We all feel a pressure to be ‘normal’ at times: to live up to societal expectations, to fit neatly into a category, to be clearly understandable by others. But what does it really mean to be normal? And is it actually a desirable state to be in? Through practicing mindfulness, I’ve been able to gain confidence in embracing the ‘abnormal’ aspects of myself and those around me. I have come to realise: that which is out of the ordinary can at times offer us the most beauty, joy and wisdom in life.
Allowing room for difference
The pressures we feel not to divert too far from mainstream behaviors can come in response to different choices, large and small: from what you eat, wear and spend money on, to who you choose to love and how you choose to spend your life. Unfortunately, these pressures can cause a feeling of quiet desperation in those who feel that they just don’t fit in.
Taking a well-worn path or fitting into society can be comfortable and reassuring. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with living by norms and traditions, they should not be imposed upon people. People should not be forced to live within society’s boundaries to the point where there is no room for diversity and difference.
One of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a powerful Ted Talk on ‘The danger of the single story’. She says: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” We need to allow for spaces and identities outside of stereotypes and our own perceptions of normality, rather than trying to fit people within restrictive boxes.
Acknowledging multiple truths
There is no one ‘right way’ to do things. There are multiple ways for people to live, work, be in relationships and have fun. This becomes even more clear if you travel, but it is also relevant within one country, one city, one neighourhood – even within one family or group of friends. It can be those closest to us who we try hardest to fit into our version of normal. But allowing others space for their truths and acknowledging how many different ways there are to live can help to give more space for your own truth to flourish too.
One thing mindfulness has helped me to do is to stop always identifying with the constant flow of judgmental thoughts in my mind. When I slow down and observe my thoughts, I realise that a lot of them may be natural responses or fears that are based on the expectations I perceive in society. From this point I can identify those thoughts which serve me, and try to let go of those which don’t.
Dancing in the park
A few months ago I went to an event called Dancing in the Park in Rotterdam, which was a lovely evening of improvised dance outside in the summer sun (see image at the top of this post, via Dansen in Het Park). The dancing involved connecting deeply with the trees and mirroring the trees’ movements. I really enjoyed the experience, but at some point I briefly got worried that someone I know might come past and see me, and then think that I’m a hippy tree hugger. But then I realised: a part of me is a hippy tree hugger! ☺ I don’t need to be ashamed of who I am, or ruin an enjoyable experience worrying about what others might think of me.
Reflecting on my own identity, I sometimes feel in between the cracks of different versions of normal, which is maybe why I don’t like the term. I experienced my childhood in Glastonbury surrounded by crystal healings and tarot readings, and then spent my teens in Cambridge surrounded by materialism and academic prestige. I went to University with many comfortably middle class people, but I grew up on a poor council estate with many people on state benefits. To some of my more hippy friends I may seem a little mainstream, while to my more mainstream friends I seem like a massive hippy! Both perceptions are true in a way, yet neither are the whole story. We are all complex beings, and to some extent we all have the power to make ourselves anew in each moment.
Thank you to all ‘abnormal’ people
In the larger picture, there can be more structural and even violent constraints trying to keep us within the norms of society. At one point it was normal for women to be denied the vote, for schools to be segregated based on skin colour, for people to be imprisoned for who they chose to have sex with. Sadly, some of these things are still accepted in some parts of the world.
However, it is clear that massive strides have been made. This is not to say that there isn’t still lots that needs to be changed in the name of equality, and sometimes it can feel as if we’re going backwards in the current political climate. But it is clear that we have benefited from the struggles of past activists, thanks to their bravery to be ‘abnormal’.
I feel inspired by many of those pushing the boundaries of what is considered normal. It can be helpful to remember that what’s normal today was abnormal yesterday, and what is abnormal today may well be everyday practice tomorrow. So, let’s use norms and stereotypes to guide us in as far as they are useful, but let’s avoid using them to restrict, reject or punish ourselves or others.
Share your comments
What do you think about normality and stereotypes? Do you feel pressure to be ‘normal’ or do you fight against imposed ideas of ‘normality’ in your life? Thanks for reading! 🙂
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