Exercises and practices to help you drop social norms and stigmas

Social Stigmas and Social norms
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In 2011 I was living a fairly typical American life in many ways. I was quite focused on material possessions, financial wealth and my physical appearance. I thought about how others perceived me as much or more than how I perceived myself. Many of my actions were not necessarily based on being true to myself, but rather creating an image that would be liked by others. In this way, I think I was living a fairly standard way of existence in my society.

But then I woke up. I realized that the world that I loved was being destroyed. Corporations, governments and people were causing incomprehensible damage to species on earth, our oceans, rivers and lakes, our forests and all biomes, and to billions of people around the world. I quickly realized that I was a part of those corporations and governments causing destruction and that I was one of those people slowly destroying all that I loved.

I decided that I was going to change my life. Over the next two years, I made over one hundred changes to live in a manner that caused less harm but that also made me much happier and healthier. Some of the changes were easy, such as using reusable shopping bags and no longer using plastic bags. Others were a little challenging like giving up my dependence on cheap goods from big box stores. And then there were massive changes like going car-free and riding a bike instead. Through all of this I found that it wasn’t the changing of the actions in themselves that was the most difficult, but the social perception of it. What was most challenging was stepping outside of social norms and being ok with standing out from others.

My childhood in the small town of Ashland (population 8,620) in Northern Wisconsin was a very formative time of my life. My mom, my three siblings and I lived together in a 2-bedroom house. My mom worked at the school and made around $18,000 to support us, with very little help from our dads. We lived below the financial poverty line. Most days I worried about what others would think about me if they found out that I was “poor”. I would avoid getting rides to school from my mom, so nobody would see our old rusty car. I had very few friends over, not wanting them to see the inside of my house. I spent my formative years designing myself largely to be accepted by others. I spent a good portion of my hard-earned money on clothes. I spent an hour in front of the mirror many mornings before school, creating my image. This was largely about fitting in and being “normal”.  I did stand out in other ways, as I was nominated the class clown for senior year, and I was definitely always a bit of a unique character, but I generally only allowed myself to stand out in ways that I saw as acceptable or “cool”.

This carried on through college and into my mid-twenties. I looked at life through the lens of others. When I wanted to do something, I would often subconsciously ask how it would be perceived by my peers.

My childhood up to my early 20’s may seem like a segue from the point of this blog, but I’m sharing this because it shows the foundation that I had to overcome. As I said, it wasn’t the changes that were the hardest to overcome, it was the social stigmas and the perceived social barriers. I realized that most of the time when I was being held back it was simply because of my ego. I was worried about what others would think. I was now conscious of that. The good news is that being conscious of something is often the first step in being able to change.

I’d eaten up the lies corporations had told me and made them a part of my being. It was now time to get my true self-worth back. It was time to gain freedom from social norms and societal and corporate myths. It was time to live a life of truth! I wanted to be free of materialism, of worrying what others thought, of any part of the system that did not serve mine and greater humanities best interest.

As I made changes in my life, these built a foundation which made it easier to make more changes. But one of the very important things I did was set challenges and incorporate practices into my daily life to help me overcome the social stigmas. These challenges were designed to help me unlearn all the lies that I had learned. To help me unravel my two and a half decades and reset myself.

I want to share some of those challenges and actions with you, in hopes of helping you to overcome societal norms that may be holding you back as well. Many of these practices may not be understood in their entirety immediately. I didn’t necessarily understand all of them fully as they were happening, but with hindsight, I am able to look back at them and understand how they helped me overcome societal norms. Some of these exercises and practices might seem crazy at first, but that is the point.

To get to the new norm, I had to go far beyond the old norm to reset myself. If I only changed a little bit, it wouldn’t shock my system, and it wouldn’t reset me. But by going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other, I could deeply feel the change. I could deeply put myself out of my comfort zone, and ultimately create a new norm that was somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Our current “normal” way of living is extreme. The United States has just 5% of the world’s population yet we use 25% of the world’s resources. 

In time I had many realizations. I realized that if I spent just an hour each day worrying what others thought about me, that added up to over five years of waking life if I lived to the average life expectancy. Imagine what I could do with those five years instead! On a trip back to my hometown I learned that 70% of the Ashland county lives below the poverty line, so in reality, I was quite normal, and perhaps we were all hiding the truth from each other. These lessons along with others, have set me free and allowed me to achieve my highest level of self and accomplishments in life.

The purpose of the exercises ahead is to to help you:

  • Step outside of societal norms and stigmas and realize that “normal” is an illusion.
  • Stop worrying and wasting time with what others think about you.
  • Change your perspective and open your eyes to new ways of life.
  • Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.
  • Get out of unhealthy patterns and create healthier patterns and behaviors.
  • Be your authentic and genuine self.
  • Live more simply and be more content, comfortable and happy.
  • Live a life that is beneficial to the earth, your community and yourself.
  • Ascend delusion and live a life of truth.
  • Decrease your need for and dependence on money.

Note: You can, of course, adapt all of these challenges in terms of length of time, place, situation, etc.

Turn your cellphone and computer off and put them in a drawer for 24 hours.

Our cellphones and the internet are often used as social crutches. When we’re alone in public we pull out our phones to make ourselves look busy or to simply pass the time. Challenge yourself to go a full 24 hours without these items so that you can connect more deeply with the people in your life, whether they be close friends and family, acquaintances or the random people you come across as well as your surroundings. This can help you to become more comfortable with people, with your surroundings and yourself.

Try to do this one day per week. Once you’ve become comfortable with 24 hours try for a whole weekend or a week.

See Why I Got Rid of My Cellphone.

See My relationship with my devices.

Leave your house with no money or credit cards and spend a day away from home.

Many of us who have money have replaced our problem solving, critical thinking and relational skills with credit cards and cash. It has allowed us to disconnect from our actions, our dependence on others and the environment, and allows us to throw money at every situation. By going out for an entire day without money, you will put yourself in situations where you might need to problem solve and to connect with others.

You might even find yourself dependent on the kindness of a stranger. Feeling in need can help you to overcome your ego and become more compassionate and understanding for people who need help. This isn’t about mooching, this is about teaching yourself valuable lessons, which can help you to be a better giver. Whatever ways you are helped, make sure to pay it forward in equal or even greater amounts.

Other similar exercises:

Get a round-trip ticket and budget your spending to $1 per hour that you will be away.

Travel with no money. Read Share My Way Home and learn about when I landed in Panama with no money and had to travel 4,000 miles home completely dependent on the kindness of strangers and my own skills.

Eat with your hands for a week – no utensils

In many Western societies, it’s frowned upon to eat with our hands. But in many cultures around the world, it’s completely normal. It’s important to realize that just because something is normal to us, does not mean that it is normal. Normal is an illusion. Normal is just seeing the same thing around you, day after day, year after year, being done by most people you are around. But the world is a grand and diverse place, and most of us are just exposed to a tiny fraction of people in our own little bubbles. Nearly all of us are in the bubble of our own time on earth, a minuscule window into the many “normal” ways that humanity has lived.

This practice, done in a society that uses eating utensils like forks and spoons, can help you step outside of a simple societal norm. This can help you reduce your ego.

By doing things that are considered weird, you can practice being comfortable with being different in an isolated scenario, and ultimately more comfortable with being different in general. This will help you to go against the grain of society in your day to day actions.

For this exercise, whether you are at home, school, work, or a fancy party, forget the utensils for the whole week and eat with your hands. And I’m not talking about eating pizza slices and sandwiches for the week. Dig into that spaghetti, stir-fry, apple sauce, ice cream, you name it! While you’re at it, lick your plate clean in public (that’s a whole new exercise on its own)!

Dumpster dive

When I first began dumpster diving, the most challenging part was the worry of what others would think about me. Taking food out of the dumpsters wasn’t hard at all. The dumpsters were filled with perfectly good food. So much that I found that I could live off it. Dumpster diving is somewhat a cool term, but by others, it is often viewed simply as how they see it: “eating out of the trash” or “eating garbage.” Many people assume that the ONLY reason someone would dumpster dive is that they have no other options. Setting aside, the incredible benefits of eating for free and reducing food waste, if you could dumpster dive only to lower yourself to that standard in other people’s minds, imagine the liberation that could provide. If you can be ok with other people thinking you are the lowest of the low, then you have made it a long way into being able to live not based on what others think, but based on your own ethics and morals and living in a way that is beneficial to the earth, your community and yourself.

So don’t just dumpster dive at night when nobody will see you, let your peers know you dumpster dive and help to uncover the Food Waste Fiasco hidden in the world’s supermarket dumpsters.

You could set a challenge of eating 100% dumpster food, for a day, a week or a month.

See my guide on how to dumpster dive.

See also How I Became A Dumpster Diver.

Go barefoot

Most people associate being barefoot to being at the beach or on a soft lawn of grass. It’s even the stuff of postcards and billboards. But seeing a pair of bare feet walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, or inside the store, brings out a whole different set of thoughts in mainstream society. As I am walking barefoot down the street people frequently jump to the conclusion that I am homeless and destitute. You would not believe how many people stare at me and some definitely look on with disgust. (It should be noted that many also look on with curiosity, some exclaim joy for the simplicity and freedom and many ask questions creating an opportunity for connection).

In our society, most people consider a person who is homeless to be lower than them, so to be ok with being perceived in this manner is again a great way to battle the ego, and overcome any care of what others think. I can go just about anywhere barefoot today and not notice the people looking at me, but when I walk into a fancy place with highly wealthy people, I often feel the looks stronger than usual, and I can feel myself worrying what others think. I can see how far I’ve come and how this exercise still serves me each day.

Start with going barefoot for just one day, or if your feet can’t handle that, just go for a barefoot walk in your neighborhood. With each walk, your feet will get stronger until you can go for a whole day (or longer)!

Being barefoot can also slow down your life, connect you more with your landscape and your steps and keep you off of places where you’d usually spend money like bars and stores (because they might not let you in). So being barefoot can save you a lot of money, reduce stress and help you connect.

See my blog on living barefoot.

Go somewhere new every day

Get yourself out of unconscious patterns and monotony by going somewhere new every day. This can be as simple as walking (or even driving) down different streets every day on the way home. Or it could be taking the opportunity to visit places you’ve been wanting to go such as a cultural center, a business focused on sustainability, a volunteer opportunity, or trying a new type of food. These can be places that are well within your comfort zone or take you far out of your comfort zone (for me that would be dancing, singing and physically expressive art forms).

Challenge yourself to go somewhere new every day for a week, or to make a longterm habit of going somewhere new at least once or a couple of times per week.

Go without your car for a day.

For many of us, our car is much more than just a form of transportation. It is also a symbol of our social status and an extension of our ego. What would people think of you if they saw you walking instead of driving? What would people think of you if you were on the bus? If these are thoughts that go through your head or you feel uncomfortable with these scenarios, then this could be a great exercise for you.

Going without your car is also a great way to connect more with your community.

Challenge yourself to park your car for a day and explore life without a car. Try a week, try a month!

See Selling My Car… Bought My Freedom.

Carry all of the trash you create for an entire week in a duffle bag.

In 2016 I decided to do one of my craziest projects yet; to live like the average North American for a month and wear all of my trash. The idea was to create a shocking visual of how much garbage just one person creates. It worked. But I also gained a lot from this too.

Walking the streets of NYC covered in my own garbage was an amazing exercise in becoming comfortable with people staring and even with people looking at me in disgust. At first it was difficult, but after about a week it turned into bliss.

This is one of my biggest tips, not just to step away from social stigmas, but to actually flip them upside down. Not only was I walking around covered in trash, but I made it an activism campaign that turned it into something to be proud of. The same goes for dumpster diving. I turned it into something cool and got thousands of people to change their perspective completely. Once you become comfortable with stepping outside of social stigmas, you can come into a place of power where you can actually start to flip social stigmas on their head and really start to shake up society.

Wearing your trash for a month is a big ask. So here’s a challenge for you. Carry all the trash you create for a week in a duffle bag. This will help you to see how much trash you create and encourage you to reduce it. If you want this exercise to create conversation and get you more outside of your comfort zone, make a see-through duffle bag, so everyone can see your trash.

People around the world have worn their trash after seeing me do it, so if this calls you, go for it.

See 30 Days of Wearing My Trash.

See my guide to creating less garbage.

Bathe in natural water sources only.

Skip the shower and take your baths in nature. This is a whole new way to relate to the land that provides for us. When I lived in San Diego I swam in the ocean, even when the water dropped down to 54 degrees F in the winter (Note: don’t use soap, even biodegradable soaps, in natural bodies of water to practice Leave No Trace ethics).

I once lived off a leaky fire hydrant in Brooklyn for five days. I went there for my daily shower (wearing shorts). This would definitely be a great exercise for most people in dropping social norms.

On that note, just pretend you are a kid again and play in the sprinklers in the public parks!

Challenge yourself to a week of swimming in natural bodies of water. If you live in a cold climate then this can be a summer exercise.

See Lessons Learned from a Year Without Showering for ideas.

Ditch the deodorant.

Embrace your body, be ok with a little smell and live healthy so that you have a more natural smell in the first place. I’m not talking about stinking. Practicing good natural hygiene means you can have a pleasant humanly smell without chemicals.

Do you really need Old Spice or some multi-million dollar modern company to be a happy, healthy human and a positively contributing member of society? I don’t think so!

See my natural personal hygiene blog for more information.

Turn off the electricity in your house for a day.

Turn off the electricity in your house for a day and experience life without electricity. Get connected with the many different ways you are using electricity and start to gain a real appreciation and understanding of how electrified your life is. Self-reflect on the ways that maybe you are overusing and ways that you can cut way back. This can also help you to overcome the fear of an electrical blackout and be prepared.

You can turn off the circuits so that you don’t have the option to use electricity even if you forget you are in the exercise. (Note: you may need to leave on the fridge/ freezer.)

See my guide on using energy wisely.

Turn off the water in your house for a day.

Fill up a five-gallon bottle of water and turn off the water in your house for a day. Gain a deep appreciation for the water that gives us life and explore your relationship with water.

An even stronger exercise would be to carry the five gallons with you for the entire day, everywhere you go. Five gallons is as much or more than what over a billion people on Earth have for an entire day for drinking, cooking, cleaning and hygiene.

See my guide on using water wisely.

Hitchhike.

Hitchhiking gets most people outside of their comfort zone and introduces them to people they never would have otherwise met. I have hitchhiked through many countries in Central and South America and stretches of the United States and still today hitchhiking gets me outside of my comfort zone. It is humbling to ask a stranger for a ride and it is an exercise that always humbles my ego.

Practice safe hitchhiking. See tips from 23 solo female travelers.

Practice living in the service of others, volunteer and perform random acts of kindness.

When your life revolves around money and a quest for material possessions happiness is often on the horizon and the horizon is always in a future moment. But many of the happiest people on Earth have found their deepest sense of contentment, happiness and purpose simply by living in the service of others. There will always be someone to help which means if you find your purpose in helping others, you will never run out. Making others happy is one of the things that makes me happiest. Thus there is an infinite opportunity for happiness.

Eat a 100-mile diet. Eat only food that was grown within 100 miles of where you live. This will make you deeply rethink food and learn what grows in your area. Talk about getting in touch with the source of your food. Try the 100-mile diet for a month.

Eat for a day without animal products. In many societies of the world today meat, dairy or eggs are part of every single meal. Millions of people have woken up to how the animals, environment and humans are treated to bring this food onto our plates. The truth behind factory farming is truly appalling. For me, it was a great realization that I could eat delicious and nutritious meals that were all plants and no animals. To eat plant-based can also mean going against the grain of society and building confidence with following your morals.

(This is not me recommending an entirely vegan diet, but rather an awakening and deeper connection with our food. Read my blog on veganism for a much deeper perspective.)

Go a day without swearing.

I have found multiple methods to become more intentional about the way I speak and remove words or phrases from my language that didn’t serve myself and others or were inaccurate, untrue, offensive or patriarchal.

To reduce my swearing I committed to doing ten pushups every time I swore. And I would do this no matter where I was, even in public. Doing the action immediately is what creates the behavioral change and doing it in public makes it even stronger in your own mind.

Another exercise I have done is to donate $1 for every time I swore. I quickly reduced swearing so much that I raised it to $10 per time that I swore.

When I want to remove a word from my language I will often make a game of it with friends. We choose a word and the first person to say it three times loses. I have done this with swearwords, with “ummm” or “like” as an example of reducing unnecessary filler words, and “you guys” when speaking to a group of women and men.

These activities can be applied to break many different habits.

Put your trash can outside.

Remove all the trash cans from inside your house, so that you have to go outside every single time you have a piece of garbage to throw away. If you are striving to become zero waste this exercise can really really help you. When things are convenient we are more likely to do them without even noticing. A garbage can in every room is an equation to make a lot of garbage without thinking about it. Having to walk outside with each piece will really help you to see how much you are making. I didn’t take the step to remove all the trash cans from inside my house until I had already drastically reduced my waste and would recommend this once you’ve already made changes.

See my guide to reducing waste here.

Embrace your sexuality.

Like many people, I grew up in a time and place where the majority of people were homophobic. Most of us were not outwardly angry or afraid of people who were LGBTQ+ but most of us were at least uncomfortable with it. I was even afraid of being gay as were many of my peers. We thought negatively of someone for “acting gay” or possibly being gay and called people “gay” as if it were a bad word.

Because of this, we did everything to prove that we were men and that we were only sexually attracted to women (at the time boys who liked girls). This created a pattern in me from a young age of not being able to embrace my fellow men comfortably and of holding on to the concept that I didn’t want others to think I’m gay.

Over time I have come to the truth that it doesn’t matter what gender or sex someone is attracted to. Thus why does it matter to me if someone thinks I have sex with men or women? It doesn’t. So I’ve chosen to drop any attachment to these concepts of “being a man” or when someone does think that I’m gay even choosing to correct them.

I’m already very comfortable hugging men. Practices that I hope to embrace will be holding hands, walking arm and arm and cuddling. As humans, I believe we should be able to connect in this simple, healthy manner.

For those that do not fall into the mainstream gender stereotypes, I support you and encourage you to be true to yourself.

Learn a new skill.

It could be pottery, foraging, gardening, cycling, a music instrument, singing, dancing, an art form, a new language, a form of expression, how to repair or make things, the list can go on and on…

Do something that makes you afraid.

If you need to get out of your comfort zone, this can be a great option. Try to do something that is meaningful and non-consumeristic.

Walk only for a day.

No car, public transportation, or even cycling. Walking is the ultimate slow form of transportation. It forces you to slow down life and be much more present. Try to even walk with no headphones (no podcasts or music) and no distractions.

Walk the farthest you’ve ever walked. Bike the farthest you’ve ever biked.

Test your human-powered capacity, connect with your body, and learn that you can do so much more than you ever imagined. In 2017 my partner at the time and I decided to bike across the United States. I had done it twice and it was extremely difficult. Originally I was doubtful that she could do it. She blew me away cycling nearly 4,000 miles across the country. It changed her life and mine seeing this was possible.

Go foraging.

Food is growing freely and abundantly all around us. Open your eyes and your mind and learn that food doesn’t have to come from the grocery store and that nature provides.

See my beginners guide to foraging.

Take a day of silence.

Have you ever gone a single day of your life without talking? This can be a great practice in listening to others – and your inner self.

Wear something really weird outside for a day.

This is a simple exercise to stop worrying about what others think and get used to being different. Wear your clothes backwards, wear something that embarrasses you, or remove something that you are always hiding behind.

Stand somewhere with a free hugs sign.

If you have a hard time being comfortable with people, put yourself amongst them with a free hugs sign.

Be naked outside.

We all have a body. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Become comfortable with yourself. Go to a place in nature where you can comfortably be naked.

Poop outside.

Humans have been pooping far longer than the toilet was invented. Pooping outside can be incredibly liberating for those that have never done it.

If you’ve never peed outside you can start there too.

Make sure to poop only in a place where it is sanitary to do so and practice leave no trace ethics.

Try out a compost toilet at an eco-village as well!

Talk to strangers.

Have conversations with people on the bus, in the street, wherever you can to hear new perspectives and get comfortable with people.

Have lunch with someone in need.

It’s pretty common for people to hand out meals in large quantities to people who are experiencing homelessness. To actually sit down for a one-to-one meal is a whole different level. This can be a service to them, having someone really show interest and care in them, and for you it could be a wonderful exercise in helping you to be more compassionate and understanding.

Go door to door in service.

Go door to door and ask elders or anyone in need of a helping hand if you can help with a chore. Perhaps heavy lifting or reaching something out of place, giving them a pot with a young tomato plant for them to grow a bit of their own food or running an errand for a busy single parent.

Buy Nothing New.

Go a week or a month without buying anything new.

I once attempted a year of nothing new!

There you have it my friends. That is a lot of options to help you break through social stigmas and become your truest self. It is difficult today but it is possible to align your actions with your beliefs. I encourage you to chose whichever of these exercises will serve you in this mission. You can bookmark this page to come back to it or print it and hang it up to remind you to keep on experimenting with life. There are enough exercises here to practice for years to come.

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