How to let go of the need to be special and embrace an ordinary life

8th December 2022
 minute read

Table of contents

It’s normal to want to be extraordinary — but self-acceptance is more rewarding. Here’s how to make friends with the ordinary and learn to love yourself more…


‘Am I enough?’


It’s one of the most universal questions that human beings ask themselves. Yet oddly, we can sometimes believe we’re the only person in the room worrying about being ‘too ordinary’. After all, everyone else seems so self-assured — don’t they?


Well, the secret is out — they’re not. Instead, they’re probably wondering whether they’re good looking enough, smart enough, interesting enough, popular enough or successful enough. Because these are things that almost all of us worry about — and sometimes often. Nothing could be more human than these fears, so you are not alone. And it’s also very human to over-compensate for them, striving to stand out as ‘special’ just so that, paradoxically, you can fit in.


In fact, few things could be more natural than the need to stand out in some way. It is pretty much a universal desire, plus society and the media are very good at sending us the message that being extraordinary is the highest goal.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having dreams and ambitions, or striving to be all you can be. Yet there is a big difference between having aspirations for your future and feeling discontented — ashamed even — about being ‘ordinary’ in the present.

Is the need to be extraordinary ruling you? 


While it’s one thing to have a compelling vision for your life, it’s quite another to believe that you can’t enjoy happiness, self-esteem or acceptance from others until you have achieved it. In other words, believing that you are somehow ‘not enough’ in the now and must gain something — the ideal relationship, a thinner waistline or 100,000 Instagram followers — to prove your worth to others and yourself.


Yet this can only lead to a gnawing discontentment, a feeling that you must always be ‘better’ and ‘more’. For even when you achieve a particular ideal, the elation will eventually wear off and you will find a new thing ‘wrong’ with you that needs to be ‘fixed’.


With this in mind, how should we deal with this very human to stand out from the crowd? Are there ways to accept it as a natural part of us, without letting it rule our lives or undermine our happiness?


In fact, there are various ways that you can manage the drive to be ‘extraordinary’. Here are five of them:


1. Realise what is underneath our need to be special


According to Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, author of The Extraordinary Gift of Being Ordinary, much of our desire to stand out can be explained by evolutionary biology. In his words: ‘The assumption that we can find lasting happiness by being more successful, likeable, attractive, intelligent, fit, or morally above reproach is so woven into our biology and culture that few of us notice it’s not actually true.’


He explains that many animal species — from chimpanzees to crickets — have an innate tendency to sort themselves into dominance hierarchies. The trouble is that animals lower down in the dominance hierarchy might find themselves missing out on having a mate. This means that they won’t have a chance to pass on their genetic material, yet are evolutionary programming to do so. The result? Distress or even ill health — and humans aren’t immune to this either. We also have a fear of being low status, one that it is deeply encoded within us.


Of course, humans are much more sophisticated than animals, meaning that our dominance hierarchies aren’t just based around things like physical strength. Instead, they can be centred around looks, intelligence, wealth or any number of attributes. The point is that many of us have a particular ladder that we want to climb, whether that’s being the best coder or the best javelin thrower. And when we feel that we are too low down on a desired hierarchy, it can lead to stress, insecurity and fear. We can, in other words, feel the dread of being ordinary.


But one way to overcome this is to understand it as a relic from our evolutionary ancestors. Meaning that it’s not an emergency if you don’t get that promotion or aren’t the best looking person at the party. The feeling that it is a ‘crisis’ — and the fear, pain and shame that come with it — might just be a primitive part of yourself kicking into action. And while that part of you is significant, it shouldn’t get to define your overall view of yourself.


Once you realise this, you have taken your first step towards breaking free of your fear of being ‘average’ or ‘mundane’, because you know what it’s actually rooted in.


2. Embrace failure and rejection as a chance to heal old hurts


No one likes being passed over for a promotion, turned down for a date or ghosted by a friend. It is totally normal to feel hurt and disappointed when these things happen.


Yet there’s also a risk that, instead of fully feeling and healing from these experiences, you might escape into distraction instead. This could involve seeking victory or validation elsewhere, for instance, the dopamine hit of social media likes or chasing the perfect gym body. Or you might zone out by immersing yourself in escapist or addictive activities such as YouTube, gaming or drugs. Or throw yourself into a whirlwind of busyness at home or work. Yet all of these things have one thing in common — they are all about avoiding pain.


In fact, it’s possible you have been using at least one of these pain avoidance strategies since childhood. Why? Because often, that is where original hurts lie and where you developed your early coping mechanisms for dealing with them.


So while not getting a promotion is deflating, if you take a very strong reaction to this then it might be because it reminds you of an older pain. For instance, not being picked for a sports team or a play at school. And while being romantically rejected is never fun, if you feel particularly triggered then it could be because it reminds you of an older childhood wound, perhaps with a parent.


The trouble is that when we are made to feel unworthy as a child, we can’t apply an adult’s logic to the situation. Instead, we might assume that we’re somehow ‘not good enough’ and carry this story well into adulthood, developing a powerful inner critic as a result. This is how the dread of being ordinary can develop.


But the truth is, when you experience failure in the present it’s actually a valuable opportunity to heal one of these older wounds from the past. However, you can’t heal it by hiding from it. Instead, you have to revisit that old wound, sit with it, allow yourself to fully feel it, and reassure the younger, hurting part of you that they are safe. That they don’t need to be perfect or impress anyone to find acceptance, for you love and value them as they are. In other words, you have to do the work of healing your inner child.


And in doing so, you can let go of old stories around unworthiness that can make failures feel particularly painful.


3. Open yourself up to being vulnerable with others


One reason we might fear being ordinary is the belief that we won’t be accepted or respected if we don’t stand out in some way. For this reason, we can end up trapped in a pattern of going into interactions with others with a need to impress. And this can be so deep-rooted that you might not even be aware you’re doing it.


Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to show your best self to people. It only becomes a problem when you have such a strong need to make a good impression that it creates a wall between you and others.


Because when you act like you’re in competition with others — or that they are somehow ‘better’ than you and you need to charm or dazzle them — then you are no longer being your authentic self. Instead, you are wearing a social mask that can eventually get very lonely.


So how do you break free of this pattern? The answer is simple, although not always easy — it is to focus on connecting, not impressing. This includes being willing to share your fears, failures and disappointments with others, while creating a safe space for them to do the same. And by opening yourself up to vulnerability, you can make the shift from ‘me and you’ to ‘we’.


Yet being vulnerable also involves a willingness to be ordinary around people too — to be fallible, fragile and mundane. This might lead to rejection from those that aren’t comfortable with authenticity, but it will also lead to acceptance from those that are. And eventually, it can result in more nourishing and satisfying relationships. Because by embracing the parts of you that are ordinary, you might start to have much more extraordinary connections.


4. Learn to appreciate everyday pleasures


The feeling that you aren’t good enough — and that your life and relationships aren’t good enough — can eat away at you. It can rob every day of contentment and every moment of joy. Yet sadly, it’s a common experience for many. Because frustratingly, reality often doesn’t match up to the ideal in our heads — it tends to be a lot more frayed around the edges.


At times, it might feel like there is a discontented gremlin living on your shoulder, pointing out that the chocolate cake you baked is a teeny bit dry, or the watercolour you painted has trees that look like sheep. In other words, that you’ve failed to come up to scratch yet again.


But there is an antidote to all of this and that is practising gratitude. Because by embracing and appreciating the simple and ordinary moments of your life, you can free yourself from that feeling that nothing is good enough.


This is not to say that you should use gratitude to paper over pain or problems — that’s the road to toxic positivity, not contentment. Instead, it is about slowing down and allowing yourself to appreciate what is around you in a mindful way. For instance, the pleasure of biting into a ripe pear. Or watching birds peck around your garden. Or climbing into a bed with crisp, clean sheets.


None of these moments are glamorous, exciting or extraordinary. None of them are an Oscar win or an Olympic gold medal. But they are the moments that make up your life, meaning they’re important and valuable. By embracing them, you can find the hidden treasure in the everyday, again and again. 

5. Talk it over with a therapist


While all of the above tips can be helpful, for some of us, the fear of being ordinary is deep-seated and profound. So much so that failure, rejection or even just a sense that we are not excelling can trigger profound shame.


In response, we might develop coping strategies to manage this, which could be anything from attention-seeking behaviours to codependent relationships to addictions. Anything at all to distract us from the overwhelmingly painful feeling that we are ‘not enough’ and not worthy of love or acceptance just as we are.


These feelings and coping mechanisms tend to start in our younger years and might be related to difficult experiences with caregivers. Whatever the cause, talking to a therapist can help and there are various approaches to consider.


For instance, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you get a handle on struggles that you are facing in the present — for instance, persistent thoughts of not being good enough, feeling the need to be perfect, or ‘catastrophising’ when you experience rejection (real or imagined).


Alternatively, both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) have a focus on embracing yourself and practising self-kindness, while Mindfulness Therapy can help you to slow down, appreciate the moment and become aware of any inner critical dialogue.


Or if you feel that you take strong reactions to feelings of inadequacy — for instance, by getting angry, desperately seeking validation or dissociating into fantasy — then it’s possible you have triggers linked to this. If so, therapies such as EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies take a trauma-based approach to helping you feel better about yourself.

Psychodynamic therapies offer a deeper diver into childhood experiences, exploring how early relationships with caregivers might be shaping your reactions to rejection and failure today. Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) and Schema Therapy also do this but using more structured approaches to draw out patterns and protective strategies that developed to shield the pain of these early experiences, as well as thinking with you about alternative ways you can experiment with to better connect with yourself and others now.


Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being ‘ordinary’


The need to be extraordinary is, ironically, a common one. And it’s very relatable too. Because it comes from a deeply vulnerable part of yourself — the part who worries that you’re somehow inadequate or dreads being left out of the crowd. Nothing could be more human than this.


Yet embracing the ordinary parts of yourself is a powerful antidote. Because in doing so, you will realise that you are enough, just as you are. And you will realise that life doesn’t have to be all fireworks and fantasy — the tea and biscuits moments can be meaningful too.


Struggling with self-esteem? Book an appointment with a world-class MTA therapist today or take our Right Match Assessment to find the best support for you.

How to let go of the need to be special and embrace an ordinary life
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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