When you find yourself feeling anxious or mired in negative thoughts, you may notice that behind the stream of anxious thoughts is the question,
What is wrong with me?
Sometimes this shows up as a projection:
What’s wrong with her/him/them? or What’s wrong with people?
It’s one of the most pervasive questions underlying anxious thoughts.
In The Wisdom of Anxiety, Sheryl Paul writes that lurking beneath this question, and beneath so many of our anxious thoughts is another question:
Why can’t I (you/he/she/they) be normal?
Ah… so true. How many times have you heard someone say this? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself… about your kids, about a spouse, about yourself.
The moment I read this, it resonated with me. And then, as I processed it, I thought,
Why would I want to be “normal”? I don’t want to be like everyone else.
This is one of the great tensions in life.
Tension: Longing to Belong vs Longing to Stand Out
The Longing to Belong
On some level, we all want to feel that we are “normal” — meaning that we fit in. This is the “longing to belong.” In evolutionary terms, if you were not in the tribe, your life was at risk. A feeling of belonging is crucial to feeling safe in the world.
When people with kids say that they want their kids to be “normal,” what I hear them saying is I want my kid to fit in socially and have friends, to not be the outcast.
If you’ve ever been the odd-one-out for any reason, you know the pain it brings. It’s a pain that can have repercussions for a lifetime.
When I was young, I was the tallest kid in my class for a long time, and always the tallest among my friends. Not by an inch or two, but by several inches. I would hunch over to fit in: rounding my shoulders to protect my heart. My body learned that it wasn’t safe to open up because I would stick out; it created protection strategies and a habit of rolling the shoulders inward. I’m still working to correct that postural adaptation.
This is the longing to belong in action.
The Longing to Stand Out
On the other hand, we long to stand out, to be recognized for our distinctiveness, to be celebrated for our individuality. Who wants to be just like everyone else?
We are living in the era of the “personal brand.” Whether you run your own business, looking for a job, or trying to break through the crowd in any field, distinctiveness and originality are crucial to success.
How do we resolve this tension?
Three thoughts on this:
(1) We Don’t Resolve It
The tension between the longing to belong and the longing to stand out is a universal tension. It’s like the tension between certainty and variety. Both are always at play. We must navigate our edge in every situation and feel into which longing will win in that circumstance.
(2) We Remember that “Normal” Is a Myth
There’s no universal normalcy because what’s “normal” is contextual.
Also, normal isn’t a concept that was meant to apply to real people:
Normalcy, though, is first and foremost an idea that arises from statistics. The normal, norm, or normalcy do not exist in the real world of real people, despite the fact that we are told that we can modify our behavior and train our bodies and minds to reach it. We are told to chase it — in our culture, and our families, in our lives. But when we chase it … it disappears. Normalcy is like a horizon that keeps receding as you approach it. — Jonathan Mooney, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal
(3) We Focus on Our Shared Humanity Humanity
Ultimately, the things we point to as evidence of whether someone or something is “normal” are surface things. Beneath everything we share the common bond of humanity.
When we remember this, we can become comfortable with standing out in our individuality while also feeling the safety of belonging to the tribe.
When we look beyond the surface layers, we experience the feeling of oneness.
There’s a Mayan saying I recently learned that sums this up:
In Lak’ech, Ala Kin.
I am another you; you are another me.
We are distinctive individuals, and we are the same.
In a world where we recognize In Lak’ech, Ala Kin, there is no need for “normal.”