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Don’t Worry, Everybody Else is Crazy Too

iceberg with bird

Human beings make a big deal about being normal. We’re probably the only species for which it’s normal to think you’re not normal.

Every society operates under thousands of unspoken rules, and when you break them people get nervous. There are acceptable and unacceptable ways to stand in line at the bank, order at restaurants, and answer the phone. There are appropriate and inappropriate birthday gifts, wedding toasts, and hugging styles.

Every type of social situation has its own subsection of laws and procedures. You can make everyone around you instantly uncomfortable just by facing the back wall while riding an elevator, or asking a fellow bus passenger if they want to hear a story.

Miraculously, most of us have learned most of these rules by the time we become adults, at least enough to fulfill our basic responsibilities without causing a scene. The moment kids are born, they begin to absorb clues about what’s okay and what’s not by continually watching and emulating.

We learn some of these rules in explicit mini-lessons from our parents and teachers, and occasionally friends, when they pull us aside and tell us, “We don’t talk about pee at the dinner table,” or “We don’t bring up sports betting around Eddie.”

We also learn the location of certain boundaries when we bump up against them, by remembering which acts triggered dirty looks, and which got laughs, or no reaction at all. Over time, we learn that we can avoid awkward and painful collisions with these boundaries by simply doing what other people are doing, and not doing what they’re not doing.

Stand where the other people are standing. When other people are quiet, be quiet. When they’re eating, eat. When they’re being somber, be somber. When they laugh, laugh (even if you don’t get the joke).

This survival tactic eventually becomes a part of our worldview. Humans are an easily frightened, highly social species, and we put together a sense of how things are supposed to be—of how we’re supposed to be—by what seems normal for the people around us. How do you know if you’re in good health for someone your age? For some places and times in history, failing health at age 48 is expected; in 21st-century USA, it means something’s gone wrong. 

Every life is mostly private

Our reliance on using norms for guidance gets us through a lot of confusing social situations, but it creates a huge problem when it comes to evaluating ourselves.

We can’t compare ourselves to what we can’t see, and most of a person’s life is invisible to everybody else. Our thoughts, feelings, moods, urges, impressions, expectations and other intangible qualities happen only on the inside, yet they constitute the largest part of our lives. They aren’t just important to us—essentially, they are us.

Life is ultimately a solo trip, and most of the landscape is mental. Even when it comes to your closest loved ones, you never get access to another person’s internal experience. They can talk about it, or hint at it through their actions, but everything behind their eyes is fundamentally off limits to you, while to them it’s everything.

Our public selves are that one-tenth of the iceberg that sees the Sun. The other 90% is who we are only to ourselves, and we have nothing to compare it to. You can’t tell, just by observing, whether other people have a similar inner world to yours, especially socially unacceptable feelings like intense guilt, or feelings of incompetence, or apathy, or uncontrollable sympathy.

One of the behaviors we learn to emulate is to always present our “best face”, so we learn to keep our most insecure and ugly thoughts to ourselves. This leaves a lot of us wondering if we’re crazy, or especially messed up inside.

Many of the emails I get from readers are private disclosures that they feel like impostors: they have successfully fooled their friends, family and co-workers into thinking they have things together, but they’re only pretending. Their stories are so similar it’s almost unbelievable. Usually they have a respectable-sounding career and home life, but they feel particularly fragile and troubled compared to how everyone around them appears to be.

My answer is always that I feel that way too, or at least my own version of it, on a regular basis. Hearing these stories over and over has all but confirmed my suspicion that human beings live with a consistent discrepancy between what we’re each like in our private world, and what we think others are like.

Somewhere along the line, human beings have convinced themselves that the normal way for a grown human being to feel is prepared, secure and competent. Serious feelings of anxiety, incompetence, guilt or insecurity must always mean something’s wrong with you—either there must be some past life event that justifies these feelings, or you’re just crazy.

You might get comforting glimpses of the dark, bulbous root of someone else’s iceberg by reading Sylvia Plath poems or Cormac McCarthy books, but in social situations it is as hidden (and as officially non-existent) as the Pentagon’s security schedule.

You’re on your own but you’re not alone

The other day on Reddit, someone asked any therapists and psychologists in the audience to answer a question: What is something that most people think they are alone in feeling/experiencing?

Dozens of therapists answered, and hundreds of people learned that their unique inner problems weren’t unique and might not even be problematic. They’re just hard to see in others, because most people never share them, except maybe with a therapist. (The thread is definitely worth a read.)

The “Impostor syndrome” I mentioned was a really common one. So if you’re the one who thinks their entire career is a fluke and that it will all soon be exposed in a nightmarish intervention scenario at your office, you are not alone.

A lot of perfectly sane people have deep insecurities, dark thoughts, and peculiar aversions to everyday things. Intrusive thoughts, about sex, violence, humiliation, suicide, the end of the world—not at all uncommon.

We all have our own craziness going on, but we’re very good at hiding it from everyone else. While some of our neurotic patterns are serious enough to warrant treatment, a lot of it is quite normal.

All of our personal dilemmas and life situations aside, simply being human is just plain hard. We want to make it look easy though, because almost everyone else does. But if you could look right down through everyone else’s iceberg—if you could see exactly how much insecurity, stress and craziness there is hidden in the average office floor or subway car—you might be glad for your own.


Photo by Alan Wu

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Robert November 23, 2015 at 5:06 am

So true. I’ve found the most successful comedians are the ones that give you a glimpse of what they go through internally, and make light of it. You laugh even harder because you can relate. In this regard, I think stand-up is one of the most therapeutic treatments available today.

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 8:39 am

Comedians seem to have a disproportionate amount of inner turmoil. But maybe it’s just that they let us see it, as part of their self-therapy.

Dragline November 25, 2015 at 8:52 pm
Maria SM February 23, 2016 at 12:40 pm

I’m a comedian and I spend a lot of time around other comedians, I can confirm most of us are hella cray.

But if I did not have stand up as a therapeutic outlet I would be in a much worse mental state. Releasing the crazy on stage helps me breathe easier day to day.

(I’ve been following your wonderful blog since December 2013, thought it was about time I made a comment)

Steve November 23, 2015 at 5:17 am


Good stuff here and I couldn’t agree more.

I think one of the reasons we hide most of the ugliness from the world is to not reveal weakness. Insecurity and anxiety show your friends, family, and co-workers that you don’t have your shit together.

Mental hygiene is as important as physical hygiene. We shower and put deodorant on in the morning to present ourselves to the world. Same thing for your mind.

“Life is ultimately a solo trip, and most of the landscape is mental.”

That’s a brilliant observation and imperative for all of us to understand.

Yes life is hard. But, when you work hard good things happen.


Laura November 23, 2015 at 7:55 am

Thanks for sharing. Do you happen to know any sites where I can readore about mental hygiene? Laura in Perth

Laura November 23, 2015 at 7:56 am

Sorry meant to say read more

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 8:41 am

I agree with you on the idea of mental hygiene, and that’s probably a good term for it. Daily meditation and avoid the mainstream news!

Delma November 23, 2015 at 6:35 am

There’s so much to say on this subject! Drop any of us into a different time and culture and we’d need to learn new ways of navigating “normal”.

The drive to conform is a double edged sword of safety and suppression. We tolerate nonconformity only in small doses.

I haven’t yet decided whether that is a good or bad thing.

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 8:44 am

I guess there is a balance we need to find between actual safety and social advantage, and nonconformity. Being shunned by everyone isn’t a good thing, but where I live you I know that a lot of the fear of standing out isn’t really warranted, in fact it’s counterproductive. Definitely depends on the society and era.

Bob November 23, 2015 at 7:19 am

On your point about impostors, Heather Maloney has a great autobiographical song about this: https://vimeo.com/61642225

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 8:45 am

Hey this is really catchy

Tom Southern November 23, 2015 at 7:51 am

We’re all impostors and yet we all want everyone else to conform to an ideal of realness.

It’s realising just how much everyone else is worrying about what others think of them – or what they think of themselves, that’s helped me overcome my crushing lack of confidence over the years.

And while we worry about what others think of us, it’s actually we, ourselves, that are our most brutal critics. We just transfer our self-criticism onto others.

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 8:46 am

Yes, I have noticed a really strong relationship between self-criticism and criticism of others. They’re almost the same “knob” on the control panel. I’ve become less critical of myself by becoming more forgiving of others. Long way to go still though.

BrownVagabonder November 23, 2015 at 9:12 am

I absolutely love the part of this post that said that 90% of our life is internal, and invisible to the rest of the world. It is such a great reminder that what people expose to you isn’t necessarily what they are thinking at all. The Imposter syndrome was a really interesting one for me as well, as I have had a bunch of friends come spill their feelings on this in private, making me realize how common this feeling is among humans.
Thank you also for posting the link to that Reddit thread. We, humans, are fascinating and I love exploring their nuances with bloggers like you.

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 5:01 pm

The thread is great and I hope it and this post are a relief to a lot of people.

Seo November 23, 2015 at 9:44 am

There’s some great timeliness to this entry. Just a half hour ago I was thinking about how I feel like an imposter on a project I’ve been working on :)

I think something else worth mentioning is how the 10% you do show to other people affects the rest of your 90%. Sometimes projecting confidence can make you actually feel more confident, while sometimes it only makes you feel even more insecure. I’ve found that if I wear a suit, I genuinely feel a little bit more confident in myself, particularly in my ability to respond with an “I don’t know, but I know a few people who might” to a tough question.

David Cain November 23, 2015 at 5:02 pm

I think there’s a lot to be gained in cultivating certain traits in that 10%. In my experience, posture alone has a big effect on what’s going on inside, for example.

Marije November 23, 2015 at 9:55 am

Thank you for this excellent post, I think it’s important for all of us to realize that a lot of craziness is not crazy. Interestingly, you say that reading poetry and literature does little to lift this feeling that we’re the only weird ones – Alain de Botton argues that it does, in ‘How Proust can change your life’; he says that practically the only glimpse we can ever get of the inside of another’s mind is by reading the interior monologue in literature. I tend to agree with him. I agree with you however, that in every day life it isn’t enough. Perhaps we should talk to each other more about what goes on inside our minds?

David Cain November 24, 2015 at 8:20 am

I think it would definitely help to talk more, it’s just hard to find people who would be comfortable with that. Maybe one day in the future it will be more common.

Bonnie November 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

Very insightful post!! More than just private though, I would say that we are 89% unknown to ourselves beneath the tip of that iceberg … and that, as social beings, we are far more context-dependent than we recognize or credential.

89%: (Playing with these numbers as toys to explore something we really can’t quantify :) 1% of ourselves is comprised of ‘the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We collect those stories from a very small sample of our experiences, most often giving greater weight to the ones that are traumatic. Thus, ‘who-we-know-ourselves-to-be’ is a very skewed picture that gives rise to feelings of shame (because we must have gotten something wrong to have gotten traumatized in the first place) and vulnerability (not knowing what we got wrong, we’re at constant risk of getting traumatized again). What we need to be able to see, together, with and for each other, is exactly what you’re pointing out here, David: This is our shared story, and we can help one another. When we begin to lower our masks with each other, revealing our shared vulnerability, the whole world changes. Literally. In an instant. Because the 89% we’re not aware of is comprised of vast potentials for intelligence and rescue and unity that we can’t activate by ourselves. Since this is a (direly necessary!) growth edge for us humans, there aren’t a lot of us yet who feel ready … because being vulnerable does run the risk of re-traumatization, and it takes no small amount of strength and trust to step out. But we can do this. We can re-cognize our shared story; we can come to see that we’re all vulnerable and traumatized and we need one another to heal ourselves and our world.

Because, context-dependent: We do not exist in isolation, as much as it can feel like we do at times. Who we experience ourselves to be in any moment depends on countless, perhaps infinite influences of that unique moment, only the tiniest sliver of which we have any awareness of at all. In a very real and practical sense, we arise in response to the moment. So, in the current environment, where we’re all playing off each other’s masks, we exist in a fictional universe … everyone pretending to something they’re not … and we’re stuck ‘responding’ from mask to mask. We’re not condemned to this, though, it’s just what we’re ‘agreeing to do right now.’ In actuality, our potentials for true response-ability exceed our wildest fictions and myths and religious stories and sciences. When we drop our masks at last (and it’ll get contagious once we get started!), we can begin supporting one another in truly responding to the real universe with and for each other, and for this incredible living mystery we call Earth.

David Cain November 24, 2015 at 8:22 am

The rabbit hole goes deep…

Chris November 23, 2015 at 9:58 am

You mean that you’re not an omniscient expert, and I’ve been reading your stuff for 2 years now? I want my money back! ;)

David Cain November 24, 2015 at 8:18 am

I am omniscient, this is all part of the test

Paul Anthony November 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm

The truly sane are those who know they are at least half nuts.
The real crazies are those who don’t think they are at all.

Karen J November 25, 2015 at 4:52 am

Wasn’t that mostly a great big part of the point of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?

Christine November 23, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Great post as usual, David. I loved this at the beginning:
“We’re probably the only species for which it’s normal to think you’re not normal.”

neal November 23, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Entanglement probably does not require a safe space. Time, maybe if stretched out. Forming a baby wormhole inside another is not for the timid, or the sold out. Of course, the forms must be kept.

Just gods and monsters, and equilibrium. Probably messy, and hard to know the viable mutations from the stillborn.

The Usurper November 23, 2015 at 4:27 pm

I think the unspoken rules of society is one of the aspects that makes travelling so exciting. When you explore a new culture, the things that we’re perfectly ok at home can suddenly cause great offense, and vice versa. For example, never touch the head of a Thai person.

David Cain November 24, 2015 at 8:27 am

Exciting, and occasionally mortifying. Also, never give the “A-OK” hand signal. Or step on a coin to prevent it from rolling away.

Mark Tong November 24, 2015 at 3:18 am

Hey David, really great article. Most human beings are the same on the inside as on the outside. The only really amazing thing is that any one holds it together at all.

Free to Pursue November 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

Regarding the imposter syndrome: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young and Leap by Tess Vigeland are worth a read. Despite what the title of Young’s book may suggest, the findings and associated insights are as applicable to men as to women. Fascinating and, well, reassuring stuff.

Nicole November 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s novels (I may be hissed at for referencing Thoreau and Austen in the same post.) Love/hate/indifferent towards her, she does take a humorous snapshot of the manners and acceptable behaviors of her time. As a freedom loving woman, I wouldn’t trade existing in my own time for existing in hers but I do wonder if the pre-programmed social responses of that era were somewhat of a comfort at times.

I’m an introvert but have become very good at appearing to be an extrovert. It’s a useful skill, especially at work. I really dislike large parties, even with people I care about, and I appear chatty and interested on the outside while very much wishing I was curled up with a book or playing in my gardens on the inside. I wonder how many people in my proximity feel the same?

Rose Costas November 25, 2015 at 1:09 am

Thanks for another awesome post. I think most of us humans are hypocrites. We are so bent on making everyone around think we are like them that we sacrifice who we are, trying to appear normal. We all want to look, feel and behave like everyone else. Society even tries to do that as well and the people who rebels are considered outsiders and rebels.

Edward November 25, 2015 at 1:30 pm

As more and more is presented to us, I wonder if it’s exacerbating the crazy? Would we all be tormented inside if we lived in a simple one-room, pioneer cabin away from throngs of people and barrages of activity, information, advertising? If my day involved waking up, milking the cow, cutting some wood, having dinner with a wife, quietly sitting by the fire as I read a few chapters from an old book, and then going to bed would we still have “intrusive thoughts, about sex, violence, humiliation, suicide, the end of the world”?
Do people who live simply navel-gaze complicated mental rope traps for themselves the way people do in a first-world big city? Are introspective manifestations and feelings of guilt, anxiety, impersonation, and fragility perhaps even a decadent luxury?
Some of this reminds me of the NY Times article “No Time to Think,” which describes how many people would rather give themselves electric shocks than have to spend 10 minutes alone quietly thinking. What’s inside Pandora’s Box? A mirror.

bhushan December 14, 2015 at 6:25 am

I could relate to this so much David. Thanks for writing this. Especially here in India the expectations from men/boys is to hide their feelings of despair and anxiety. Even in the event of death of a family member, I could see women crying out and showing their grief in front of everyone but not a single male would cry.

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