By Brianna Wiest
Our perception of “normalcy” is not the average of what exists, but the average of what we are exposed to each day.
Many people “feel fat” because they think “normal” is relatively thin, when national averages paint a different picture. (The average American woman wears a dress size 14, yet it is also the least purchased size in stores.) We are under the assumption that we are citizens of one of the happiest, most liberated and socially aware countries on the planet, yet statistics say we’re more medicated for mental/mood disorders than ever before. Individually, we think we’re struggling financially when we are, in all likelihood, some of the richest people in the world.
This is significant because our perception of “normalcy” largely dictates the quality of our emotional lives. On a physical level, normalcy translates to survival. On an existential level, normalcy is how our brains perceive oneness, and that relates to how much we feel self-acceptance.
There is a major cognitive dissonance between what we’re shown is average and what we perceive to be average, and because the majority of the aforementioned exposure and the subsequent creation of our world views now being so heavily filtered (ahem) through what we read, learn and perceive via social media, it’s likely that technology has a lot do with it.
Research points to a connection between increased media consumption and decreased ability to connect with others. Could it be possible that in countries where media consumption is increasing, statistical happiness is decreasing because the constant stream of aspirational content has cohered an idea of “normalcy” (the standard to which we should adhere) so much so that instead of feeling like we’re failures… we’ve actually become complete outcasts in our own minds? (The top three countries in the World Happiness Report are nowhere to be found on the list of countries that use social media most often.)
It would be the product of being consistently exposed to people’s “power moments.” Our social media feeds are highlight reels that are presented as though they are average, everyday reality. But people only post about their “power moments.” And nobody talks about their crippling depression during their “power moment.” Celebrities are lauded for their successes, and the advice that’s given in the articles that are published about them exists within the context that they’ve already “made it.” Their problems seem small and petty and easy to overcome.
We’re losing our ability to see this for what it is – highly curated content designed to make us feel inferior to keep the consumerist machine running – and instead, we’re beginning to accept that this is how life is, and should be, and that there is something inherently wrong with us when we close the computer and look around and there’s nothing aspirational about what we see.
If we are exposed to upwards of 5,000+ ads each day (that stat is from 2006, it’s likely far more by now) and spend an average of 4.7 hours on our phones each day, what’s happening is that we’re beginning to believe that we are experiencing mass exposure to the world – but in reality, we are seeing a tiny percentage of what exists via highly curated news feeds that only consists of our social groups and the accounts we want to follow – and by the sheer quantity of reinforcement, we’re being convinced reality is far more uniform than it is in actuality. It is activating our projection biases: every time we feel “different” in comparison to what we consume, we believe people are “more normal” than us, and we are even farther from being acceptable.
Think of it this way: The stigma against people who “stay in their hometowns” post-high school graduation is based on the idea that they stop evolving. The stigma comes from the misperception that it’s due to a lack of intelligence or capability, when often, it’s that their perception of “normalcy” remains more narrow.
Essentially, we allow ourselves to evolve to what we think is “normal.” After all, common behaviors are not the “average” of humankind’s nature as much as they are conformity to a constructed, social standard.
We see a desire for “normalcy” constantly, even if we don’t verbalize it or think of it that way. Extreme emotions feel scary because they are farthest away from “normal.” Self-acceptance feels scary is because it seems as though it would lead to ending self-policing, which would result in not being “normal.”
Yet, the part of our desire for “normalcy” that we rarely recognize is the idea that there is someone else policing us into it. The “audience,” if you will.
With media documenting and essentially supplementing a digital “profile” of who we are and how well we’re doing, life can begin to feel as though it’s performative. Much behavior is influenced heavily by people who want to appeal to their “audience.” Yet, who, exactly, are the faces in the crowd that we refer to as “people?” You know, “they.” The ones we’re always afraid will judge us. Yeah, those guys.
Understanding that normalcy is something you construct will free you from having to perform for the “audience” you think is judging and policing you into behaving acceptably. That audience is just a projection of yourself.
The inherent desire to understand and adhere to normalcy is a product of wanting external proof that we are acceptable. While this is constructive in many cases (it lays the foundation for how you should treat people beyond your base instincts) it also distances us from ourselves as we chase a concept of “acceptability” that we had only ever created in our minds to begin with.