There are a set of social norms, the spoken and unspoken rules of acceptable behavior within a society, that influence essentially all of our decisions and behavior in conscious and subconscious ways. Social norms guide things as simple as how we dress and what we eat, but they also influence bigger things like who we choose as a life partner, how we parent, and what we do for our life’s work. These social norms aren’t necessarily bad things- they often help keep us safe, allow us to have happy and healthy relationships, and provide stability and predictability in our lives. The problem is that we often allow these social norms to guide our lives without a second thought, leaving us sort of aimlessly going through the motions, or worse, continuing to engage in something that is no longer healthy simply because it is what is expected of us. Here’s the deal, you should never be ashamed of doing whatever it takes to save your own life, even if it flies in the face of what society tells us we should be doing. Sometimes we need to go against the social norms to literally save our lives, sometimes we need to challenge them in an effort to live a life that excites us, and sometimes we find that they are just not for us.
There is such a stigma in our society about asking for help. As Americans we tend to place a high value on independence and self-sufficiency. We generally like for things to go smoothly and when they don’t, we expect people to be able to pick themselves back up with little to no assistance. In my years working with families in crisis, I can’t tell you how many families ended up in a struggle by absolutely no fault of their own- an illness or disability bankrupted them leaving them homeless, a woman fleeing violence with her children who is expected to put her life back together with nothing but the clothes on her back, a sexual assault survivor who shouldn’t have been that drunk or worn that outfit, somebody suffering with mental illness who just should try to be happier or trust God more. We put a significant amount of effort into either blaming the victim for the circumstance they are in or shaming them for being unable to get out of the situation on their own. In light of these norms that place such a high value on of self-reliance, I think people who are struggling often fail to reach out for the help that could literally save their life. It feels shameful to ask for help. It’s scary to admit that things have gotten bad and to consider that they may not get better anytime soon. It’s hard to admit you can’t do it alone. But if reaching out for help- from a crisis center, from a mental health institution, from a suicide hotline, from a social service agency, from a friend, from literally anywhere- is the thing that could save your life, there should be no shame in that.
Challenging the social norms doesn’t always have to be about literally saving your life, sometimes doing something “outside the box” allows us to live a life that excites us. I have recently been afforded an opportunity to step outside of the traditional working world. Part of what motivated this shift is a need within my family for me to focus more of my energy on some things happening in our little world, but part of it is an opportunity for me to really do some soul searching and hustling to find out how it is I want to make my livelihood. As full time working people, we spend the vast majority of our waking hours working. It makes little to no sense to me to spend that time doing anything other than something that sets me on fire. I realize that’s not an opportunity that everyone is afforded, but I think too many people just go through the motions of working for a paycheck without considering if there is an alternative or if they are just settling for the thing that just happens to be right in front of them. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for me to step outside of the traditional working world and it’s definitely not the most “responsible” decision I’ve ever made. I make the higher salary, my job provides our health insurance, and we have a kid with needs that costs us an arm and a leg. We will likely have to tap into savings to cover some of our bills for the next couple of months. Despite all of these potential challenges and knowing that it would just be easier to keep doing what we were doing, we were able to come up with a plan and hustle to make and save some money so that I could take this leap without it having too much of an impact on our day to day. And you know what? If we find that it isn’t working for us, I can always go find a job. Nothing is forever. When I think about people asking “What do you do?” over the next few months, I can’t wait to tell them that I took a leap. It may not last forever and there will be new and different challenges in my new normal, but I believe this soul-searching is good important work that I need to do.
Finally, sometimes, the social norms are just not for us. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew that I never wanted to have biological children. It wasn’t that motherhood itself didn’t appeal to me, or that I had a medical reason I was unable to conceive or carry a child, it just very simply wasn’t a life experience that interested me at all. I didn’t talk about this this idea with really anyone other than my husband until the past few years mostly because it’s not the “norm”. The vast majority of people become parents by getting pregnant and birthing a child. The vast majority of families I knew who only had adopted children (and no bio kids) chose adoption after discovering a medical reason they could not conceive. Nothing is wrong with either of these approaches to expanding a family, they just weren’t for me and weren’t reflective of my desires or experience. Being a happily married twenty something woman who wanted to be a mom but just didn’t want to have a baby was definitely not the norm. Because of this “norm” and my reluctance to follow it, I have often wondered if I am “broken” in some way. What’s wrong with me that I have zero desire to birth a child? It seems like in our culture and in the media that every woman who desires motherhood would be thrilled to get pregnant. What I have come to believe is that there should be no shame in choosing an alternate route, that if a common cultural experience is “not for you” it’s okay. Expectations about who you should be, what you should do, how you should navigate your life should never be the only reason you follow through with something. As long as your desires are safe and healthy for you and others, throw the set of social norms out the window and do what is best for you.
When we really consider our deepest desires and needs, sometimes it means we have to go against the grain. I’ve watched too many people stay in toxic relationships, soul-sucking jobs, mental health battles, and a slew of other things, hanging on for dear life simply because doing what they want and need seems abnormal or scary or shameful. Perhaps worse, I’ve watched too many others (myself included), stifle their light because it seems too big and too unreal and too unattainable. Settling for what you have because the alternative seems too hard or too scary is not okay. Never, and I mean NEVER, be ashamed of doing whatever it takes to save your own life, or to chase the desires of your heart.