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The Burden of Exceptionalism

Sep, 23 2014 10:09

An article in the New York Times “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary” Alina Tugend brings to our attention the tyranny of exceptionalism, one of the great “isms” of our modern culture is. She cites a 2012 graduation speech to Wellesley High graduates by English teacher, David McCullough, Jr. It went viral with the words “You are not special. You are not exceptional”.


In her article Tugend points out the gift of the ordinary. Clearly it was a message that hit a nerve. At the time her story was published it became one of the most e-mailed articles in the Times.

I noted that some enterprising person saw the commercial possibilities in the message, because there was a Google ad that popped up alongside her story. It read: “5 Signs of Depression”.

It is easy to make the connection between exceptionalism and depression. Those who have received the overt or subtle message from their family of origin that they are valued for their extraordinary accomplishments may wake up one day, perhaps having slid into depression or years later into a mid-life crisis. To be loved for the wrong reason or, at best, mixed reasons, produces a negative response from within. The brakes are applied as the unconscious refuses to go along with the program.

Personal achievements are to be valued. However, when achievements are serving the goals of, say, a narcissistic parent or cultural ideals, then they become a problem. They are not really personal achievements, but achievements to burnish the reputation of another. When ego ideals serve the goals of the larger self needing to be lived in the world do there flow healthier energy and drive. Discovering those more legitimate ego ideals can be quite challenging when the unconscious message has been that another’s ideals are more important. We may want so desperately to please that we blindly follow the script.

It was Jung’s insight that there is a truer self wanting to be lived in the world, unfettered of parental and cultural ideals. Giving birth to that truer self he called the work of individuation. It is the birth of what is ultimately creative, unique, and legitimately exceptional.

Perhaps celebrating the ordinary is the concomitant of this inner work as we gain right order. Or could it be part of the work itself, as we begin creating a healthier perspective on life, welcoming what we may have hitherto rejected as having little value or worth.