Winners Anonymous: Breaking Our Addiction to the Extraordinary

When I write about becoming rebellious losers or embracing loss, I often hear the question, “Why do I find it so difficult to embrace being a loser?” I think the answer is a complicated one, but I believe our fear is a big part of it. Specifically, I think we are scared of being ordinary

Revelations

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Confession of a Psychologist

I have a confession:

I sometimes regret adding the “Dr.” to my web presence. I sometimes cringe when I see it in the URL. Because I think it’s awfully easy to hide behind those two extra letters and a wall full of diplomas. It’s easy to be the expert. It’s easy to be the guy with the answers. It’s easy to let others assume I have it all together.

Psychotherapy is a strange animal: we pay to consult with an expert but, ironically, if the expert pretends to have it all together, it actually interferes with the process of healing. Because hiding behind the “expert” status directly conflicts with some of the fundamental goals of therapy:

To fully embrace our humanity.

To accept we are all messy-beautiful creatures.

And to settle into the peacefulness of this conclusion: we’re all pretty ordinary, and that is blessedly good enough.

Fear of the Ordinary

In her new book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests our refusal to lose is the result of “…the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” She describes it as “the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

We don’t hate to lose because losers are failures. We hate to lose because losers are ordinary—ordinary humans who make mistakes and advertise their brokenness in a million different ways—and we have allowed “ordinary” and “worthless” to become dangerously intertwined.

I think we’ve become convinced extraordinary is the only acceptable way to be:

Ordinary people with a skill for acting are elevated into celebrities. Young men with a skill for putting a ball through a hoop are marketed into multi-million dollar gods. Entrepreneurs with a skill for innovation are put on magazine covers and a pedestal we call affluence.

It destroys them—celebrities overdose, athletes develop God complexes and go rogue, and innovators work themselves to death—but we ignore the effects of our obsession with the extraordinary. Instead of calling it what it is—a disease—we scrape and claw to participate in the epidemic.

In our kitchens and living rooms, marriages crumble beneath the weight of each spouse’s need to feel more extraordinary than their partner. On playgrounds, our kids compete for the mantle of the Most Extraordinary with basketballs and words and fists. And in the public square we turn politics into religion and religion into politics and we battle to the bitter end, claiming our group is extraordinary and everyone else is a loser.

We run from ordinariness like we would run from a ghost. And, indeed, we are running from a ghost. It’s the ghost of shame whispering in the quiet recesses of our hearts, and the lie on its tongue is this: “To lose is to be ordinary, and to be ordinary is to be nothing.”

“I’m Just a Dude”

Several months ago, I was at a pub with a friend, enjoying a late dinner. The televisions on every wall were advertising the extraordinary in various forms of athletic endeavor.

ESPN like a drug dealer of greatness.

My friend and I talked about our temptation to have eye-catching careers, to be model husbands, to be exalted fathers. We talked about how easy it can be to get lost in the adoration when things are going well, and to get lost in despair when they are not. 

And then he said something that was a game-changer for me. He said, “Kelly, I say to myself, ‘I’m just a dude,’ and I remind myself that is enough.”

I’m just a dude.

And that is enough.

We must uncouple “ordinary” and “inadequate.” We must remember that all of us are human. We have hearts that beat, lungs that breathe, and souls that are hungering for a sense worth. We must feel this in our bones: I’m just as ordinary as everybody else. And we must love ourselves and the people around us, not in spite of it, but because of it. 

Winners Anonymous

Most 12-step programs begin with a confession. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the initial greeting goes something like this: “Hi, my name is So-and-So, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Well, I have a confession: I’m just a dude.

What would you think about starting a new 12-step movement with me? We could call it Winners Anonymous. We’ll confess our addiction to winning. We’ll admit we’re all craving the drug of victory and the euphoric feeling of “extraordinary” that comes with it. We’ll embrace that we are all ordinary losers. And we will resolutely insist that we are ordinary, messy, and beautiful people, all at the same time

I’ll go first:

“Hi, my name is Kelly. And I’m an addict. I fight to win so I don’t have to feel ordinary, because I’ve confused being ordinary with being not good enough. I want to break my addiction to winning. I want to remember ‘I’m just a dude.’ And I want to experience the peace and freedom that come from being ordinary while swimming in grace.”

Want to join a bunch of ordinary, beautiful losers?

Questions: What false narratives do you have about what it means to be ordinary? How do they prevent you from embracing your own beautiful, ordinary life? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.        

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary reality of marriage. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy, by clicking here to subscribe. The subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. From one ordinary loser to another, Kelly

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame.

Preview: My next post will be this coming Wednesday and is tentatively entitled “What Madmen, Drunks, and Bastards Know About Beauty.” 

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Kelly,
    Once again you will have me thinking all day. This reminds me of the first time I did a bible study on contentment. At first glance it seems less than ‘happiness’. But the ability to strive for contentment can lead to a very fulfilling life.

    I am just a chick trying to live an ordinary life. For me it is the moments with my family, playing a game, watching a movie, acknowledging a milestone, I know it is rather extraordinary.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Thank you, Kelly. Beautiful true words. I*m Catharine and I*m still a dudette. I like that. In my parlance, I am a beloved child of God, ordinary and special, just like everyone else. I am aware that the letters after my name, which seem to be accumulating more rapidly in the last couple years, count for little except in the eyes of the state of Illinois. Most of the people I see have not a clue what the letters mean. In fact, at the community clinic where I volunteer, they know absolutely nothing about my credentials. No hiding there. WYSIWYG.

    • drkellyflanagan

      “Ordinary and special.” Yes. This is the amazing paradox, isn’t it?

  • Carrie

    Hi, My name is Carrie and I am just a chick. This being ordinary together reminds me of what I am trying to wrap my mind around: being lonely together. We are not alone, are we?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Carrie. To feel lonely is ordinary. When we can acknowledge that common ground, ironically, we are no longer alone. Another paradox!

  • Risé

    Great post with lots to ponder. I am ‘just a mom’ … reading this post reminded me of a wee story that got circulated via email some years ago called, “I’m Invisible.” And I am reminded that in the middle of an ordinary life, or what seems to be an ordinary life is a life that isn’t ordinary at all. I have hopes that my ordinary will one day produce something extraordinary … for me if not for anyone else. In this little story, a carefree traveling woman gave a book to her friend who was a stay-at-home mom. The book was about the great cathedrals of Europe – which take decades and decades to build. In the front of the book the well-traveled friend writes, “To Charlotte … with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”

    So often our lives are full of ordinary, and as a stay-at-home mom it can feel very ordinary and sometimes even dull, as if my life has lost its lustre. But here’s the thing … there is nothing ordinary about ordinary. Just the other day I had coffee with a friend. We got talking about how to make our teens more aware of the value of money and to encourage independence, and she asked me what I did. I told her and it was like I just handed her a precious gift. To me it was ordinary, to her a blessed gift. My ordinary became her extraordinary.

    I am ‘just a mom’ … and I am perfectly, wonderfully, and completely okay with that, because I am building something …

    “… with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”

    • Jennifer Newell

      Amazingly wonderfully said.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Ditto, Rise.

  • MofE

    This is really interesting. When I was a kid, I was always looking for something to be better than everyone else at. Then later I looked back on this and worried that there was something really wrong with me — that I was maybe narcissistic or sociopathic or something bad — because it wasn’t enough to be good at something, I had to beat other people at it. This kind of puts things in perspective a little bit.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Exactly. Wanting to win isn’t pathological, it’s ordinary. Ironically, embracing it as ordinary actually removes some of the compulsion to have to win. 🙂

  • Rachel

    This hits ridiculously close to home for me (as I am sure it does with many).

    I spent a summer in high school gleefully practicing the violin for 4-5 hours a day. I loved it. Then, when school started again, I realized that a girl who had never been quite as good as I had completely surpassed me in ability. I quit soon after that, because I couldn’t deal with not being the best, even after doing MY best.

    When I look back, I cut myself some slack, knowing that it was probably an okay time to stop, since my life was filled with good things, but how sad is it that I gave up something I loved just because I couldn’t win?

    Focusing on being “enough” instead of being “exceptional” is extremely difficult for me. But I’m trying every day. Thanks for the reminder.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I wonder if there’s a music store nearby you that sells relatively cheap violin’s, Rachel? It’s never too late to create ordinary beauty with an instrument.

  • Cherrie

    My false impression of being ordinary is that I feel like being ordinary means I’ll get lost in the crowd, not good enough to stand out. It feels like being a loser. I’ve prided myself on being a 4.0 student throughout my education. But why? I wasn’t valedictorian, that would have been just plain scary! While I am a Phi Theta Kappa, I can be one in the background. I’m back at school after being away for 35 years, I’m still maintaining a 4.0, but I’m afraid that when I finish getting my B.S. in Psychology, I still somehow won’t be good enough. So… my mind-set right now is that I’m “just a student”.

    Thank you Dr. Kelly, dude. Your posts help keep me grounded, and I appreciate that!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cherrie, my oldest focuses on school this way, too. We make him skip school every once in a while. Maybe you need to play hookie for a day? : )

  • Debbie

    I always knew I was ordinary, but have thought that I should be more than that, so I have tried very hard to more than ordinary. The best mom, the best wife, the best daughter, aunt, etc. But now that I am looking back on it, I was not the best mom, I was not the best wife or the best daughter or aunt. But I had some very extra ordinary moments! And I was a pretty good mom most of the time, a pretty good wife most of the time, a pretty good daughter most of the time and a pretty good aunt. I just need to learn to accept that it was good enough. Thank you for your post.

    • Jennifer Newell

      I think we are own worst critics. I would not be surprised if in those ‘very extra ordinary moments’ you made an impact on someones life. I have no doubt that you were more than good enough.

  • cynthia

    I have a neighbor who teaches 4th grade. At the beginning of the year, he tells his students that they are not special. They are valued, worthy, loved…but no one is more special than the other. Hearing that was an extraordinary moment for me. I teach college seniors and they tell me that their generation has heard too many times that they are special and deserve more…they are becoming more aware of the wounding consequences of this message. Hope is built on grace and vision, not on specialness.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hmmm. I like that Cynthia. Special is necessarily a relative term, I suppose? Replacing it with worthy or valuable removes the comparison. So perhaps the paradox is ordinary AND infinitely valuable…

  • drkellyflanagan

    I so much appreciate the thoughtfulness and vulnerability reflected in all of your responses to this post so far. There is no doubt in my mind that each and every one of you is “good enough.” I’ll respond individually to a couple of comments, but in general I want to say, “Welcome to Winners Anonymous!”

  • Guest

    Love reading your posts…this one really had me going…I was thinking what’s wrong with striving for extraordinary? What some people might see as “ordinary” others might se

  • Penny Vaea

    First off, let me just say, Love reading your posts… this one in particular had me going. I was thinking, what’s wrong with wanting to be extraordinary? For some “ordinary” might be perceived as “extraordinary”… I think it’s all a matter of perception. My grandmother, for instance, who worked 3 jobs to provide for her family all her life…is considered extraordinary in my eyes and by many who knew her… My children all participate in sports and they are very good at it…We encourage them to do their best not because we want them to lose or teach them that it is ok to lose…what would be the point? I think there is a fine line between ordinary and complacency or rationalizing that we are enough so we don’t have to try harder. We encourage our children to try their best and that if they do they will be a winner no matter what the outcome…we however, expect nothing but their best effort…Does that mean they always win? No. Sometimes they lose…and it’s ok we can learn valuable lessons from loss…but it is not enough to stay there…we encourage them to lick their wounds and learn and try harder next time. We want that mindset to translate in every aspect of their lives…we want them to cultivate ambition–always striving to reach their full potential. I don’t equate ordinary with failure or being inadequate at all..nor do I fight to win because of the fear of being ordinary. There are people who win, who are still ordinary…& I’m not sure if the world’s view of extraordinary equals fame & fortune or celebrity status…I live in the world and that is certainly not what I think “extraordinary” looks like. I think that is a coveted lifestyle by many but not necessarily extraordinary. In my opinion, extraordinary looks like people who contribute to making this world a better place…big or small…like my grandma…and I believe that we have it in us to make a difference in the world we live in whether it be big or small. We can all be extraordinary.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Penny, Thanks for sharing such wonderful, thought-provoking ideas! I like this: “Extraordinary looks like people who contribute to making the world a better place…and I believe that we have it in us to make a difference in the world.” I want us to keep wrestling with this tension: only when we are “okay” with being ordinary are we freed up to do extraordinary things. And I think your entire comment places us directly in the middle of that tension. Thank you again, keep the thoughts coming!

  • Sue O’Donnell

    Live in vanilla … One can add some chocolate .. Bit vanilla is wonderful as it is.

  • Susabella

    I have recently realized that my “claim to being extraordinary” has manifested itself in a belief that i am above the rules that apply to everyone else. I acknowledge that I come by this belief honestly, as it is what I was taught, but imagine my surprise to discover that I am actually not above the rules. It has been a long time lesson, and it hasn’t been easy to internalize. Seeing myself eye to eye with everyone else might end up being really freeing, but for the time being it just feels weird.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Susabella, I think all the deep, lasting changes feel weird at first. Good for you for having the courage to go there!

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  • JonMichael Bright

    I have a problem and its not that I’m addicted to winning but I’m just so scared to fail so I force myself to win. Its very taxing on my body and my peers but I just cant stop!

  • S.W.

    Very true. And an especially difficult realization after riding the highs of extraordinary achievement, masking the wounds of worthlessness. Thanks.

  • Obvious

    You stupid idiot. How are you possibly taking yourself seriously? This is garbage in every possible manner. This is some kind of obvious joke.