the first things you think of, or what have you already written down? If something seems random, note it anyway, as it could be your subconscious peeking out. Then purposefully move on to other “outside” areas: health, hobbies, relationships, love, work, etc.

2. Then it’s time to move on to “the invisible you.”

What qualities would you like to work on cultivating this year? Have you been hearing repetitive feedback from those around you? Maybe it’s time to listen better or to say what you mean. Pick at least one.

3. For each experience or quality that you’re cultivating in 2017, choose an image.

Choose one that makes you think of the idea in a quick glance, ideally that also makes you feel inspired. For example, if it’s listening better, don’t pick an image of someone droning on and another trying to focus, pick one that makes you think of why you want this thing in your world—something that makes you think of harmonious relationships at work and in life.

Then, you’ll write text for each image. In the text for each image remind yourself of why this is a positive addition to your life, “A reliable car that gives me freedom to go wherever I please.” Also, articulate specifics that’ll help you focus over the year, like if you’re working on bringing new relationships into your life, what kind of qualities do you want in them? Warmth, ambition, kindred interest in Star Wars? Yes, get that specific.

4. Set your Pinterest board to private, or keep your board somewhere personal.

It can be easy to account for others’ opinions if you think it’ll be seen, if only unconsciously. This is about your life, your goals; this is about YOU. (Though if you’re involved in a team, this is a great group exercise, too!)

5. As you go about 2017, look at your board at least one time every week.

Assess progress, next actions, and make a plan for the week to take action. Having the ability to look at your vision for the year in a quick and enjoyable way will keep your priorities at the front of your mind, and your focus where it needs to be.

The reason most people didn’t achieve their dreams? They were busy doing other stuff and forgot. This year it’s on you: Don’t forget!

Do You Constantly Think and Worry About Your Relationships?

Tiny Buddha, 2016
By Meg Hartley

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paulo Coelho

Sometimes it’s easy to define ourselves by our roles and relationships.

We can look at ourselves as a daughter, or someone’s employee, or so in so’s husband. These things mean a lot to us, and we often subconsciously use a variety of behaviors and mental constructs to protect these roles and relationships.

It can take form in innocuous ways, like buying clothes you don’t really want or feigning interests in order to fit in. (Go sports team!) But it also affects more serious things, like how we view ourselves, what we think we’re capable of, and what goals we pursue.

A common theme in movies is the mid-lifer who suddenly realizes they’ve made all of their decisions in life to please other people. It’s reflected in the zeitgeist so often for a reason—because it’s a common occurrence, and an easy trap to fall into.

My realization that I was doing this started taking shape with several ah-ha moments over the last several years, but it became palpable during an entrepreneurial workshop almost a year ago.

We all were assigned a personality test to take at home before returning the next morning. Mine said something like: You think with your heart and are excellent at building thriving relationships.

I thought that was a lovely-sounding result, but the next morning I got a bit of a jolt from the woman putting on this portion of the workshop.

“Ah, you’re a blue!  You constantly think about yourself in relation to everyone else.”

“I do not,” I replied, embarrassed.

“But you do. What are you thinking about when you fall asleep at night?  Your relationships. You wonder if everyone’s okay. You wonder how you affect others. You wonder what they think of you.”

I must have been nodding, because she said, “See? That’s thinking about yourself in relation to everyone else. Their approval means a lot to you, and that’s how it manifests in your mind.”

That irritated me in a huge way.

I ignored her for the rest of the day, fuming about how someone could say something so mean—and because of a silly little test that didn’t say anything about wanting approval! I was still thinking about it when I got home, all riled up with indignance.

Then it hit me. I’m a fan of Jungian psychology. I’m not an expert or anything, but I like the way that dude thinks.

He espouses the philosophy that our irritations and overreactions point to key truths about ourselves; when something or somebody really gets to us, it could be because it’s pointing to a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to see.

I had noted people-pleasing tendencies before, and I had made great strides! I no longer fake-laughed at things that I didn’t find funny.

I no longer thought of others, or their judgments, when making personal style decisions. And I no longer cared about being as thin as others, after struggling with eating disorders for years.

These things were a big deal to me, and it took focused effort to make these changes. I thought I was done! Then some random person goes pointing out the other-focused thought constructs in my brain like she can see them? What the what, man? Pssssch.

I tried to ignore it. Tried to pretend that it wasn’t there. But once something like that is pointed out, life tends to keep pointing it out to you.

I eventually leaned in and decided to do something about it. I’m a lover of meditation and mindfulness in all forms, so invented a mindfulness game of it.

I started watching my mind for other-oriented thoughts, and then I imagined shooting them down with the gun from the 80’s Nintendo game, Duck Hunt. Pew! Pew! I shoot them thoughts right down:

Imagining an argument with a family member: Pew! Pew!

Comparing myself to someone else: Pew! Pew!

Wondering how I’d explain myself for doing something: Pew! Pew!

Overanalyzing lack of reactions to my Facebook post: Pew! Pew!

(A few things that don’t count: non-judgmental relationship reflection, hoping people are happy, and forgiving others and myself.)

It might sound silly, and maybe for you it would be, but for me, it’s worked wonders.

It’s helped me find my center. I feel like my whole life I’ve been off, getting tossed about in the storm of others’ wishes, real or imagined; flung around in subtle manipulations, others’ or mine; and thrashed into the ground by judgments, spoken or merely assumed.

The benefits of cultivating a centered perspective like this are immense. For one thing, it leaves us free to cultivate inner-direction—to focus on the things that really matter to us, the things that we love to spend time on, the things that make us sparkle.  

I’ve discovered that we can adopt a centered-perspective as homebase. It had been there the whole time, this calm and peaceful mind, this quiet in the eye of the storm.

I had frequently visited it, usually while meditating, or by way of painting, or even via chore lists done in a zen-like fashion; but we can learn to operate from this place all the time.

My mind still swerves into the storm, but less and less. It’s noticeable, and feels odd, far from being a filter for life or a perspective to see it from, like it was before.

And once we spot mental constructs in this way, we stop identifying with them, and they can’t sweep us up like they used to. They lose power as new neural pathways are created, bringing with them new ways of thinking and of approaching life.

Try to spot your other-focused mental constructs going forward. Recognize when you’re dwelling on arguments, comparing yourself to others, or looking for their approval, and shift your focus back to yourself. Find your center.

Know that you’re more than how you affect the people around you. You’re more than what other people think of you. If you can focus a little less on who you are in relation to everyone else, like me, you might find yourself less stressed and far more fulfilled.