The idea for this paper arose when I was watching a number of TV shows during the Christmas period. These shows depicted famous people who we might say were extraordinary human beings. For example, John Williams the distinguished composer of classic films such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Then, there were the comedy geniuses of Morecambe and Wise who in their hay day performed to over 20 million TV viewers. In thinking about these extraordinary individuals, it started a train of thought that led me to reflect on some of the work I have encountered about struggles with being ordinary. This being aspirations for improvements in social and work status, the need for approval, validation, promotion, wealth and fame etc. Sadly, for some people who encounter individuals they deem successful, this leads to either bouts of envy or self-hatred. It is sad to witness. For these individuals, not being able to accept that they are no less than ordinary is a major obstacle. In my opinion it is only when a person can be comfortable with being no less than ordinary that they can actually go on to accomplish quite extraordinary things.
I assume that for the majority of people, the thought of being no less than ordinary would be classed as a failure. We don’t have to look too far to see some of the reasons why this might be the case. Social media obviously has a part to play, with all the emphasis on likes, looks, what’s in and what’s out. For some people the allure of stardom, fame, and fortune is their goal and a means to an end. I am guessing that some people reading this might ask the following questions; why shouldn’t people reach for the stars? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to be extraordinary rather than ordinary? The extraordinary people I mentioned earlier in the article would not be extraordinary, if they didn’t have dreams and aspirations. I agree, people should have dreams and aspirations, but this all depends on the origins of these ideals.
This perspective is based on a number of factors that I have identified in individuals with this type of presentation. The first factor is in the area of infantile omnipotence. This relates to a very early period in an individual’s development. Putting it simply we all need a good dose of infantile omnipotence when we are a baby because it helps us to deal with very intense feelings of anxiety. Donald Winnicott was one of the first to write about this concept. He was both a paediatrician and a psychoanalyst. He stated that a baby has to experience healthy omnipotence. This manifests itself when a baby has a sensation of feeling hungry, which at the corresponding time is met by the mother (breast/bottle). According to Winnicott, the outcome of this sensation/need being met by the mother, at the correct time, gives the baby the feeling and illusion that they have brought it about. According to Winnicott children need a significant period of feeling omnipotent or else it rumbles on into adulthood.
In a good enough scenario the baby relinquishes omnipotence in favour for reality. We might say the ‘ideal’ is given up for ‘reality’. A good movie to illustrate this is ‘Coming to America’. Eddie Murphy plays the leading role in this movie. He plays the role of a prince who has everything he would ever desire. I think this is good example of omnipotence. The film enables us to understand what helps an individual relinquish omnipotence in favour for reality. For example, the prince after a period of time finds his ideal circumstances boring and grows to recognise that he desires something new and different. In the film he addresses this by leaving his country and goes to America in search of true love. We could say that it is only when he has had his omnipotent needs met that he can then truly embrace reality. Alternatively, when an individual has not had his omnipotent needs met sufficiently enough he turns away from reality in favour of the ideal. Basically unmet omnipotent needs keeps individuals stuck in an omnipotent state of mind. You would not be wrong to ask; how does this affect me? Put simply it affects us in all manner of ways. For example, below are a number of common scenarios which I have come across in my work. This list is not exhaustive and this phenomenon will present itself in different ways depending on the individual:
- Assuming possession of a loved one. Feeling that you have a divine right over them. Expecting them to be ready to meet your needs, especially at your request!
- Persecuting yourself and others for not being ideal.
- Feeling that you need no one and that you can do everything yourself. Overly self-reliant and not able to ask for help.
- Imagining that you can cure and find the answer to every problem. This is particularly prevalent in health professionals who potentially can fall into the trap of thinking that they can fix every client and provide an intervention or answer to every problem.
- Creating daily lists or routines that have to be completed at all costs.
- The need to clean or keep order to a degree that you become obsessive and frozen with intrusive thoughts and guilt.
- Not able to address conflict situations or speak your mind, as you feel that the outcome would be catastrophic, either to you or the person/people you are dealing with.
- Finally, the need for perfection in all situations!
It is my contention that when individuals are operating from this psychological backdrop they are then more inclined to swing between all or nothing type of thinking. Hence, if they are not reaching or have reached their imagined omnipotent ideals they swing to the other extreme and become self-destructive, self-hating and impotent. Analytically we might assume they these individuals have not reached a state of ambivalence. This is the ability of holding the middle ground between the ideal and reality. For instance, if you don’t reach a specific goal or do not get the specific feedback you require this does not mean you are worthless. It’s the ability to hold onto the good aspects of who we are when we are going through a particular difficult situation. Putting it simple; how do you hold onto the good when things seem bad. For these individuals they are stuck between two extreme poles of either being omnipotent (extraordinary) verses feeling very impotent (unordinary) if they don’t succeed. Yet the middle ground is being ordinarily competent.
It is only when an individual can embrace the middle ground by being ordinarily competent or potent that they can then begin to accomplish extraordinary things. Until then an individual is at the mercy of the above dynamic. Once an individual can start harnessing their potency then confidence and self-esteem starts to grow, which then enables an individual to have a belief that they are good enough and most importantly they have something good to offer. Additionally, this internal shift allows the emphasis to move from external approval to internal validation. This internal change can have extraordinary consequences. In this context I am not talking about fame or fortune but the development of implicit confidence that can be drawn upon in any given circumstance. We might say this is akin to finding one’s authentic voice. This is key because it frees the individual from the above dynamic.
Also, it means we free ourselves and others from hate, control and high expectations. It generates self-compassion, but ultimately it frees us from seeking external approval and turns the focus from external to the internal. Instead of the need of nourishment from the outside we can source it from within. This can then lead to the development of an extraordinary relationship with oneself. One might argue, in response that my formulation has the hallmarks of narcissism. However, I would state that the concept of narcissism has two poles, one of self-love (positive) and the other of self-preoccupation (negative). The idea I am postulating falls under the category of self-love, which is the extraordinary in the ordinary. Whereas individuals who are caught up in the above dynamic are ruled by unmet omnipotent needs, which seeks fulfilment in terms of their ideals. I would view that as narcissistic.
The second factor why so many of us want to be extraordinary and feel terrible if we have not reached the ideals we set ourselves is to do with a tale of two wells. One of love and the other of hate. This story starts at the beginning of life. If as a baby we have been adored, celebrated, praised and held in mind, then it kick starts a process where the predominate state of mind is feeling loved and contained. Love for the child, love for the parents and more importantly love for one self. As a consequence, other powerful feelings such as hate, envy, shame and blame are effectively mediated with loving feelings. Now in comparison, if a baby has not been adored, held, celebrated, and contained then this increases the chance that the predominate state of mind would be populated more with bad feelings such anxiety, hate, envy, shame and blame. The ability to hold onto to the loving good feelings to manage these bad feelings becomes more difficult to sustain.
To illustrate this I will use the analogy of two wells. One of love and one of hate. The more loving experiences a baby encounters, the deeper the well of love. The more traumatic experiences one has the deeper the well of hate. Ideally we would like the well of love to be deeper and wider than the well of hate. Sadly for some people this has not been the case and their well of hate is deeper and wider than the well of love. The gist here is that the more loving/good experiences a baby encounters the more accessible love is in times of need. Whereas, the more hate/bad experiences the baby has the more difficult it will be to draw on loving/good aspects. For this reason some people drink more from the well of hate. The most intriguing element to what I have written is that for the majority of people they are not even aware that they are even drinking from the well of hate. An unconscious process is at play, which corresponds with a well’s source being underground.
Generally, a baby can’t be pleased all the time and parents understandably can’t be perfect. So for the vast majority of people the common experience is that our psychic life or internal world is made up of a combination of loving/good and hateful/bad feelings. This then sets the foundation for an individual to deal with various developmental stages, especially around issues of loss because it is a lot easier to deal with loss if we can draw on the well of love to sooth and to reconcile the bad. If for example, this is not the case and the well of hate is omnipresent then it’s very difficult to grieve because people can get stuck in the cycle of aggrievance (well of hate) rather than grieving.
As you can see the ability to hold onto to the good aspects become extremely difficult if we have more bad feelings. Hence, to remedy this situation our psyche is very clever so it basically makes sure it amplifies the good and projects or splits off the bad. We might imagine the psyche covering up the well of hate so that we can just focus on the well of love. Now at first glance this might not appear a bad idea. However, if this happens too severely, i.e. the good is amplified too much due to the degree of bad feelings that are present, then these bad feelings are rerouted into our unconscious. They do not stay dormant in the well. Once in the unconscious these feelings are just waiting for an opportunity to find some expression.
One expression is the topic of this paper. For example, in the form of a person’s ideals for both themselves, others, situations and life. These ideals are self persecutory and are at the root of why some people find it difficult to accept being no less than ordinary. To accept being ordinary would necessitate the need to accept other painful feelings that are being defended against with these unrealistic ideals. It would mean becoming aware of the well of hate. I suggest that if a person is not aware that they are drawing from the well of hate then they will be more susceptible to wanting to be extraordinary in all manner of ways.
In conclusion, I am promoting the idea that to achieve extraordinary things you first need to be able to accept being no less than ordinary. Accepting this sets you free from the omnipotent and impotent dynamic, which allows you to face reality better equipped. This means your feet are planted firmly on the ground and releases you from the all or nothing type of thinking that can prevent you from harnessing your potency and building up your implicit confidence. Yes the process is painful because it means becoming acquainted with the well of hate and other feelings that haven’t been addressed, whilst in the grip of the above dynamic. Nevertheless, once the cycle can be broken, extraordinary things can be accomplished, with the emphasis moving from external approval and competition to becoming the best competent version of you.