‘Normal’ has a lot to answer for. We humans like to belong and our mantra is ‘don’t stand out in case you’re cast out.’ Whilst there are wonderful exceptions, we mostly want to blend in. The worlds of fashion, beauty, tech (and plenty of others) would die if we didn’t. Look the same, be the same. Just. Be. Normal.
It shouldn’t surprise us that ‘normality’ constrains us. It comes from the Latin ‘norma’ meaning precept, or a rule to regulate behavior and thought. It’s also a Carpenter’s Square, a metal tool that measures precise angles.
One of the challenges of ‘normal’ is that it’s compared with its opposite. And abnormal gets a very bad rap. In psychology ‘normal’ means sane, or free from mental disorder. In biology it is free from infection or disease. Normal = natural. Normal = good. Abnormal? Well who wants to be that?
In Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson quotes her adopted mother’s words when she reveals she’s gay: “Why be happy when you could be normal?” And the problem with striving to be ‘normal’ is that it can make us deeply unhappy.
Walter is one of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees who talks about, “That proverbial square trying to fit into the circle. Trying to force myself because that’s what I felt I should be doing. I used to think there was something very, very wrong. Because you have to be like everybody else.”
Cathy tried to get pregnant for years. “Two years ago, I couldn’t have spoken to you about this. I would have been in floods of tears, ‘my life’s over’ kind of thing.” But now she feels differently. “We were just plodding through, doing the expected thing, get married and having a baby. And actually, I’m questioning did we really want it? Or was it because we thought we should?”
The tyranny of the ‘shoulds’ can cause us such heartache. “I’ve spent my whole life so worried about what people think of me,” says Cathy. “Really, you shouldn’t give a damn about what other people think. But it’s normal, it’s human, isn’t it? You want to fit in.”
It’s hard to stand inside this precisely drawn square we call normality. And it’s stressful when the lines keep moving. Normality isn’t a standard measurement like height or temperature. It changes with geography and different societies. With different people and situations. We use ‘not normal’ to exclude and stigmatise others. So the very idea of ‘normality’ makes us anxious. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “Am I being normal enough today?”
We sand down our oddities to fit in, until we’re fit for public consumption. Helen was one of my interviewees who said, “I’m different. I’m weird. I’m not your normal interviewee. I’m not sure I’ll be useful to you.” What made her say this? Because she’d had quite a few jobs over the years.
Mark was made redundant, “I wanted to have a bit of a breather and sort myself out psychologically. I wouldn’t have been in the right frame of mind to walk into an interview. They would have gone, ‘he’s a bit odd. He’s psychologically damaged.’ Like I had PTSD.”
John felt called to the Christian faith as an adult. It felt momentous revealing himself. “There were moments like the first time I took my top off on holiday wearing a crucifix. I can still remember my sister-in-law gasping, ‘I didn’t realise you were one of them!’
He felt every time he made a ‘statement’ there would be a reaction. “The moment before you step into these identities you fear people will ostracise you forever.” But over the years he’s realised, “Quite quickly everybody just gets on with their lives. Who cares? So, John’s a Christian. Nobody gives a monkey’s.”
Sometimes feeling normal can be a comfort. Rachel was going through a difficult patch and went to see a counsellor. “The thing that helped me the most was her just saying very outright and upfront, ‘It sounds like you are anxious. Anxiety is fine and normal. We can talk through it and you can manage it.’” She found labelling and normalising was really helpful for her.
But others need to step outside that chalked-out square. Steph is in her thirties. “I feel under pressure because I’m a woman of a certain age. Everyone keeps asking, ‘When are you going to get married? When are you going to have children? If you don’t do it by this stage you’re more likely to have a child with problems. Isn’t that selfish of you?’” But Steph isn’t so sure, “Part of me thinks I don’t know if I ever want to have children. I think I’d rather have a dog.”
So normality is a strange one. We think we really want it but sometimes we don’t. Try this for a moment. Ask yourself which of these versions of the word ‘normal’ you’d like on your tombstone: Ordinary, everyday, routine, average, common, mainstream, unremarkable, plain, unexceptional, habitual, conventional? I’m presuming the answer is none?
So let’s break out of the need to be ‘normal.’ Raise a cheer to being different. We only have one life. Better it’s authentic, interesting and different. And Steph, just get yourself a dog!
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan