Of Rubik’s Cubes and Lecture Halls: How the Myth of “Normal” Creates Stigma

how the myth of normal creates stigma


This post comes from an interaction that I observed while attending a guest lecture at my college. But first, some background: there are fidget toys everywhere. I have never had a class where someone wasn’t knitting, coloring, or playing with a fidget toy during the lecture. Sometimes that person is me on the days when I bring my crocheting to class. In fact, fidget toys can be very beneficial to help people with ADHD focus, limit distractions, provide a desired level of stimuli, and can be used to reduce anxiety.

I had just taken a seat near the back of the lecture hall  when I noticed that the person to my right was fidgeting with a miniature Rubik’s cube. Before the lecture began, this person with the Rubik’s cube got up for a moment and left their seat. After they had left, I overheard this comment from someone in the row behind me: “Why can’t she just focus on the lecture like the rest of us without bringing a toy?”

I was not brave enough to turn around and say something at the time, but it got me thinking about fidget toys, coping mechanisms, and the whole concept of “normal.”


The thing about everyday coping mechanisms

Things like fidget toys, weighted blankets, and comfort objects are small tools that can make coping with mental illness a little bit easier. Having one of these tools can help you pull yourself out of an anxiety attack or focus in a lecture. You would think that there is nothing wrong with someone having a little tool like this. Right? Yet, others see fidget toys and coping mechanisms and see something that isn’t “normal.” They see someone who isn’t “like the rest of us.”

While these coping mechanisms certainly make our lives easier, sometime using them in public can draw unwanted attention. This can lead to judgement, shame, and fear of going out. It can also lead to stigma surrounding mental health conditions and coping mechanisms. And once a stigma surrounding something develops, it is very hard to erode it. The result is alienation from healthy coping mechanisms and more difficulty  managing mental health.


The problem with “normal”

Stigma is tied directly to this idea of “normal”.  When something becomes stigmatized, it is viewed as something that is unacceptable in “normal” society. This causes there to be a shame associated with it. Yet, “normal” is a moving target where some  coping mechanisms are completely acceptable and others are not. This also changes by location. For instance, at my college, it is “normal” to see fidget toys and knitting needles in lecture halls. Those are both tools to help someone feel more secure and focused in a busy setting. But, what is not “normal” is to have a weighted blanket in a lecture hall; it is also a tool to feel more secure, yet others can look down on someone for having one. Having coping mechanisms or tools that are outside the norm can lead to judgement from others. People might believe that a person with these is “crazy,” different, or incompetent.


Solving the Rubik’s cube

So, in summary: the idea of “normal” as it relates to mental health creates stigma surrounding things like coping mechanisms.

But what can we do about this? The world is a better place with less stigma surrounding mental illness and related coping mechanisms. Yet, the issue is complex and can be challenging to talk about.

The first step to tackling this aspect of stigma is simply to talk about it. If you start the conversation, it opens up a way to help others understand the situation. So, next time someone asks why I have my crocheting in class, I will not be ashamed to say that it’s because crocheting during lectures helps reduce my depression-induced brain fog.

The second step is to practice kindness in situations where someone is using a coping mechanism that is different. Smile at them, say “hi,” and tell them you like their Rubik’s cube/weighted blanket/anxiety candle/etc. This will not only make the person feel less alone and judged, but it will also encourage others to jump to kindness and not to judgement.

Finally – only if you’re feeling brave – post about it. Mental illness is often treated like this big, dark secret in our society. There is always a fear that others will think that you are “crazy.” Together we can shed some light on the issue. By talking about our own mental health issues, we put friendly faces to the topic. This makes mental illness easier to address and can can help reduce judgement surrounding coping mechanisms.


Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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