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. ❤
Ahhh, the empathy miss — that crucial moment when someone’s having a hard time and you really want to say the right thing, but after you speak there’s just a painfully awkward pause…you’ve stepped in it, and made things worse.
Or the reverse, you’re having a hell of a time and express that fact, and someone says something with the best of intentions — but rather than comfort their words leave you feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and worse than before you reached out.
As a society, we really aren’t great at holding emotional space for one another.
Luckily, a sociology researcher and famed storyteller named Brené Brown has been researching topics in this arena for well over a decade.
She’s covered many relevant ideas in this area, but one of the most helpful is probably her list of empathy misses from the book Dare to Lead.
BrenéBrown and Empathy
These are common well-intentioned behaviors displayed in emotional times of need that completely miss the mark, leaving the already upset person feeling more so.
While I’ve certainly been on the side of empathy miss, as everyone has, I’ve also dealt with being on the diminished end recurrently since invisible illness and problematic Autism traits have taken over my life.
People genuinely seem to want to say things to make me feel better, but they’ll wind up invalidating my experience or changing the topic altogether; leaving me feeling not only still alone with the issue, but also feeling like I’ve erred by even bringing it up.
And these are mostly kind, truly well-intentioned, people; and this happens to all kinds of Neurodiverse and/or disabled people.
They are trying — we all are trying — but we lack tools. This stuff just wasn’t included in our social conditioning. (And in some cases, there were toxins in its place.)Brené Brown’s 6 Empathy Misses
The concept of empathy is often described as a quality that people simply possess, or not, but while some folks do seem to have a particular knack for effectively understanding others’ feelings — Brown says empathy is also something we can work to become more effective at.
When dealing with nebulous and subjective issues, it’s often best to look at the failed attempts — or, what not to do. In this spirit, I’d like to present the 6 Empathy Misses identified by this sociologist who’s dedicated her life to helping us live with more heart.
This work branched out from her interest in human shame, with these being common unhelpful reactions after someone’s divulged an err. The list is from Dare to Lead, with explanation text from the book’s study guide, followed by my brief take:
Empathy Miss #1: Sympathy vs. Empathy
The friend who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you”)
When faced with an immediate internal reaction of “sucks to be you,” the most caring words are often something like, “That sounds really hard, need to vent?”
Empathy Miss #2: The Gasp and Awe
The friend who hears your story and feels shame on your behalf.
Have you ever confided in someone, sharing a mistake you’re processing — and instead of empathizing, as you might expect a friend to do, they act horrified and judgy?
Yeah, everyone else too. Let’s start trying to remember our own f*ck-ups before condemning those who trust us with their struggles.
Empathy Miss #3:The Mighty Fall
The friend who sees you as perfect. They are so let down by your imperfections and disappointed in you (“I just never expected that from you. I didn’t think you would ever be someone who didn’t do well. What happened?”)
The thing about pedestals is that they’re really easy to fall off of — plus, you know, they’re complete and utter bullshit. No one is perfect. That’s not even a thing. When we expect people to be better than human, we lose our humanity.
Empathy Miss #4: The Block and Tackle
The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that they criticize you (“What happened?! What were you thinking?”)
Otherwise known as, “How to get people to never trust you again,” this deflective move helps those scared of feels to avoid their own self-reflection — and it’s really freakin’ common. We live in a really judgy society and that kind of persistent energy can lead to folks becoming really defensive, which often turns into lashing out with condemnation.
I’ve (slowly) learned that compassion is the way out of judgment. When I’m hurt and my mind gets hardened over the WTF-ness of someone’s behavior, I do my best to imagine there’s a reason I’m not aware of before doing anything about it. It’s hard, but it’s important to remember that perspective really is everything.
Empathy Miss #5: The Boots and Shovel
The friend who is all about making it better and, out of their own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually make terrible choices (“You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you”). They are trying so hard to make you feel better that they’re unable to connect with your emotions.
This is another popular one. When feeling shame, and wanting to talk about the mistake — something that can lead to not making the err again, as the mind’s verbally articulated why it’s a nope — but someone just won’t believe you, it’s invalidating at best; and, at worse, it enables problematic behaviors.
Empathy Miss #6: If You Think That’s Bad…
The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you. (“That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”)
This one’s another one that often happens with truly good intentions, wanting to help the other person see that things could be worse; but it’s actually invalidating, and leaves the hurting person still alone in the issue they were hoping to talk to someone about.
Empathy Miss #7: I Can Fix That!
The friend who immediately jumps to problem-solving rather than just being with you in your experience.
Most of us struggle with this one, especially if friends often come to us for help solving problems. One helpful empathic reply is to acknowledge the feelings and ask, “What does support look like?” This gives the person in struggle the opportunity to say, “Just listening helps” or “Can you help me figure this out?”
You don’t need to fix it or make people feel better. Connecting and listening is powerful.
Try to understand how the person is feeling (not how you might feel in the same situation).
Help people know that they are not alone in their feelings. Even if you’ve never had that experience, you might know the feeling.
Let people know that you are grateful they shared with you.
Allowing opportunities for second chances. When we miss the opportunity to show empathy or when we would like the opportunity to do it better, we can say, “I’d like to circle back.” In this context, circling back means practicing empathy by trying again.
Next month will be two years since I was diagnosed with autism at 37 years old. I’d spent the prior three months going through the self-diagnosis process, every night I was plagued with the truth of experiences I’d reframed with delusional optimism, lied to myself about, or full-out repressed altogether. They haunted me all night long, smashing into my mind with heartbreaking clarity:
They weren’t really laughing with me. That’s what they meant by “you’re…funny,” without a smile. When they said I was brave for doing things that seemed normal to me, it was probably because they knew I’d get made fun of for it. Accepting the struggles at work and school where people accused me of not trying, there were real — physiological — reasons for it, but feeling powerless because I can’t redo my life and choose a more realistic and sustainable path for my neurological needs, and now my brain’s been run into the ground.
Daytimes were better though. I’d cry through meditation most mornings, shaking off the night, but by the end of my mandatory wellness stuffs that help lower fibromyalgia pain, I was amped to get back into learning about my brain, talking to other autistic people about our brains and brain issues, and starting to write about the things I’d learned.
It felt wonderful to finally know I wasn’t just someone who sucked at being human, I’m actually just of a different neurotype — my brain and nervous system have different needs, and I needed to start taking them seriously.
But the thing is, I don’t live in a society that’s allowed me to do so.
The matter of how to pay for one’s life is a huge problem in the autistic community, with nearly 80% of us unemployed. I was able to semi-skate by in my 20s, somehow graduating from college and getting an office job around the time my student loans became due. But the jobs never lasted, sometimes due to the economy and sometimes because of me, struggling to the point of autistic burnout and/or fibromyalgia flares (which I thought were a weirdly frequent flu) so having to quit or being let go.
There was so much needless brain drainage in Office-world. In order to be taken seriously, I had to sit straight with my feet on the ground (gah! musthavelegsup!), I couldn’t defend myself from the brutal 60* AC with a blanket, had to wear uncomfortable clothing, sit under painful fluorescent lights, and try to focus on menial tasks despite someone eating freakin’ microwaved fish in the next cubicle, someone else playing pop music just loud enough for me to hear, and the constant chatter of small talk betwixt the cubes.
And don’t even think of wearing headphones. Those are anti-social.
But it was much better than retail and service, where the audio cacophony was even worse and there was soooo much more talking about nothing — plus, numbers mix up in my head, I have very little working memory, and I confuse faces and names! (I tried bartending and trying to keep track of whose tab was whose nearly sent me into tears. Cocktail waitressing was also a nightmare.) Those experiences are probably what pushed me to finish college, the hope of a less draining way to earn.* * These are my particular autistic struggles, other autists with different spiky skill sets are probably fabulous at these things.
Anyways, a job loss in 2020 is what sent my negative autistic traits so high that I finally had to accept that being a Highly Sensitive Person definitely didn’t cover this shit.
The publication I was writing for lost an investor due to COVID, which at least meant that I qualified for unemployment despite technically being a freelancer. But that process was a maddening struggle (it was like 5 months to get the first payment) and all of my neighbors seemed to have lost work too, everyone in my crowded block was suddenly home all the time, often playing music at “fuck this shit” levels.
Sensory sensitivities skyrocketed and meltdowns became regular, sending me into desperation for answers that led to my autism revelations, then Level 2 diagnosis on August 10th, 2020. (Self-diagnosis is totally acceptable in the community, but I felt desperate for proof and was lucky to get an affordable-ish referral.) It was a bittersweet confirmation, a long list of what are essentially faults in our society, things I’d tried to hide my whole life. My assessor was shocked I’d gone so long without a diagnosis, which makes me wonder if I ever did pass as “normal,” or if people found me to be “off” all along.
But it was also incredibly validating. I’m not “off,” I am autistic and have millions of neurokin! And with clinical reasons for why I am the way I am, I hoped for more understanding and real connection in longstanding relationships once I told people the news. Instead, coming out as autistic largely brought the opposite. While there were some wonderfully accepting people, it was also a time when I finally got it into my head that people I thought I was close to for decades, family even, weren’t ever going to see me as one of them. They’d given up on me, full-stop.
The personal rejection combined with online bullying, continued auditory harassment, and old-fashioned “make the naive person do cringe shit just because she will” teasing led to a complete mental breakdown later that month. Burnout got worse after that. I’d have encouraging months where I felt like I was coming out of it, but in early 2021 I started experiencing nonverbal days, sometimes my brain was too exhausted to even think. When it was really bad I felt like I was getting sucked into myself and might not come back. It was terrifying.
I had a few encouraging months, but stress and trauma overwhelmed me again I had one more mental break last summer, which was absolutely soul-crushing and left me with a head injury that busted a hole into my wall. After that, my functionality was worse than it’d ever been, I couldn’t even make simple phone calls or figure out my Roku.
I thank the Universes that unemployment benefits, COVID rental relief funds, and the generosity of friends and strangers helped me get through the worst of times. Finally accepting that I’d lost people from my life over the last couple of years seemed to give me the room to open up to more supportive people I didn’t know all that well, just a couple of friends (three now, two long-distance) — but the routine connection and emotional support have helped more than all the therapists I’ve seen combined.
In late 2021, I finally had enough functionality to do something besides write about autism and started applying to the plethora of work-from-home positions that’d become available since the pandemic. I thought, finally a way to work without all the needless environmental drainage! Though I’m very grateful for the freelance work I’ve gotten, it hasn’t been a stable income and I hoped for a shot at benefits, a living wage salary, and some security.
But after a few months and so many cover letters I’ve literally cried about it (many times), I realized the proverbial fish weren’t biting so decided to examine my online presence. I’d spent years freelance writing through the stressful process of trying to get disability benefits, and I put out some very emotionally raw work, as well as writing all about my autistic experiences here with my full name — it’s work that I’m proud of, work that I know helped people because they took the time to tell me so. But, as a friend gently reminded me, that stuff can also scare employers off.
I knew they were right, and I felt silly for not realizing sooner, but as I took down and/or anonymized my work I felt like I was erasing the person I’d finally allowed myself to grow into. It was an emotional thing for me. The need for security is real though. I don’t have support (disability paid ~2 of the 7 years I’ve been homebound ill, and most of it went to debt), so I need to pay to live somehow. You gotta do what you gotta do.
Unfortunately, after greying out my internet presence, I only hooked one fish and it got loose after the second round in the hiring process. A while later I did wind up with a freelance gig, ironically at an organization that serves disabled kiddos, referred by someone who knew I’m autistic.
I was so excited but it wasn’t at all what I thought it would be and quickly turned into a communication disaster. I’m used to freelance content writing being like, “here’s the title, keywords, and word rate — go for it!” but this was completely different, it was like filling out a form, something that makes my brain go berserker. Very little analytical thinking, lots of filling in blanks, following directions, endless emails, and interviewing people with questions I didn’t get to write.
It was very typical of my office experiences, sans the smelly lunches, and I failed miserably; everything that must be time-saving for their other writers only added to mine, and asking for clarification led to my supervisor seeming to think I was needy, so I asked less, and eventually they took the essays before I could even finish them — two hours from completion to me, I’d finally gotten to the easy part (writing!) but I imagine finishing must have taken them much longer. It seemed ridiculous, more so after I got an email that contradicted every reassurance I’d been offered when expressing concerns in Zoom meetings. It felt like I was thrown under the bus before I even got where I was going.
In a way, I’m glad that it wasn’t a normal freelance gig because I needed to (re)learn that limit — traditional work situations just don’t work for me, even from home, and especially not now. Still, I’ve been floundering since. When I started the gig I was definitely still in burnout, far from the bushy-tailed optimistic finally-feeling-like-me-again person I was when I started my job hunt, but I was hanging in there okay.
Since then, not so much.
I’m struggling with my brain functionality, in the literal dark most of the time due to sensory issues — and now it’s been two years of autistic burnout. Is this my life now? Am I ever going to get better? At least better enough to pay for life and like maybe go to lunch with a friend on occasion?
And I still feel all greyed-out, both internally and in my online expression. Those articles and accounts are still gone or anon’d, and I’m not sure I should put my name back on them. People aren’t as good, kind, and open-minded as I presumed. At large, it seems we’re kind of horrible. My naivety remains cruelly intact, but I’ve turned into a cynic at the same time and I don’t know what to do with myself.
The times I feel strongest and most hopeful are when I decide that advocacy writing for autism acceptance, chronic illness awareness, and social change are my best shot. I’ve always had a book in me and started writing it seven years ago, besides a handful of not-good pitches and my last article here, it’s been about all I can work on lately; executive malfunction’s been intense, my brain’s like “special interest or nap, bitch, I’m just too fucking tired.”
Oh, but my mind. (It’s a strange thing to have your neurology disagree with your mind, but as a reader of ArtfullyAutistic, you’re probably all too familiar with the conundrum.) My mind says advocacy pays dookie and isolates you from societal acceptance/success, but maybe that’s just what it’s been conditioned to think. And if it were true, maybe changing times means it’s not anymore. I have found several literary agents specifically seeking neurodivergent writers, so that helps modulate Cynic Mind a bit.
Plus, I’ve been trying to squeeze myself into the norm for decades to utter failure and complete body-mind-spirit breakdown. I’m tired of throwing myself against that wall, it’s fucking broken me and I can’t break much more without shattering completely.
Writing this has helped, but I still don’t have a clear plan for what to do. I do need to start “coloring myself back in” so to speak. Looking back at old writing and social media posts, even ones where I was homeless, there was a sparkle to my words and in my eyes. I’m not sure where it’s gone, or if it will come back. I know it had to do with hope though.
I’ve just got to take it day by day. Hard thing by hard thing. Small joy by small joy.
And, eventually, I’ll find that sparkle again and get back to writing in a more “let’s take on the world!” fashion — but for now, there’s my painfully honest take on my first two years of autistic self-knowledge.
I’m broken, really broken. But I don’t wish to shatter.
Advocacy movements are changing harmful norms, but they can’t do it alone.
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 LivesMatter 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.
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.
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-ledcompanies 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 racist, sexist, 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.)
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.
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:
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 amember 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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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 lookattheheadlines 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.
In the 1930s, two distinct potential futures existed for cannabis in the United States.
Cannabis was no stranger to us at that time. Cannabis tinctures were widely available at pharmacies, but people weren’t accustomed to getting high off of those tinctures. Things were changing as Mexican migrants and the (largely black) jazz subculture started to enjoy smoking cannabis as a way to relax and unwind.
Our cultural pendulum swung over to Anslinger, shaping the trauma-filled world of cannabis that we now live in—but if it hadn’t, that “satanic” jazz music might have shaped our world instead.
This might have been just fine and dandy, had it not been for a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He got the gig in 1930, so when alcohol prohibition ended just three years later, it looked like he was out of a job—until cannabis came into his crosshairs. Anslinger was also openly racist and extra motivated by the idea of turning its predominantly black and brown consumers into criminals.
There’s many horrid quotes by Anslinger that sum up his revolting position, but this succinct one is the most powerful to me: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Cannabis gets a new name
Anslinger was a man with a mission. He was going to save his job, and he was going to lock up a whole lot of people of color while he was at it. Ol’ Harry knew that turning people against cannabis would take some real spin—he needed a bad guy, and granny’s arthritis medicine wasn’t going to be it.
Cannabis needed a total rebranding. It needed a whole new name.
Cannabis would have continued to be called “the gage”—a name that gives credit to some of the jazzy creators of our cannabis culture, rather than give homage to the man who did everything in his power to squash it.
“Marihuana” was the moniker that he ran with, transforming the beloved herb into an evil drug that caused “Reefer Madness.” To illustrate this PR spin, I’ll use another Anslinger quote:
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind…Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
As you know, our cultural pendulum swung over to Anslinger, shaping the trauma-filled world of cannabis that we now live in—but if it hadn’t, that “satanic” jazz music might have shaped our world instead, and no one would be talking about “marijuana.”
Cannabis would have continued to be called “the gage”—a name that gives credit to some of the jazzy creators of our cannabis culture, rather than give homage to the man who did everything in his power to squash it.
Smoking the gage with vipers
Portrait of Stuff Smith, Kelly’s Stable, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1946 (William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)
The gage has found itself beloved in many creative circles, but in the early days of jazz it was muse, subject, and therapy tool, all-in-one—a splendid inspirational force that penetrated the culture. As a muse, it inspired open thinking and lengthened time, allowing “vipers,” cannabis-loving jazz musicians, to mix it up and add more notes.
As a subject of jazz lyrics, there’s a whole catalog of early jazz songs dedicated to the gage. Take these lyrics from “Viper Mad” by Sidney Bechet and Rousseau Simmons:
Wrap your chops round this stick of tea
Blow this gage and get high with me
Good tea is my weakness, I know it’s bad
It sends me, gate, and I can’t wait, I’m viper mad
And here’s some choice lyrics from Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, “Here Comes the Man with the Jive”:
Where’s the man with the gage?
There is a man from way up town
Who will take away your blues
And any time the man comes round we like to spread the news
He is known from coast to coast to every cat alive
And any time they give a toast is to the man who brings the gage
Whenever you’re feeling small, don’t care for this life at all
Light up and get really tall
Here comes the man with the gage
Speaks the truth, doesn’t it? And to illustrate the point of cannabis as a therapy tool, I’ll quote the the man who’s perhaps the anti-Anslinger, father of jazz, Louis Armstrong: “It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”
But in the end, the penalties for illegal cannabis were too much even for even Armstrong, leaving us these fine words on the matter:
“Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you heap much. But the price got a little too high to pay. At first you was a ‘misdemeanor.’ But as the years rolled on, you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor (jailhousely speaking). So bye bye, I’ll have to put you down, dearest.”
Attempting to make good
It shouldn’t have happened like that. People in undeniably challenging positions—like a black community just a couple generations after slavery—not only had this cultural treasure taken from them, but then the community at large was further punished with the horrific effects of the the war on drugs.
Looking at the baby cannabis industry now, it’s hard to argue that attempts at social equity have been successful (or anything more than lip service).
Changes won’t happen in the industry overnight because people replace a word, but perception matters, especially to people choosing who’s going to sit in their corporate boardrooms. If we start refusing to say Anslinger’s “marijuana,” perhaps it could create some cognitive dissonance in those rooms, a bunch of white Boehners finally realizing they don’t know WTF they’re even doing in this scene.
Probably not. But changes in lexicon do drive conversation. They matter. Perception has already shifted worlds for “cannabis” despite the fact that it’s only been a few years, and many still don’t even know what it is. (Though confusion isn’t wholly unhelpful in a PR switch, ask ol’ Harry Anslinger…) Having another politically-correct term in the mix could help shed light on the POC communities currently being ignored by the industry.
In some dreamy alternative universe without Anslinger, the popularity of getting high off of cannabis in the US would have came to be right as alcohol prohibition ended, perhaps tempering the way Americans now treat booze, making us a nation with far less drunken ills.
But we don’t live in that world, we live in one where this plant has gone through a hell of a journey to accomplish legal-ish status—and we’re still calling it by the name beloved by those who banned it.
In the late 1990s, schools in New York set out to keep their kids safe from drugs. They partnered with a youth program to distribute pencils with an anti-drug slogan that read: “TOO COOL TO DO DRUGS.” This was all well and good until students sharpened their pencils, morphing the message:
People mean well. They really do. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and anti-drug youth programs are no exception.
Remembering other messages from the war on drugs, much of the information was wildly off-base—which actually led to me largely writing off adult warnings in general, as they seemed ill-informed and untrustworthy.
And it turns out, I wasn’t the only kid who conversely wound up more likely to use intoxicants after exposure to anti-drug programs and messaging: When the effects of a largely government-funded national youth anti-drug media campaign were studied, scientists discovered that not only did the near-billion-dollar program not work, it had the opposite effect on some youths. This boomerang effect resulted in youths who were exposed to the ads being 4% more likely to use intoxicants.
When theorizing why, some relate to my perspective—that exaggeration ruined the credibility of the messaging. Others posit that the heft of the widespread campaign unintentionally led to the perception that “everyone’s doing it,” making it more socially appealing.
So, what’s it like nowadays? While the anti-drug messaging for people who grew up in the ’80s wasn’t as bad as the Reefer Madness propaganda from the ’30s, today’s messaging hasn’t progressed as much as I was hoping to discover. Yesterday’s “This is Your Brain on Drugs” is today’s Stoner Sloth, but things are changing.
Cannabis Education in a Legal-ish World
I recently saw a table for the popular anti-drug program D.A.R.E. on my way into a grocery store and laughed because their logo remains completely unchanged—despite the fact that it has now become an ironic symbol, daring people to do drugs. I was stunned that they could still be so unaware.
After repeated studies showed that the ubiquitous D.A.R.E. didn’t work, and sometimes had the opposite effect, D.A.R.E. enlisted the help of a program called keepin’ it REAL (kiR). I spoke with Michelle Miller-Day, PhD, President of the organization REAL Prevention, which created kiR. D.A.R.E added kiR’s evidence-based program to their curricula in 2012, and has also added videos, with separate content for rural, urban, and suburban youth.
Miller-Day says the fearmongering of the past is indeed behind us. “Instead, the emphasis in prevention today is about social and emotional competencies to handle things like responsible decision-making, positive and negative risks, communication skills, stress management and mindfulness, and emphasizing social support in dealing with stressful situations that often lead youth to self-medicate.”
This time, science says they’re onto something with this report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
D.A.R.E. reports that it continues to improve, telling Scientific American in 2014 that they want to be on the “cutting edge of research and science.” However in 2015, they shared a satirical article claiming, “4 Teens Become Pregnant for Every Joint Smoked,” so one wonders if they’ve actually stuck to their old fearmongering policy. (D.A.R.E. declined requests for an interview.)
What’s the Science on How Cannabis Affects Teen Health?
Teens are highly capable of discerning whether what they’re being taught is a load of shinola. Actual facts, and their context, are crucial in developing credibility with teens who employ critical thinking—a skill so often taught in the very schools using these anti-drug programs.
If you’re a regular Leafly reader, you probably know where this is headed—we need more science on how cannabis affects health. How exactly it affects a teen’s body isn’t yet conclusive and some studies are misleading.
Teens With a Low IQ
This long-term study from Duke University on people in New Zealand reports a lower IQ in teens who use cannabis, however, it’s troubled by a problem many cannabis studies face: the chicken-egg dilemma. Situational and/or health conditions that already exist can lead someone to use cannabis for relief and self-medication in some way—a connection between a health issue and cannabis doesn’t mean that the plant caused the condition.
In the New Zealand study, the teens already had lower IQs. Dr. Gregory Tau, a psychiatrist and drug abuse researcher at Columbia University, told NPR: “It’s very possible that there’s something very different to begin with among teenagers who tend to get into trouble with marijuana or who become heavy users. They could have subtle emotional differences, perhaps some cognitive functioning differences … It may be hard for them to ‘fit in’ with a peer group that’s more achievement-oriented.”
Dr. Tau concludes that these differences could predispose a teen to turn to cannabis to cope with something difficult—here, having a lower IQ than peers—not the other way around.
Similarly, another popular claim is that teen-use causes schizophrenia—this has been debunked by many for the same chicken-egg problem, with sufferers using cannabis to self-medicate for their condition.
Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome
Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome is a condition that can develop in people who’ve used cannabis heavily for a long time. People with this condition develop cyclic vomiting, intense abdominal pain, and an overwhelming urge to bathe in hot water for comfort. And while that may seem like the fantasy of an anti-cannabis organization, there’s no anti-drug scare tactics or exaggeration in that description—I actually had a roommate who unfortunately developed it.
However, there’s a popular misunderstanding in this regard as well. Experts in teen drug education have shared that syndrome’s frequency nearly doubled in Colorado after legalization, a highly troubling statistic at first glance. But the condition takes several years of cannabis use to develop, and the study was done just one year after legalization, so not enough time lapsed between legalization and the syndrome’s rise.
What Should We Be Telling Youths?
To me, it’s a mystery why organizations aren’t telling kids about the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This network of receptors that exists throughout the body—with concentration in the brain and spinal cord—is responsible for maintaining the correct balance of all other systems in the body. (It’s the reason cannabis is so useful medically.) We know frustratingly little about the ECS, as the medical field has ignored it for decades, but we do know it’s a big deal.
The ECS does plays a significant role in adolescent development. As a fighter of fibromyalgia, one of the conditions thought to be caused by ECS malfunction, I wonder if the 19-year-old version of me, who did regular gravity bongs (out of an enormous Cheetos container) and spent most of her time in the circle, totally screwed current-me over.
Who knows, maybe I’d have better health today if teen-me had been exposed to science-based messaging regarding cannabis, like this program’s “Delay, delay, delay,” rather than an egg on a frying pan, which actually left me with oodles of questions.
So how does one effectively communicate the importance of a potential risk to someone during a stage of life when they feel invincible and rebellious? Something that may be potentially harmful in the future may not be pressing to a teen desperate to have all the experiences right now. But this communication is important.
The biggest strides of progress in this realm will be clear and conclusive facts. So, it’s up to scientists, and those who fund their studies, to give educators the tools they need to inform youth about how cannabis can affect their lives and bodies.
And for now, D.A.R.E.—perhaps a redesign is in order?