“I can’t sleep,” said Sarah*. “I keep seeing his hands in gloves, grabbing the merchandise!” Her voice trembled through her Syrian accent. “I can’t even be with my children. I start to sweat when I hear a noise. I think I’m going crazy. I just want to hide in my bed!” She began to cry.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” said Jamal. He began wringing his hands, eyes darting about. “I can’t take it anymore! When Hans speaks, everyone pays attention and responds. But when I talk, no one says anything.” His voice got louder, hands more agitated. “Everyone else seems to get along and be confident in their work. I just don’t think I’m leadership material!”
As a trauma-informed life and leadership coach, I hear stories like these nearly every day. I spend half my time telling my clients one simple truth: this is normal. You are normal. You are having a normal reaction to a traumatic experience like a robbery. Your body is responding normally to racism and microaggressions. You are responding normally to overwhelm and inhumane expectations. Your body is having a normal reaction to constant chaos, uncertainty, and threat.
“This is normal. You’re normal.” Often, hearing that is all it takes for my client to settle. They believe me, they see themselves more clearly, and they relax.
I’m effective in this coaching role because I, too, once thought I was crazy. I thought I wasn’t normal – that I was wrong and bad. I couldn’t figure out why life was so hard, especially since other people seemed not to struggle as much.
People who knew me as a child or young person might be surprised to hear I struggled. On the surface it looked like I had it all. I was identified as gifted when I was six, with an IQ higher than 98% of the population. I showed advanced aptitude for music, language, and writing. I always got straight A’s and was extremely well-behaved — always the teacher’s pet. I was a white girl in a mostly BIPOC public school. I was a good-looking kid: slender with long auburn hair and long fingers. My parents were married, my father had a stable government job, and my mother stayed home and prepared home-cooked meals from scratch. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood in a house my parents owned that had two green yards and trees. We attended church every Sunday, played sports and took music lessons, and read lots of books.
I was also desperately lonely and anxious most of the time. I didn’t realize this until many years later, because, like most kids, I assumed my reality was “normal.” Other kids respected and admired me, but I had few true friends. I tended to gravitate towards the marginalized and the suffering, like the bullied and the just-arrived Cambodian refugees, probably as a reflection of my own pain. My first mental illness manifested at age 10, but it was met with exasperation and cruel punishment by my parents, and practiced blindness or teasing by other kids.
Through it all, I just wanted to be “normal”. Even though many of my abnormalities were advantages or superpowers, being abnormal is desperately lonely. Have you ever met a well-adjusted superheroine?
I just wanted what most kids want. I wanted to have friends over. I wanted to wear clothes that weren’t from a thrift shop and were reasonably similar to other kids’ outfits. I wanted to wear pants instead of dresses and shave my legs when they got hairy. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be less painfully conspicuous. I wanted to belong.
But being “normal” went against my family’s religion of defiant abnormality. To be like other people was to be an unthinking conformist, a pawn, a drone. It was to be inferior and stupid. I now realize this was just a coping strategy probably driven by their own shame, marginalization, and sense of powerlessness, but both my parents and both siblings seemed to revel in their weirdness. They enhanced it, even flaunted it, and all but said out loud that my desire to be “like everyone else” made me not a Rinderle. Not one of them. I was a sellout and traitor to our family’s culture.
I wanted to be normal so I could belong. And in doing so, was ostracized from my own family.
It was well into adulthood before I learned that my desires were normal and natural, not pathological. I was in my 30s when I learned the unique challenges that high IQ and gifted people face – particularly our uneven development. It’s normal for us to struggle to develop socially even while our intellectual capacity surpasses that of most adults. It’s normal for us to be highly emotionally sensitive and perceptive.
But no one told me this was normal. They probably didn’t even know. So I thought I was bad and wrong, not my circumstances.
It wasn’t until middle age that I learned my mental illnesses were also normal responses — to trauma. The trauma of growing up in a dysfunctional family with parents who did the best they could but was still woefully inadequate. The trauma of being dramatically different from others and having to constantly downplay or hide it. The trauma of not ever feeling safe or accepted, even at home. The trauma of not having enough skills or support to calm, soothe, or ground myself when I was upset.
It took half a century, but I finally learned I already was what I always wanted to be: normal. I was normal. My body was normal. It had just been trying to keep me safe and alive. It was using the narrow strategies available to it given my inherited DNA, my inherited generational trauma, and the limited skillset of the adults around me. My body was a genius. It was a badass freedom fighter.
Through training as a somatic resilience practitioner, I also learned these responses weren’t just normal, they were healthy. They were healthy reactions to harm, neglect, and bullshit. They were signs of a functioning nervous system. I wasn’t crazy. I’d been sane, smart, and perceptive my entire life. I’d just been taught to be dumb – to ignore the signs of danger, the truth, and my own knowing.
I learned normal and healthy aren’t the same thing. Normal can be healthy – like my body’s responses to harm and danger. Normal can also be unhealthy – like the culture of my family. “Normal” is simply “the norm.”
Unhealthy normals are sneaky and dangerous. As a highly social mammalian species, humans automatically gravitate towards “normal” to belong and be safe, as I did. But there is much we consider “normal” today that’s not only harmful, but new to our species. Read the rest on Medium!
*Names, nationalities, and details have all been changed to protect client confidentiality.
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