I hear a common story in my office. Everyone else has it figured out. Everyone else has it easy. Everyone except me. What's wrong with me? Why am I so screwed up? I have crazy thoughts. I'm way too emotional. I pissed away my 20s working a dead-end job, and now I'm behind where I should be. My body is deformed. I'm. Not. Normal.
Some might say I see a biased sample of the population. I see mostly 20 and 30somethings. They're generally struggling with trying to balance the stressors of school, work, relationships, family, finances, health problems, and living up to expectations placed on them internally and by the people around them. Yep, I see humans dealing with human issues.
Biased? Maybe. But I'd say the only difference between the people I see and the people I don't is that the ones I see give themselves permission to talk to a therapist (and have access to it).
But see, a lot of money is made off our thinking we're flawed. The pharmaceutical, fashion, beauty and weight loss industries (to name a few) WANT us to think we're not good enough. They want us to think we're inadequate, not attractive enough, and not happy enough. They want us to think you've got this whole "living" thing wrong. After all, if we thought we were good enough as is, would we buy new clothes? Would we wear makeup? Would we spend thousands of dollars on our appearances? If we thought we were normal for feeling uncomfortable emotions, would we beat ourselves up for feeling sad or anxious and spend billions of dollars on antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs?
Probably not. Probably not as much, anyhow.
We've already started a conversation about how the media pressures men and women to achieve a certain bodily ideal that is unattainable for most. Most of us are aware of the airbrushing and extreme measures taken to portray this unrealistic ideal. However, the conversation we're NOT (loudly) having is the one about how society reinforces unrealistic expectations about how we should live our lives, and paints an illusory culture of "perfection."
The stories we hear in our society — through fairytales, TV, movies, tabloids, Facebook — all suggest life (and work, and relationships) is easy and pain free. They suggest we should cruise through school, find our dream job, get married and have kids, buy a home (extra points if it's free-standing), and live to meet our great-grandchildren.
We don't often hear stories of depression, illness, poverty, heartbreak, injury, and loss. We don't often see inside the minds of the protagonist, and learn he or she is having a "bad" thought. We don't hear about acne scars, cellulite, debt, affairs, depression, chronic pain, or estranged parents. And yet these are all very real, very common details of normal people's lives.
And so we think anything outside the norm of our narrow cultural views is "screwed up" or "broken." We think we're screwed up or broken. Feeling suicidal? You're crazy. In an open relationship? You must be a sex addict or a psychopath. Don't have your career figured out by 30? Loser. Not married but been together for five years? Married for five years but haven't had kids? Something. Is. Wrong. You don't own a home? You don't like traveling? You like Nickelback? Something must be wrong with you.
You. Are. (Probably) Normal. Your unpredictable feelings, your "sick" thoughts, your "deformed" body or your offside sexual fantasy. Chances are, it's all pretty darn normal.
In order for culture to change, we need to bring attention to the stories we've kept hidden. We need to stop illustrating a veiling canvas of an impossible culture of perfection, happiness, and ease of life. We need to encourage a culture of humanness, imperfection, and change.
I'm not saying we have to stop wearing makeup (I don't plan to) or buying clothes. You don't have to cancel your prescription for Cipralex or swear off having children. But consider what you can do to help encourage a culture that embraces diversions from the norm and values compassion over perfection. Consider living alongside painful experiences in your life, rather than trying to "fix" everything before moving forward.
The First Noble Truth is that emotional and physical suffering are the nature of life, and that suffering comes from expecting this life should be pain-free. Once we acknowledge that uncomfortable emotions, loss, and challenge come with the territory of existing on this planet, we can alleviate some of that suffering.
So the next time you're feeling broken, abnormal, or crazy, or are labeling yourself a "failure" or "fuck-up," remember this: Just because your experience doesn't align with the experience you see in movies or on your newsfeed doesn't mean it's "wrong." You're a human being going through a human challenge — one that hundreds of thousands (or millions) of others can likely identify with. We're all in this together.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.