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Illusions of Normal: How Well Do We Know What Others Think?

Illusions of normal: How well do we know what others think? - group of people with puzzle piece dialogue boxes

This post explores some of the issues that came up in Todd Rose’s book Collective Illusions, which I reviewed a few months ago. Collective illusions are the social norms and expectations that we think everyone else agrees with, when in reality, most people don’t privately agree with those norms and expectations. Yet we’re hardwired to conform with our social groups, and collective illusions can mean that everyone ends up doing what nobody wants to do. This also fits in well with what Sheva Rajaee wrote in Relationship OCD about the cult of what’s normal that we’re all indoctrinated in by the time we reach adulthood.

Todd Rose went so far as to say that when it comes to the things that matter to you, you’re likely completely wrong about what the majority of people think on at least half of those things. He also pointed out that we’re not good at detecting actual expertise, so when people seem confident, we’re likely to think that they know something we don’t and we should follow along. And there are a lot of confident people out there presenting themselves as gurus and telling us how we should be and what we should think, feel, and want.

Think of all the shoulds you’ve learned, expectations that come from society at large that you don’t actually want to do. What if no one else wants to do those things either?

Success

In Todd Rose’s book, he wrote about a study that found that most people (97%) privately believe that success is about being the best they can be at what matters most to them. At the same time, 92% of people thought that most other people agree with the societal notion of success in terms of career, money, and fame. Because of that perception of what other people think and the innate desire to conform to social expectations, a whole lot of people are focusing on the career/money/fame element, since that seems like what they should do, rather than being what’s actually important to them.

What if more people decided to say screw it to what society seems to expect, and actually pursued success on their own terms? If a big chunk of that 97% of people who define success differently were to do that, the social norm could change pretty darn quickly.

Productivity

We’re constantly hit with messaging that productivity matters, our worth depends on our productivity, and we should always be striving to do more, more, more. Even during the pandemic, there were some people getting loud saying you needed to find a new hobby, learn new things, start a new business, bake lots of sourdough bread, etc., etc.

But let’s take a step back from the insanity. Aside from the people who are loud and probably trying to get you to pay them money, who actually wants to be productive all the time? If you could put the rest of your world on pause for a day and do anything your little heart desired, would you choose a restful day doing things you enjoy, or would you choose an über-productive day?

My guess is that it’s a big fat collective illusion. I would also guess that most people would honestly prefer the former, but feel they should choose the latter. But if we recognize that the confident people are just trying to make money off of us and instead decide to ignore what they’re saying, why shouldn’t we be able to do what we want?

Ideal day

If you Google “ideal day”, you’ll get articles telling you about a routine that I have a hard time believing is anyone’s actual ideal day. If time checking email, attending to a to-do list, or waking up at 5am when you’re a night owl make it into that ideal day description, I call bullshit.

What do you absolutely love to do? What are those annoying things that you would love to be able to cut out if you could? Setting all expectations and obligations aside, who wouldn’t want an ideal day focused on things you love and free of annoying things? So why is the ideal day talk dominated by these productivity-focused people trying to sell you courses or books or whatever?

Self-care

I suspect there are also collective illusions regarding self-care. We’re taught that self-care is selfish and we should prioritize other people’s needs, but who actually wants that? Setting all expectations and obligations aside, how is self-care not a secretly desirable thing?

Feeling rules

We’re taught that in certain situations, there are things that we should or shouldn’t feel. That can lead to feeling guilty about feeling a certain way that goes against that. But maybe those feeling rules are built on one big collective illusion.

After all, open discussion of feelings doesn’t happen all that often, particularly when it comes to emotions that run contrary to feeling rules. Maybe a lot of people’s emotions don’t adhere to feeling rules, but they don’t feel comfortable enough to talk about it, which perpetuates the illusion that most people don’t feel those “wrong” emotions.

Your social circle

Social expectations would say that we’re supposed to have a large circle of friends. Sure, some people probably do want that, particularly people who are highly extraverted. But on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, most people aren’t at the highly extraverted end, and for a lot of people, a small circle of close friends may be a lot more appealing.

Life milestones

Todd Rose pointed out the power of asking “why?” or “why not?” to challenge social expectations that aren’t actually built on anything solid. The idea that we should achieve certain life milestones by certain ages is pervasive, yet it’s not built on a solid foundation.

This is a tough one, because people who haven’t achieved these milestones probably are getting hit with questions like “why haven’t you _______ yet?”

But maybe “why should I have?” could be a powerful alternative to going into self-defence mode, because the people asking those questions probably haven’t thought about a why.

Relationships

In Sheva Rajaee’s book, she wrote about the “myth of the one.” Even at a young age, we’re hit with fairy tales and Disney movies depicting these knight in shining armour stories of love. But is this reality? If I think about the people I’ve known who’ve been in successful long-term relationships, that’s not their story. Sometimes the people with the great stories are the relationships that end up crashing and burning.

Maybe it’s a collective illusion that a good, solid, healthy relationship is the fairty tale/movie version. Maybe it blinds us to the reality that solid relationships are built on work and partnership, and besides all of that, there are also single people living happy, fulfilled lives doing their own thing.

Social media

Todd Rose wrote about how social media allows for people with fringe ideas (and bots) to create rapid shifts in what’s perceived to be the consensus. These collective illusions can feed into “a deep, unsettling sense that something is wrong with our society.” Sounds about right.

Twitter seems particularly likely to feed into polarization because of the 280-character limit. That’s just not enough characters to be able to include nuance, so even posts by people firmly in the grey area are likely to appear as black or white. The nature of the platform can make grey area hard to find even if you tried, although that doesn’t mean that the grey area doesn’t exist.

Challenging expectations

Self-censoring and quietly going along probably feels like the safest option. But what if other people also disagree with perceived social expectations, and they’re staying silent because no one else seems to disagree? What if silence perpetuates illusions of a normal that doesn’t actually exist?

Maybe part of the power of blogging is that it offers a way to question the unwritten rules and expectations of the society we live in. It’s an alternative to silencing ourselves and sustaining collective illusions, and a way to question the things in the world around us that don’t make sense. It’s a way to see that there are other people who want different things than what’s served up to us as part of the dominant social messaging.

Maybe it’s okay to say “to hell with what’s normal” or “fuck what’s expected” and carve out our own paths. Sure, it’s not easy, but who knows, maybe that would be a whole lot more satisfying than bowing at the altar of the cult of what’s normal.

23 thoughts on “Illusions of Normal: How Well Do We Know What Others Think?”

  1. I don’t even have any realistic chance at observing the goals I set for myself while in college. And, due to chronic illness, those desires have had to change. Today, an ideal day would just involve feeling okay rather than so jumbled up in my head. It is tough, because I really don’t ever feel okay a whole lot. And at my age and activity level, my energy is waning. I do wish to have the ability to feel better though, be more active, and work on the things that I find meaningful (I.e. writing). Any how, some of this stuff is just wishful thinking from where I stand.

  2. I think we all need to stop messing around. If you don’t love what you do why carry on doing it? At most we only have a 100 years to live (that’s if we’re lucky). “Success is about being the best they can be at what matters most to them.” – love this line. Great post Ashely 🙏

  3. I think about this a lot when it comes to new year’s resolutions. I suspect sometimes that a) not everyone wants to do self-improvement in the same socially-acceptable ways as they publicly claim and b) not everyone likes/wants/gets value out of new year’s resolutions and that they’re only doing it because everyone else is.

  4. We need more posts like this: calling out the bullshit of societal standards AND offering an alternative. Too many times there’s nothing but complaining (I’m to blame as well) and ni counter-alternative. Thanks for being another person willing to do that

  5. I feel I’m already ruined, at times. I’ve been instilled in precisely that way to be productive. If I’m not I feel terrible. Sometimes it’s a benefit, as the productive activity might be something I actually love. Other times I feel awful because I’m taking time to myself and am not being ‘productive’ in the way society says I should, or what our social circles expect of us.

    Too much social media has given us a barometer by which to judge ourselves. And we take all of that information and compare ourselves to it. We think we must be married and have kids at a certain age, achieve career goals we don’t care about, and numerous other things. But nothing says that we should just enjoy life and be good people. What’s wrong with that?

    In that case, as you pointed out, the question is “why should I?”

    I would go so far as to say, “why should I give a damn?”

  6. As a former busy person, I realized that although things were getting done, I wasn’t satisfied. Then I had to evaluate the why behind my busyness and it turned out to be something learned from my mother as well as a response to trauma. I have since learned the art of doing nothing and while this is misconstrued as lazy, I still do it because it is what I want to do. I am prone to boredom at times but I allow it to pass when it does. Lol. It’s hard to make sense of but it’s my reality. Great post, Ash.

  7. I wonder a lot what other people think. I probably shouldn’t.

    I do wonder if people are really working hard because they think that other people think that they should be working hard. My experience is more that people are working hard because they need to pay the rent, or because they have childcare (etc.) responsibilities.

    I also have to say that I can not ever recall having seen someone say self-care is selfish! The message I get, from very diverse places (Jewish sites/podcasts, mental health sites, even advertising) is that self-care is essential and I’m a bad person for not doing it enough, but that I’ve been brainwashed into that by “other people” who say it’s selfish. I’m not sure who these “other people” are. I did a quick internet search for “self-care selfish” and got a lot of sites saying self-care is not selfish and nothing saying the reverse. Please correct me if you’ve seen them!

    I mostly agree with the other points. I do feel like I want more friends, but maybe I don’t really want them. I don’t think I need a big circle of friends, but growing up seeing that my parents and my sister had a network of local friends who would help when there were family crises (I mean major things like hospitalisations or bereavements) and were available to drop in sometimes made me a bit envious. Although I probably wouldn’t want people just “dropping in.” I would like a support-in-crisis network, though, which the internet can only partially meet (the internet can give moral support, but it can’t make dinner for me like my parents’ friends have done lately).

    I’m very bad about the life milestones thing.

    1. That’s a very good point about “those people” who say self-care is selfish not actually existing. I wonder if it’s more subtle messaging that putting yourself first rather than putting others first is selfish, with selfishness being interpreted very broadly kind of he way narcissism is. I’ve certainly encountered quite a few people who do feel guilty about putting themselves first, and that’s got to be coming from somewhere.

  8. I loved your quote: “there are a lot of confident people out there presenting themselves as gurus and telling us how we should be and what we should think, feel, and want.” It’s so true. Our species wants easy answers, we want to believe what people tell us. I can come across as smart and I’ve discovered that people tend to believe what I say, regardless of whether I really know or if I’m just sharing a confident belief.

  9. Ooo I love this. I’ve written before about the “shoulds” and societal expectations and pressures. It’s like some unwritten timeline of what you “should” be doing and what you “should” achieve by certain points in your life. That tallies with our modern Western notions about how productivity equates to success, which is pretty perverse. Life is about more than that, no?

    And yet when I lost my job, I realised just how much I put into work and career, how much of my value was just about that. Now, I can’t be okay unless I’ve been productive, unless I’ve exhausted myself sick and done lots of things, but here’s the rub; it’s never enough. It’s an illusion and a social pressure to ‘do’. We’ll never be satisfied or feel comfortable in ourselves when we’re using these guidelines because they’re not ours and they’re not healthy, in my opinion. Like you said with the “ideal day”, I don’t think that’s happiness for everyone and yet it’s applied universally as though it should be. Brilliant post as always, Ashely. xx

  10. Excellent post Ashley – a real piece of content to bite into and chew and mull over.

    In more recent months and l suppose especially watching say ‘the blogging arena’ as an outsider rather than an insider for a good few months you start to see more when you step back and simply watch behaviours, l have more than especially given many of the sub titles up there a lot of deep thought.

    My credo, philosophy or overall attititude now is ‘Fuck it! It is and l is what l is! Do you and who ever is comfortable with you doing you or them if that is the case and fuck everyone else! I do me and you do you!”

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