Friday, November 23, 2012


Hidden Message, Austin TX
A few weeks ago, in one of my writing classes, the word "Normal" kept coming up.
We laughed about it a bit - what *is* normal after all? - but it kept creeping into the conversation.

Clearly, although quite a few of us - myself included - have done a lot of hard work around appreciating our authentic selves, not worrying too much about what *normal* is, it's still an area of discomfort. So when I got to one of the last chapters in Brene Brown's book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't) and found a section entitled "Shame and Normalcy" I almost burst.

Brene Brown is famous on TED for her talk and research on shame. Her books and talks are hard to recommend to folks - one student, after watching her TED talk, informed me that it was too much, as much as she wanted to get over her shame issues, and she needed to not go there right now. It's a lot to get into, shame. It's tied to nearly everything. In a talk she gives on a DVD I own (The Hustle for Worthiness), she mentions a woman who approached her and mentioned an earlier book that Brown wrote. "We were wondering if you would write a book on Perfectionism," this young lady said. Brown asked her why. "Well, my friend and I are perfectionists, but we know it's not really connected to shame."

"Oh really?" was Brown's response.

One of her titles is, in fact, The Gifts of Imperfection. But what *is* imperfection? Not normal? Not perfect? Are perfect and normal the same thing or somehow related, at least in our minds?

In the Shame and Normalcy section (which is in the chapter entitled Practicing Connection in a Culture of Disconnection), Brown says "Being real, genuine or sincere can feel secondary to fitting in." She mentions that in regards to sexuality in particular, more women asked her (she does hundreds of interviews for her research) for "numbers" - "When we can't get good information because it's either tainted by marketing spin or the topics are too taboo for public discussion, we become desperate for a measure of normalcy" in regards to sexuality than in any other topic.

Just recently, I finished Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The blog post before this one, about being an author versus being a writer, talks a bit more about this important title. But what strikes me in particular between these two books is that we don't talk about these most-important issues mostly because we are an extroverted, or extroverted-perceived-as-normal culture (predominate Caucasian-American culture, which, though it is barely the majority anymore, most folks are trying to "be" in order to "be normal"). Cain proposes (based on her extensive research and that of others) that introverts are more likely to discuss personal issues, even with strangers, than extroverts. And Brown points out that we already know this, via our regular interactions and sense of taboo - it's not normal to ask what is normal because we aren't supposed to talk about it because normal people don't have to talk about it because they already know.

That's not a double bind. That's a mega bind.

Most of my students are introverts, I am coming to realize, though quite a few of them (myself included) are highly adaptable introverts. Most of my students, though not all, crave intimacy, authenticity, even more than they crave normalcy.  

Most of them, most of us, crave intimacy, authenticity AS normalcy.

What would it be like if honest, direct and authentic speech, communication and interaction were normal? A friend of mine says that we all say we want it, but then when we get it - when a friend tells us how they are really feeling, when we actually tell others how we are feeling - we don't want it any more. It's become normal, popular in a certain section of society (therapy-attending, social-work- practicing, intimacy-aspiring authenticats) to want to have good boundaries, clear communication and honesty. Yes, sometimes this can become it's own bind. As Brown points out numerous times in her book, we often ask contradictions of ourselves and others: Be honest but don't hurt anyone's feelings, for example.

It's messy. The whole thing is messy. But I propose that messy is normal. Very normal. If we were to somehow trace what is underneath every human experience, according to Buddhist teachings, we'd find suffering: contraction, paradox, confusion and misdirection. Underneath that, even more normal than that, is our basic authentic self, ever-changing though it may be. Our desire to connect (Brown speaks of her Shame research as being on the power of connection and dangers of disconnection).

Underneath our common fear of being normal, underneath our common confusion about what normal is, the true normal lies. The true perfection lies. Our real humanity lies. We can find it. We can see it in each other. It takes time and effort, mistakes and laughter. It takes lifetimes. Find others who are doing it and support each other. We do it in my classes, which is yet another reason why my classes are less about writing and more about compassion: Authentic *can* be normal, if we allow it to be.

1 comment:

  1. YES: Most of them, most of us, crave intimacy, authenticity AS normalcy.

    I'd call it more like "expected" than normal, however, and not having shame is perhaps more surprising and unwanted (to others) than repressing yourself. I've found myself caught in a loop of having people shame me for not feeling shame or not sufficiently demonstrating shame.