I first confronted the shame of not feeling normal in grade school, when my friend told me that “ALL mommies and daddies” live in the same house. I am the child of two wonderful people who were deeply in love but never married.
I don't remember how I came to believe that “normal” equaled good and “abnormal” meant bad, but I will always, always remember the confusion I felt on the day my friend made her announcement.
Thus began a long journey of questioning my own family structure, and why it looked so different from that of my friends and my television idols. And it wasn’t just my family that I questioned! I was too tall, too big, too loud, too pensive, and I asked too many questions. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, I was left feeling left out of the normal clique.
Almost 30 years later, I still struggle with the word normal and what it means, what it doesn’t, and who gets to meet its standards. Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are bombarded with messages defining “normal.”
In all aspects of our lives, we are shown images that define normal relationships, sex lives, children, clothes, body sizes and belief systems. This is especially dangerous in our culture of PhotoShopped images and heavily filtered and highly curated social media.
It has taken years of my own therapy (and tons of confronting my shame triggers), but I feel blessed to say that I no longer live a life of striving to be normal, but rather one where I strive to be authentic, to live my deepest values of kindness and service, vulnerability and connection.
And it is one of my life’s goals to help others find the same freedom.
In my psychotherapy practice, I encourage my clients to use the following five tools to help them live a life that stays true to their authenticity, rather than a life that confines them to our culture’s narrow rules about normality.
1. Practice critical awareness.
An idea borrowed from Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, critical awareness starts with educating ourselves about advertising and recognizing that ads sell much more than just products: they sell ideas, values, and heavily influence our expectations of normality. Also, we live in a culture where the images we see are altered and perfected through technology. Start with asking yourself: Is this image I’m seeing real? Does it reflect my value system?
2. Know your values.
Clients often confuse values with feelings, needs, or moral codes. Values are actually defined as desired patterns of ongoing action. In other words, values inform behaviors that tell us who we want to be moment-to-moment. When experiencing the shame of not being normal, ask yourself: Is this who I want to be?
3. Look around.
When we find ourselves caught in the shame of not feeling normal enough, it's helpful to remember those people whom you care about most. What is about them that you love? Usually, these traits are actually unique and even “quirky” aspects of their identity. We love people despite how they fit into our culture's standards of “normal,” not because of it.
4. Practice self-compassion.
In both my personal and professional life, I am consistently saddened by how easily we bully ourselves while showing compassion for others. It's helpful to remember the wise words of the Buddha, “if your compassion does not include yourself, it is not complete.”
5. Redirect your energy.
We live in a society that tells us “image is everything,” causing us to over-rely on external factors to measure our worthiness. What would it look like, instead, if we redirected our energy into something more meaningful to us?