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Escaping "Normal"


In This Article:


A neon sign reading "stay weird." in white, on a dark blue background.

There’s a chapter in the book “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives” (by David Denborough, 2013) called "Questioning Normality and Escaping Failure". It’s exactly what it sounds like: A series of ways to question the expectations and procedures in our lives so we can be free from the self hatred that springs up when we fail to live up to other people’s pointless standards.

A black and white newspaper cartoon with a man at a desk, telling a group of animals "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: place climb that tree." The animals are a bird, monkey, elephant, penguin, fish, seal, and dog. All the animals save the bird and monkey look shocked or unhappy by this situation.

How Are We Judged?

Easy example: That quote about “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Sounds obvious but how many times have we assumed that because everyone else is climbing a tree, we should be able to as well, and since we can’t, we must be the problem? Replace “tree” with “sitting exams” or “writing essays” or “reading books on paper instead of via audiobook” or “doing small talk”. Sure, there are people who excel at that- but why do they get to judge us by the things they’re good at, but we can’t judge them by the ways that we excel?

This is one of the reasons I believe being visible, openly neurodivergent is important to how I work. Equally why I think finding lived experience folks is really important, at least until everyone has a better base knowledge of our experiences. Because if someone isn’t taught about the ways our brains work - for better and for worse - then they can set up expectations that we’re bound to fail. And while there’s no “fail state” in therapy, it can certainly feel like there is, and if the therapist doesn’t understand why we’re “failing” it can just add to the feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Wired Differently

Fun fact: ADHD folks struggle with routines because our brains don’t produce the reward chemical that neurotypical brains do. So completing a task doesn’t have a default “yay!” feeling to it. So no motivation to remember to do it. This means that I can’t do CBT. It’s all about creating habits and routines that gradually change your behaviours and thought patterns. But if you are incapable of maintaining a routine, then it’s an exercise in self loathing as you return to your therapist every week saying “no I didn’t do it.” or lying about it to avoid shame.

Who benefits from us trying to be normal?

We certainly don’t. Trying to fit in to other’s systems is a great way to burn out, hate yourself, chop yourself into bits until you fit, or all of the above. The people who love us don’t benefit, because if they love us, us and not the roles we play, then they just watch us suffering as we try to dance to the wrong tune.

There is a group that benefits, and it’s the people who do fit expectations, because they get to have it easy, and get to watch everyone else struggling and pretend that they’re special, or gifted, or extra hard-working to succeed the way they do. They get to have their worldview validated because everyone else is trying to copy them, so they must be doing it right, yeah? We can all imagine someone like that - someone we know, or someone famous. And frankly: those people don’t deserve to be so comfortable. Not at our expense. If my happiness makes someone uncomfortable - well, maybe they need a little shaking up.

Does this sound like an interesting way to explore your experience? Does being normal (or failing to be normal) make your skin crawl? Let me know if you’d like to learn more about it, or try out some of these ideas in your own life.

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