The normal you wish you were

Photo:  Fischer Twins  on  Unsplash

“It’s hard spending time with people who are the normal you wish you were,” said one of my closest friends. Her husband was struggling with a dependency on alcohol, and he found it painful to hang out with friends who could have a few drinks and call it a night. He would regularly talk himself into thinking he could be “normal” like them and just have a few drinks, but “a few” invariably turned into “too many” for him, and he would end up feeling shame about not being able to control his relationship with alcohol.

The phrase my friend had used rang in my head for days: “The normal you wish you were.” It felt so universal-- we all have a normal we wish we were-- Wishing your family had treated you the way your friends’ parents treated them… wishing you could be less anxious and fit in at parties… wishing you didn’t have a disability or illness that impacts how you navigate your social world… wishing your body looked or behaved more like the bodies of those around you. I thought about all the types of “normal” I wish I were… I wished I had grown up knowing that I had the option to take care of myself first and then help others. I wished that “self-care” and “boundaries” hadn’t been novel concepts when I first discovered them a little later in life than most. I wished it had occurred to me that I should probably learn to cook more than just French toast and scrambled eggs before I stopped living with my parents.

Hanging out with people who seem to be the normal you wish you were can feel isolating because you might get the impression that you’re the only one whose internal life looks a certain way. And on top of that, if you assume others would judge you for sharing a particular piece of yourself, you’re less likely to talk about it with others. If you’re not talking about an important piece of your internal experience with others, you can end up feeling like nobody really “gets” you, and that can make you feel alone. When you feel alone, you’re less likely to share vulnerably with others, and you can get stuck in a feedback loop between feeling alone and not talking about it with anyone that’s hard to break.

But here’s the thing. You don’t really know anyone’s internal life unless they share it with you. You can guess, but I’ve seen enough jaw-dropping contrasts between exterior demeanors and interior thoughts/feelings to know that guesses about what someone’s everyday experience is like are mostly useless. People can be exceedingly skilled at hiding how they actually feel or think, especially if they’ve been hiding it for a long time. I can’t count how many times I’ve talked about having an experience I thought was relatively unique within a group of people only to have a chorus of “me too’s” chime in as soon as I shared it.

And even if you are the only one in a room who has your particular “thing” that makes you feel like you’re not “normal,” EVERYBODY has a “thing.” At Skip the Small Talks, I have seen so many “normal” people open up and share what’s “not normal” for them that I’m convinced nobody is truly “normal.” Yes, even that kind and charming Harvard graduate with 2.5 children and a lawn that somehow always looks freshly cut has a normal she wishes she were. Yes, even that guy with the million-dollar smile and impenetrable sense of confidence. Yes, even that twenty-something who grew up with a loving family and has a super cool job and trains for marathons and somehow has time to take care of a dog has a normal she wishes she were.

Everybody has some ways in which they experience and interact with the world differently from most other people. While there might be some qualities or experiences that most people possess (for example, most people have learned some cooking beyond breakfast foods before they left their childhood homes), there is no one person who has ALL of these “normal” qualities or experiences (or if there are, they are so few and far between that they are the odd ones out). If there is a “normal” person out there, I have yet to meet them.

When we crave being normal, what we often really mean is that we crave feeling accepted for the ways we think we diverge from the norm. So, ironically enough, one of the best ways to feel more “normal” is to share the ways in which you don’t feel “normal” with others who can accept you for who you are. So the next time you’re feeling like you don’t fit in, even if it feels counterintuitive, try telling people about it. You might be surprised at how many people respond with, “Me too.”