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The Joy of Universality


I recall first hearing the term universality while taking a group therapy class in social work school. The APA defines it as “the tendency to assume that one’s personal qualities and characteristics, including attitudes and values, are common in the general social group or culture” and adds that it is “in self-help and psychotherapy groups, a curative factor fostered by members’ recognition that their problems and difficulties are not unique to them but instead are experienced by many of the group members.”

In my three-plus decades running therapy and support groups, I had one client who absolutely insisted that what he felt no one had ever felt before, though I tried explaining that there are no new feelings under the sun. He was an anomaly. All my other clients felt enormous relief and even joy that others shared their thoughts and feelings because it meant that were not alone or abnormal.

I know clients feel alone with their thoughts and emotions when they say things like, “I’m sure no one else feels this way, This may sound crazy, You’ll think I’m nuts,” or “Does this make sense?” When I respond with “Many people feel the same way. You don’t sound crazy at all, I definitely don’t think you’re nuts” or “Of course it makes sense,” they’re often reassured but surprised. 

How do people come to feel so isolated and abnormal, as if they’re different from everyone else on the planet? This happens when parents and others invalidate their thoughts and feelings as children, in particular when they’re told, “Don’t say that, You don’t really feel that way, or You shouldn’t think like that.” These kinds of responses from adults cause us to feel that we’re alone with uncommon thoughts and feelings, when what is true is that what we’ve said merely has made them uncomfortable.

The truth is that children all pretty much start out feeling the same things and continue right on into adulthood: vulnerable, confused, frightened, enraged, hurt and practically any other emotion you can come up with. We learn that others feel these things too by talking with them, reading, watching TV and movies and, these days, via the internet. 

Once we know this for certain, no one can ever make us feel ashamed of our thoughts and feelings again, no matter how hard they challenge or invalidate them. We know we’re not different from others at our core and can relax about that fact. This means we can become more comfortable with our thoughts and feelings and stop questioning and judging them and simply be ourselves for better or worse.