Outsiders to ‘normality'
issue 27 - May June 2015
Sometimes society’s norms can add pressure to the life of individuals. Sabnum Dharamsi discusses the experience of an adopted child and her struggle with self-esteem
Weather-beaten and somewhat dishevelled, Rubina’s hijab seemed to fly into my counselling room before she did. People differ in how they are on their first appointment; some trust me straight away, others struggle to find the words that their hearts need to say. But Rubina just blurted it out: “My family’s not normal!” I asked her to tell me what she meant – I was wondering what made her use such negative-sounding terminology. Rubina explained simply: “I’m adopted.”
Counsellors have the privilege of working with many diverse issues and family structures. Sometimes people imagine I work with the weird and wonderful aspects of life. But that’s not true. Most people like Rubina come with issues that you would probably relate to.
Of course every family is different, with its own identity, values and history. There is no single normal way to be. But I knew exactly what Rubina meant. Her family was different. And I heard in her expression a combination of fear and defiance. And behind that fear and defiance are many layers of truth and struggle.
I am sharing Rubina’s story with you (details of course changed to protect confidentiality) because I want to highlight how, paradoxically, it is society’s views that often create the damage, rather than the individual. I also want to challenge the concept that not being normal is a negative thing. I want to celebrate the not normal family.
So what do I mean when I say society’s views do the most damage? And what, after all, is not normal?
Somewhere in our psyches we carry an ideal¬ised image of family – maybe two parents who stay together, children, everyone loving and caring, maybe also an extended family. Although these perceptions – known in psychology as normative views – seem surface deep, the topic of casual conversations, they define what is acceptable and discourage behaviour outside these norms. For example, if every woman in your community is ‘supposed’ to get married in the same culture, it feels impossible to do otherwise. Whilst these norms are not bad in themselves, they can have a destructive impact for some. Rubina, with all her defiance and energy, was being crushed by the shame of not fitting in with societal expectations. By age 24 she had the strong feeling, backed up by some painful experiences, of being judged by society to be somehow lacking. We all need acceptance, and she was powerless to change the fact of her adoption. It’s common for the labels that society places upon people who don’t fit accepted norms to become internalised – meaning that people who are different carry that shame and guilt within, trying to be even harder to be like ‘a normal family’, covering up their vulnerabilities and masking their feelings to others. It’s easy to say, ‘just be yourself, but when being yourself is constantly questioned, when being yourself requires time to work out, that’s not easy.
This was certainly the case for Rubina. Over time she began to trust me, to share how inadequate she felt, and how unworthy. Any problems in her life she disparagingly ascribed to her being adopted, feeling a deep insecurity that she’d be rejected. Deeper down, she felt like she shouldn’t have been born. No one said she should be grateful for being adopted, but she clearly saw why family friends responded to her teenage rebellions differently to her peers. It was as if because the relationship between her and her mother failed it didn’t matter anyway – pretty much all the adults around her gave off the vibe that it was a long shot to start with. And Rubina partly believed (and sometimes still believes) this herself, which is why she’s sometimes so scared of failing, scared that she will be found out as a fraud. Behind the masks she presents to the world to protect herself from these implied slights, she really thinks that there really is no one of consequence. That is a huge battle to fight - both within herself and with the outside world - where the messages she receives, are insisting: ‘don’t bother, don’t try, you won’t amount to much.’ Or that her successes in reality belong to her adopted parents. And the problem is that unsurprisingly, Rubina’s entire family have different variations of these doubts. They try holding firm, but feel eroded and ashamed – some¬times even with each other. What hurt Rubina’s parents most of all was the way the rights and wrongs of adoption would constantly be debated, rather than just be accepted, and the implicitly patronising messages that what Rubina had done was amazing, as if to confirm the underlying message that she wasn’t expected to achieve anything.
Our thoughts matter and they make a difference. Whether they come out in body language, in conver¬sations, or the way these thoughts get crystallised in the media or popular culture, they carry weight.
Similar societal pressures exist in a single parent family, in families with step-parents or families with multiple wives, indeed what¬ever society decides isn’t normal – sometimes even when those ‘norms’ hardly fit anyone. And they hurt. Even when we do nothing, by forgetting to include those who don’t fit in, we send powerful messages that ‘those’ families are not welcome. As a single parent once said to me “I’m not a unit, so I’m not invited.” So why do we do this to each other? Why do prejudices
about people who are different have such control over our lives? Can we not just ignore them?
As human beings we are designed to detect threats to our survival, make quick decisions as needed, and one of the ways we do this is by reacting instinctively and protectively against people who are not the same as us. Society reinforces what is usual and what is not usual. For better or worse these provide ready frameworks for us to live in, but we are also designed to challenge these norms, so that we can evolve individually and collectively.
How? Rather than sleep-walking through our lives, we need to reflect more, to make active choices around how we think and act. As Allah says:
“And the blind man and the seer are not equal, neither are those who believe and do good works (equal with) the evil-doer. Little do you reflect!” (40:57-58)
But there’s another side to Rubina that I want to share with you. She has an inner strength, a ferociously inde¬pendent streak, and a clear sense of justice. The more she accepts who she is through therapy, the more her poten¬tial is revealed to herself. Her skills and her zest for life are kicking in with a vengeance. She could be anything! As with many of us, her weaknesses are the pathway to her strengths; sometimes she’s so scared of failing that she works really hard, and maybe her own pain sensitises her to situations of injustice for others. But there’s something in her – that fitri inner template that instinctively knows her way to God-given goodness – that is incredibly motivated. She’s beginning to see and prove to herself that she was born for a reason, and that though her path through life has not been a well-trodden one, it’s got meaning and vibrancy. What’s more, her difference gives her distinctive perspec-tives – something precious she brings to life in the way she is. When she says: “I love my mum”, you hear her words resonate with the power of someone who’s never taken that for granted.
Facilitating ‘not-normal’ families and individuals to celebrate their potential is a two-way process. It is an act of faith to work with difference. But with that comes the capacity that ‘not normal’ families can offer – a life-enhancing spirit that reveals what being human is all about.
‘And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.’ (30:22)
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