We are currently living in an age of exceptionalism. If we aren’t bombarded by images of people living their best life, swanning around the world on fancy holidays (pre-Covid) or making millions in start-ups, we are told that we have to make our mark in the world in whatever way we can. Why is it somehow not enough for us just to be average anymore?
Standards have even been raised in movies in recent years – superheroes have dominated the box office, with their drool-worthy skills (and physiques) and talent to save the world/mankind in the space of two hours or so. It seems we’re not even content with watching films about average people doing average things.
But seriously, women in particular are exposed to this expectation of exceptionalism. There are stories every day about women who have achieved the impossible “against all odds”. When we’re younger, we see loads of articles telling us “what you have to achieve before you hit 30”. Then, when we settle down and have kids, we’re faced with stories about “supermums who do it all”. Even when we choose to relax and think of retiring, we can’t hide from stories about “women who didn’t let age/retirement get in their way of achieving success”.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and most of the world was in lockdown, the internet was flooded with stories about people who achieved something while they were staying at home. There were those who became accomplished cooks/bakers, others who threw themselves into charity work, and some who turned their hobbies into successful businesses.
While these are all – rightly – inspiring stories that deserve attention, it can leave the rest of us feeling deflated if we haven’t gone viral or had a profile written up about us in the media. For example, most of us spent lockdown on the couch, bingeing on Netflix. And many of us are content with having a job we don’t mind doing, earn enough to make a decent living, and are happy in our relationships without feeling the need to constantly boast about our partners. Not exactly exceptional lives by any standard, but there’s nothing wrong with it either. However, sometimes it can seem like we’re not doing enough to truly matter in this day and age.
So how do we tell women it’s okay to be average?
The percentage of extraordinary people in the world
The truth that is often ignored is that there are many more average than exceptional people in the world. The simple explanation is that, if everyone was extraordinary, there would be no average anymore, as extraordinary is now the new normal. But, in the real world, most of us are, actually, average. Therefore, we need a bit of context to realise that this is a perfectly fine situation to be in.
Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, explains: “When we look at a bell curve in this topic of extraordinary, there are only a few people who can be really, really good at something. Applying this statistical analysis, there can only be a few who are really, really bad. The majority fall in the average range – mediocre middle. We can apply this ‘curve’ to nearly everything – height, weight, wealth, and the list goes on.”
In an article published on BBC, US-based psychologist Paul White had a similar opinion when it came to workplace exceptionalism: “Think about any curve, and most people are somewhere in the middle. Most employees are average, and that’s a good thing.”
Dr Games notes that we all have our personal strengths and challenges; however, when we get some perspective, most people are average at most things we do. It is, in fact, a statistical improbability that there is a single person who is extraordinary in all (or many) areas of their life.
The role of the media and social media
One of the biggest culprits that has contributed to this culture of exceptionalism is social media. We’re fully aware that people tend to only post about the good things in their lives – and even exaggerate them – yet many of us get caught up in the hype and think that everyone else has the best job, is in the happiest relationship, cooks the best food, does the most charity work, and so on. The culture of exceptionalism is also amplified through our easy access to news, and the need to fill news stories 24/7.
Dr Games explains this phenomenon: “There are no more extraordinary people in the world today than there have been over the years. However, now, we do live in a world flooded by extreme information of people doing and saying truly extraordinary things – the best of the best and worst of the worst. Additionally, we are bombarded with messages that not only can we live extraordinary lives but we deserve it!”
Sheryne Seah, a psychologist at Sengkang General Hospital, agrees: “With new media, we are constantly surrounded by articles, or simply images of others, seemingly more successful, famous or admired. Based on the kind of media we consume, sometimes, we dream up an ideal of what we would like to be or set ourselves up for an impossibly high standard. Others may strive harder to be what they perceive as “average” or “above average”.
Sheryne stresses that not everyone experiences discontentment, low self-esteem, mood issues and anxiety, as everyone’s yardstick of being “good enough” or “extraordinary” are different. “We cannot generalise what is considered an average life and what is not, as it is often based on what one values. What appears as an average life can be a personally rich, full and meaningful life to another,” she says.
Can we be average and happy with it?
The key is not to aim to be average, but to strive to be good at whatever you do – be it your job or your relationship – as it’s important to have ambitions. However, understand that it’s okay to not be the best at everything. Remember that, for every success story you read, there are hundreds more who tried but didn’t make it.
Being average doesn’t mean that you have failed in life, so don’t be disappointed if you are not breaking down walls for others, achieving firsts or mentoring an entire generation of women in your field of work. Because all you can do is live your best life. As the saying goes, you do you.
Dr Games reveals that, in the 1950s, British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term “good enough” in the context of the parent/child relationship, to release parents from the shackles of unrealistic and dangerous ideals. We now apply the concept of “good enough” to life in general – relationships, love, work.
“When we think about this culture of extraordinary, we see ourselves as never good enough, never perfect enough, never successful enough, never smart, thin or extraordinary enough,” she elaborates. “What happens is that we find ourselves striving for the unobtainable which chips away at our self-esteem.”
She quotes American professor and researcher Brene Brown, who said: “When I focus on the idea of never extraordinary enough, I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens and see the shame-based fear of being ordinary”.
“Brene talks about shifting our thinking away from narcissism being a self-indulgent form of self love. Rather, it is a ‘fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, loved, belong’. Therefore, we must cultivate a culture of embracing the ordinary,” Dr Games adds.