Jenara Nerenberg’s newly published book, Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed For You, examines how prevailing views of what is normal obscure, and sometimes pathologize, the way women communicate, interact and create change in the world. It is an insightful look at what it means to be a woman who experiences the world differently.
In this first of a three-part series, we will look at Part I of her book and Nerenberg’s central argument that women have been left out of society’s notions of normality, thus minimizing how women think, feel, and act, and delegitimizing diversity and the opportunities it offers. I invite you, the reader, to follow along with me as I describe Nerenberg’s thesis. I also encourage you to comment on the points she makes, whether you agree or disagree with them, or whatever opinions and views you have regarding this topic. You can post your comments at the end of this blog after it is published on my website.
In her introduction to the book, Nerenberg argues that women often experience anxiety and depression “as a result of internal experiences that don’t match up with what the world expects or how the world views such women.” As a result, “thousands of women have no name for their life experiences and feelings.” (p. 7) Many women resort to unconscious or conscious efforts to hide and cover up who they are from the world. Masking, the attempt to conform to societal expectations of girls and women at the expense of their individuality, leaves many girls and women feeling “empty, depressed, and anxious and (robs) them of living according to their true selves.” (p. 4).
Diversity, Nerenberg argues, is more a function of what is considered appropriate and inappropriate than it is about actual differences. The idea that differences among people are a result of normal, innate variations in our natural makeup only makes sense as an outcome of what we, as a society, consider normal and abnormal. Otherwise, differences would be viewed as simply that, differences.
In the chapter Reframing Sensitivity, Nerenberg makes a case that normality is limiting. “If you’re like everyone else, then you’re not going to be as innovative.” For example, highly sensitive people “excel in perception, detecting nuances and understanding others.” (p. 36)
She argues that concepts of abnormality, how the mind works and how people behave, are grounded in generalizable theories that don’t take into account individual differences. (p. 41) In particular, sensitivity, a core attribute of women, has been “neglected, covered up, and explicitly unwelcome.” (p. 43) Sensitivity has become a bad word, a negative characteristic within the scientific and non-scientific communities. It has been typically viewed as abnormal and undesirable, and associated with numerous mental disorders by the medical/psychological establishment in particular.
The Value of Sensitivity
Nerenberg concludes Part I of her book with the argument that sensitivity is to be “harnessed and cherished, and that this trait may be the antidote to society’s modern ills.” (p. 50) As I understand her, she believes that we need to de-link sensitivity and neurodivergence and instead promote the inclusion of neurotypical and neurodivergent women into the distinctive, stable arrangement of institutions whereby human beings in a society interact and live together.
This means focusing more on how our definitions of normality can promote the wellbeing of society and less on how to change people, women in particular, to meet those definitions.
Please consider posting your thoughts, reactions, additions, criticisms, etc. to this blog when it is published. I welcome all comments. And I encourage you to follow this series in two weeks when I take a look at Part II of Divergent Mind. I look forward then to a lively discussion about the topic of Outer Frames.