Recently someone described me as abnormal – and I decided that it was a compliment! It got me to thinking about what normal is. The word means: ‘according to the customs and habits of the time or place.’ It is the accepted way of being and behaving within a specific context. We also call this being conformist.
Now, at some level, we all need to conform or fit in. There are laws to hold us in check: if I don’t pay for my utilities, or injure someone deliberately, I will be called to account.
There are also some universal ‘laws’: being kind and courteous, doing no harm, which most of us live by, because they are fundamental human values, and we are basically decent human beings.
However, most of the rules we live by without even thinking about it are not in these two categories. They are just the way we do things in our culture. To take a simple example, most people take a shower every day. Yet when I was young, we just had a bath every week – there weren’t showers in most homes. And it was not that long ago that even baths were a special occasion, indulged in once a year!
Again, having a mobile phone is now considered the norm – in fact, it has to be a smartphone, because then you can respond to emails as well, and be available 24/7 by one means or another. Yet I remember when lots of people didn’t even have a landline, and the phone-box at the end of the street was used if there were an emergency. Otherwise you wrote letters.
These examples just illustrate how ‘normal’ changes over time and is an ephemeral phenomenon. So it is worth questioning whether you feel that the norm suits you, or whether you want to create a new ‘normal’ that fits you better and makes your life feel better.
Now, anyone who knows me will know that conforming is not my strong suit. In fact, I am actively working on being who I really am, rather than who I am expected to be. And I believe that we are lucky in this day and age, because we have so many more choices of ways of being and behaving in the world. We can call on different examples from all over the world and from history, because that information is readily available, and do a ‘pick’n’mix’ selection of what suits our personality and preferences.
So let’s begin to make conscious choices, to establish our own personal norms, instead of being and behaving normally. Lets’ question the norm before we just conform to it.
How do we do this?
- Once a day notice something that you’re doing that’s habitual: answering the phone as soon as it rings; starting on dinner as soon as you get in from work; agreeing to do something you don’t really want to do – you’ll find lots of examples. Now check this particular behaviour out: are you doing it because you feel better if you do, or are you doing it because ‘people do’ or ‘they’ expect you to.
- If it makes you feel better, then it’s fine to carry on.
- If it doesn’t make you feel better, then ask yourself: ‘How would I prefer to behave?’ ‘What would feel like a better fit for me?’
- Next time that habitual behaviour comes up, experiment with a different approach: let the phone go to voicemail, and ring them back if you really want to speak with them now; sit for five minutes and have a cuppa before you do dinner; ask for time to consider before you say yes.
- If the experiment works for you, start to do it more often, until it becomes you new normal. If it doesn’t, try something different until you find what does.
Be warned, this can create two different forms of pressure to return to old habits – after all, they are pretty ingrained in us.
- Others expect you to behave as you always have behaved, and will ask you why you didn’t or in some way make you feel guilty for changing.
- Even more insidious is our own mind, which tells us we are causing a problem or upsetting others even when there’s no evidence for it.
The good news is that if you stick to your guns, it becomes easier, and others come to accept your new normal.
So come on, make life work a little better for you by changing those ‘rules’ you’ve been living by that don’t really fit for you. Join me in being abnormal and proud of it!