I’m not special, and neither are you: What makes people unique?

My mother told me that as I child I walked up to the stove and put my hand firmly on the searing hot element, I have no recollection of this. I was quite young and no doubt the trauma of it probably erased it from my mind quickly. My mum always says it was one of the scariest things she experienced as a mother, if only she knew…


In addition to that particular act of experiential discovery, she also told me I had a habit of putting my finger in holes, any hole I could find, I still have the desire to do this. It’s what I would call a sensory curiosity. Children try things that are potentially harmful all the time; it’s one of the ways we learn what not to do, pushing boundaries.


It’s to gain physical experiences that will go into our muscle memory, our sensory catalogue that teaches us how to react as we get older. Throughout our lives we seek sensory experiences, food, music, exercise, sex, conversation… all of these are experiences which make us feel something. Some of us are much bolder in our search for experience, some of us indulge in narcotics, some of us in thrill seeking (parachuting, bungee jumping, motorcycle racing) some of us our sensory joys come from the simple pleasures of food and a hot bath, some the rain and sun.

Personally, I tend to over heat, not only that I radiate heat so I’ve never found much joy in sunbathing (besides my pale skin which burns rapidly) I do enjoy a patch of warm sun in winter, but I tend to avoid the heat during warmer times. Some people can lie in the heat all day, like Komodo dragons on volcanic rocks. But this can change depending on context and mood, walking home in the rain can be enjoyable, I’ll walk head held high letting the droplets of water bounce off me, feeling each one. On the way to work, hunched over, rushing from bus shelter to bus shelter, I give up and get on the next bus, it’s packed with over dressed people, damp and sweaty, elbow in the ribs, gelled hair in my eye…

All of us do this to some extent. I’ve spent much of my career looking at the sensory needs of people with autism and severe learning disabilities, but I’m not going to go into that here, people with autism often have extreme responses to ordinary sensory stimulus and that’s a whole different conversation.

I don’t have Autism, in fact if tested I come out as about un-autistic as you can get, I am neuro-typical (Google it)


Back to the point, we all have sensory needs, we all like to feel, we need to feel, that’s what life is about, experience. But we all have a very different idea of good and bad experience, some people enjoy pain, some people seek it out. For most, that’s a mad idea. One sensory difficulty I have is around whipped cream and butter, the taste, smell and texture makes me recoil. Over the years I have managed to tolerate it, but I still struggle.


I can trace this though.


As a child (and still to this day) the texture of food must be just right for me to enjoy it. One day at my pre-school which was situated on the dairy farm my parents ran, we were churning our own butter in jars, one child opened his to taste the half churned mixture (churned is a glorious word…) He then continued with the lid unsecured, and a huge glob of butter plopped onto the floor, I threw up.


Ever since then, I have really struggled with cream and butter. I rationalise it, but it makes no difference, that was 30 years ago. And it is still clear as day in my memory.

But I have plenty of other sensations that I enjoy to make life worthwhile. Music is my greatest passion; it has a physical effect on me (Oliver Sacks has a book on the effects of music on people, read it.) I listen to music everyday and have been making music since I was 14, one of life’s greatest pleasures, a day without music is a day wasted. Food, yes even with my aversions to certain things I love food, and try to enjoy it as much as possible. I was a fat kid, so I ate all I could, I even spent some time as chef and baker (with butter and cream!) smoking, I love the feeling of inhaling smoke, wish I didn’t, then I would quit. Getting drunk… some people don’t enjoy the feeling, people have told me of their dismay at feeling disoriented by alcohol and drugs but many like me really enjoy it.

As a teenager I was fascinated by films like Altered States, where scientific drug experimentation was explored, throughout my adult life I have indulged in many different substances, smoke, gas, liquid and solid to alter my own state. I get sensory and intellectual pleasure from this, having the experience has been enriching, it’s been enlightening. But with such substance exploration comes negative side effects, financial, relationships, dependency so I cut most of that out eventually. Recreational is the word, but it so rarely stays that way.


Why do I enjoy altering my consciousness when many do not? When I was younger I may have said they were narrow minded, then with age I may have said fear, fear of losing their mind (had that feeling myself more than once) Now I think it’s probably being sensible, but I wouldn’t change anything, it’s part of the human experience. Some people transcend to other plains through religion or meditation, these can have their own but very different harmful effects. Neither would do it for me, some through jumping out of a plane with only a back pack full of fabric and cords to save you does it for some, not for me.


I’m not some depraved drug addict, in many ways I dislike and even despise the cultures that surround drug taking, William Hurt’s scientific explorations in Altered States were more to my taste, although I spent plenty of time in seedy places with dangerous characters attempting to acquire a variety of less than legitimate substances, it was all about finding out something new, seeing things differently. For most drug users it probably starts out as harmless experimentation, sometimes some slight attempt to fit in with peers, and taking advantage of an opportunistic toke, but for many it goes past that to where the altered reality is the norm. I came to that a couple of times in life, and promptly stopped what I was doing, it wasn’t the point. I’ve since replaced the need with different things, performing music, kickboxing and I still like a couple of glasses of wine to mellow me out after a tough day of work.


So I liked to stick my fingers in holes, I’m sure many children do this, without the common sense of adulthood (hmmmm?) I would give it a go, that’s not to say I don’t still feel the urge to stick my fingers in things, I just have a better idea of what the outcome may be, and I have the ability to restrain myself for the most part.


Sex is of course, one of the greatest sensory experiences we can have. Many feel this way (I know some people who do not) it’s a feeling that cannot be duplicated in any other way. We are fortunate to be one of the few species to actually enjoy the act, would go some way to explaining our ludicrous rate of reproduction and dominance over all the other creatures of the earth. When I discovered just what ejaculation felt like, I couldn’t stop. This was before experiencing drugs (quite a few of which kill your libido, some enhance it) so it was an experience like nothing before, easily addictive. Yet, for some people it’s sticky and awkward and really not that great, critics would say they aren’t doing it right, but it could just be on a sensory level, it isn’t for them.


As I’ve aged my tastes have changed, I don’t put this down to an intellectual evolution, although there is an element of that. I put it down to my senses developing, my senses getting bored of certain things. Getting drunk isn’t the thrill it once was, sex is still good, but quality has become more important. I still enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of the heavy metal I listened to while young, but also love the supposedly more mature jazz, I view the metal in a different way, I don’t buy into the worldviews and dodgy morals, but as a pure sensory auditory experience I still get pleasure.

My taste in food has evolved, with time have tried unusual things and not recoil based on what they were but purely by my experience of them (still fucking hate parsnips though) I still seek sensory pleasure, I enjoy getting tattooed, I enjoy the pain to a degree, but not pain for pains sake. No doubt my tastes will evolve further. I won’t fear the evolution, I will embrace, maybe one day I’ll eat a scone with jam and whipped cream on it… though I doubt that one.


I’ve lost count of how many people have told me I’m a bad influence. It has happened so many times now I know when people are about to utter that sentence.


“You’re such a…”


“Let me guess?”


I’m not sure of what it is that makes other people feel that what I do somehow causes them to behave in a particular way. I have made a career in behaviour management, so I know very well many strategies to influence thinking and help people adjust their behaviour and help others understand why people do behave a certain way.

But that’s different, when I go out to the pub so often people seem to follow my lead.




Or, I’ll go for a cigarette outside and people will follow me to do the same, then they’ll utter that sentence…


I asked once.


“Why do you blame me for you smoking, you can’t say it’s just because I am, in fact, smoking”


The answer was interesting.


“You make it look so good”


I don’t think the person meant I look good so much as I look like I’m enjoying my cigarette so much it compels others to follow suit. I will add too that these are a range of people, of a range of ages, people I know well and people I barely know, some are regular smokers, some have never done so, until they met me…


What does this say about me, that other people indulge due to the fact I am unrepentant about my own indulgences? I certainly don’t promote it, I don’t tell people they should smoke, or drink too much, or have promiscuous sex, or whatever else they may do but I get the feeling there are people on the cusp of deciding what to do and think to themselves…


“What would Rick do?”


Maybe, I am charismatic? I deplore arrogance, to me it’s one of the most unattractive things in a person, and with this I endeavour to be the opposite of arrogant, as a very shy child, and still shy today (no one ever believes me) arrogance does not come naturally to me. Many would say I am outgoing, outspoken, stubborn and much more, some might mistake that with arrogance, but it really isn’t.


Hence why admitting that I am charismatic feels like egotism to me, but maybe it is just a fact I have to accept.


As we know from history, an individual with charisma can be highly influential, leaders require charisma, Hitler had it, and he used it for horrific misguided purposes. It appears that my own charisma has an adverse effect on others in my social life, but in my work life it has been highly effective for me.


Does having charisma make someone a leader? It’s important, but of course leadership requires many other factors, eloquence helps greatly… OK, I’ve got that too. Knowledge? Not necessarily, but those in history who have lead without being too bright, have more likely been figure heads for others who are doing the real leading from behind the scenes (George W Bush anyone?)


And, I hate to use this term, but it’s the X factor, that thing that you can’t put your finger on, that thing that makes people loved, that Umami of personalities… do I have that? One skill I have developed to be very good at is training and teaching others, I can and do keep a room full of people engaged for an entire day that certainly requires leadership and charisma, and knowledge.


Back to the point, if indeed I do have those qualities I can use them for good or evil as I choose, I have almost always been able to talk and charm my way in or out of any situation, acting skills could be a part of leadership too, they certainly are for supporting people and behaviour management.

Assuming all of that is true, why is it that people do what I do even when I don’t try to influence them, even when I am not in control of my own abilities (i.e. when drunk…)

Somehow, I make things look appealing.


Another thing people do around me all the time is swear, I have no issue with profanity and use it daily, frequently. I grew up in a house where profanity was normal; I’ve always used it like a normal part of my vocabulary, because it is. Words are powerful, language is powerful, and it’s something that has defined our species, spread intelligence, started wars, created religions. And I am very aware of the power of swearing at the very right time, it makes sure people remember what you said. But people who never utter anything remotely considered a swear word will start cussin’ around me, they’ll comment on my own foul verbosity, and join in.


I normalise it, I use it.


I do believe it’s important how it’s used, saying for example…


“This is a fuckin’ shitty coffee”


Really won’t harm anyone, but seriously calling someone a cunt, has another level of intent that can be harmful, in this regard I am careful.


People feel they can tell me these things, complaining about another person or situation.


“It’s alright to say it to Rick, because he definitely won’t be offended by my need to swear”


People tell me all their problems, maybe I am a good listener (is that required for leadership? Certainly the appearance of being a good listener is…) and I have a tendency to absorb people’s problems, not that I’m necessarily OK with that.


Let’s look at the word blame.


By telling me I am a bad influence and therefore meaning I am the cause of their bad behaviour is essentially blame. We like to apportion blame, we don’t like to be responsible for our own actions, with responsibility comes guilt, and guilt is one of the most unpleasant emotions you can feel. By putting the blame onto another, we free ourselves of guilt; at least we do from the forefront of our brains.


Does that mean that these people are freeing themselves of responsibility simply because I am there, that I am somehow so charismatic that they have no control of their behaviour?


Or am I just an easy excuse, and that when I am not there they still behave the same, but apportion their blame onto someone or something else?


Humans are exceptionally good at making excuses; these somehow make us feel better about making what we perceive to be a bad decision, or a decision that may be against our own ethical or moral code.


“I had a rough day at work, I deserve a drink”


You don’t deserve a drink, it’s not a right because you are in a bad mood,  it’s a privilege. We have to make these excuses because of guilt again. Guilt that people are worse off than us and we know it, guilt that it is in fact just an excuse, guilt because you do the same thing every day, because you are delaying that healthy lifestyle, because you could give to charity instead of buying 6 pints at the pub.


Most people seem to think that their life is exponentially worse than everyone else.


I’ve worked some tough jobs, I’ve spent time on forensic psychiatric wards, and I’ve worked with people who present such behaviours as hair pulling, throwing faeces, hitting, kicking and biting. I’ve worked with people who bang their heads against the wall… I could go on, but something I don’t do is going on about how tough my job is. Often, when I tell people what I do for a living they say things like.


“It must feel good to help people”

“I’m glad people like you are around”

“You must think I’m an idiot for working in a bank, I should help people”

“My job sounds really easy”


Then I tell them how much staff that do these jobs get paid, and they really realise how tough it is… Not much is the answer if you’re wondering.


At times I’ve wondered why I got into social care at all, it’s definitely not an easy way to set up your own future, it’s not guaranteed retirement security, and going on holiday is a challenge let alone buying a house…


I digress; I would find working in a bank much harder than what I do. I ended up in the line of work I have due somewhat to a natural ability, a natural empathy, some people don’t have this. I think working in sewers would be harder, there are plenty of necessary jobs that I can’t do, so how can I claim that my job is the hardest. It can be hard, it can be exhausting, it can be joyful, and it can be exciting.

I will admit there are some jobs I think are utterly worthless, but that’s about my values versus someone else’s, not about gauging difficulty.


But what we really like to get is sympathy, I hate sympathy. In my work I think sympathy leads quickly to pity, and pity has never helped anyone to progress, learn and develop themselves. Pity makes people complacent and think they deserve everyone else’s help. Modern social care is not about that, and I think that general human interaction shouldn’t be about that.


Pity for me, is a negative thing, therefore sympathy also is. Sympathy never helped anyone get over bereavement, Empathy has.


We seek sympathy, because again, if people pity us it means we have yet another excuse to remove guilt. It’s not our fault once again, we can blame the world; blame our ever so difficult job, because others feel sorry for us.


What this tells us is that firstly, people require the views of others to motivate their decisions; they need concrete recognition that they are not to blame for anything.

And secondly, by removing that blame, we satisfy our internal concerns around guilt.

Therefore, we can do whatever we like without blame.


Obviously, this cycle has a tendency to backfire, I know plenty of people who have milked pity too far only to start alienating those whose pity they require, or those who they could conveniently apportion blame for their own actions.


Then on a wider scale, this can cause a view in the general public that a particular portion of society are a bunch of whinging moochers.


There has been a large amount of publicity in recent years around addressing depression as a serious illness, not a bad thing in most people’s views. But what I have seen come of this is people getting sick of depressed people asking for help, it’s not my fault you’re depressed (although in my case, someone may blame me for that…)


The most recent was the “ice bucket challenge” for motor neuron disease. Never have a seen a greater example of band wagon jumping in my life, most people still don’t know what the condition does to people, and in the greater sense of things there’s far less people who suffer from it than other disabilities, autism, starvation, poverty and indeed…depression, so why was it charity flavour of the month? It gave people a chance to act as though they had contributed to their society… to erase some of the modern age guilt.


It was certainly inbuilt in us to contribute, going back to the “my job is the worst” attitude helps people to claim validity for their banal and pointless way of making a living; therefore they aren’t contributing to society. Once when we first began having communities as a species, everyone played their role, everyone worked, the hierarchy’s were clear and sensible, we’ve lost that sense, we’ve lost what we should have as communities, I suppose I could blame my own problems on that.


Am I saying people are brainless zombies searching out other people’s emotions to feed on, so they can deplete their own guilt and bad feeling stocks through some kind of surreptitious existence…


Yes, I am.


Not all, of course. I value free thinkers, I believe myself to be one, an ideas person unconstrained by societal concerns and rules, but I am also a believer in community, even if I don’t fully engage in my own, part of why I do the job I do is I want to help my own community (in my case it’s London, the world even) In my way, I can’t spend my energy helping starving kids in Africa, other people do that better, I have my role to play in the world and I do my best with it.


He’s being awfully cynical about people for someone who makes a living helping less fortunate people…


You’d be right.


I love people, I may even be a people person whatever the fuck that means, but as a general rule I think people are shit, we treat each other like shit, we think mostly of ourselves and our own needs over others, we hoard wealth, we over-consume, and we destroy our own planet with industrial mess… I could go on, I don’t need to tell you all the horrific things people have done, most of them have been done for the reasons of one or more people being selfish, in the age of capitalism (when will it end!!!) wealth has become a mark of one’s status, and it’s been frequently written that many of the leaders of the most powerful and wealthy companies would be classed as psychopathic if they were to undergo any kind of psychiatric assessment, they’ve long lost their humanity, their empathy, they don’t even bother to lay blame on the shoulders of others, unless it will keep them out of prison, this is because they feel no guilt for their actions, money has become more important, wars are driven by money, people are murdered for it every day, if we had maintained some senses of community we might have been smart enough to not allow a hierarchy where the richest ruled our society rather than the smartest or even better, the most empathic. I suppose the problem isn’t people, but the societal mechanisms we have in place, but then again, that’s people’s fault. But most of us are emotionally fragile, blame laying, status hungry, pity dependent wrecks, not much hope when you look at it like that.


I’ve realised in recent years, that I have what I call a


Pathological need to break the rules


This is not some kind of personality disorder, nor an Oppositional Defiance Disorder or anything else; it’s an inherent rebelliousness (why can’t I put my finger in that hole?) Something I suppose my mother imbued in me (My sister is the same) we need to do things differently to the point of sacrificing good things to achieve this. I won’t impose my musical activities upon you (easily found should you wish) But it is odd, I make odd music, I refuse to follow any standard of what anyone accepts, why? Wouldn’t it be easier to make stuff I know people would like?

At work, one of my roles is to write policies and guidelines for staff to follow, I can dictate rules and practice, then I will be the first to promptly break my own rules, in that case it’s for the benefit of the person or service or activity, not to be perverse, they are after all guidelines.


Besides the above mentioned traits (exploratory nature, tattooing, music) there are a number of other things that I have found put me at odds with the general population, my attitude to death is one.


In Mexico which is predominantly a catholic country now when someone dies they don’t forlornly wander through the street, they throw a fuckin’ party, the whole town will come out, and there will be beer food, dancing. Their attitude is more to celebrate the person’s existence rather than pity their passing. I get that, I don’t get sad when people die, I kind of feel it’s an inevitability and we have to just accept it. Of course I miss people, I have empathy, and the fact that others are sad about it tends to make me feel sadder. When I explain this to people most will say:


“Makes sense, but… I blubber and cry like a waterfall”


In school one of my favourite activities was story writing, I still love it. This like in itself was unusual in the school I went to. One day our teacher gave us the task of creating a picture book for the younger children, I would have been about 9 at the time. I went on to write a story about a rotund pink humanoid who lived in mud, he endeavours to explore beyond his mud puddle home leaving his family behind, only to eventually return having learned to value his loved ones, and his home.


Psychologically speaking, the amount of things you could read into this story would be worth a year’s worth of cognitive behavioural therapy, and little did I realise what a cathartic thing it was.


My parents had separated, hence the family break up. I always go very red when I’m hot and sunburn easily, which made me the target of much fun from other kids; we had recently moved to a new area and home, hence the outsider feeling. We were fairly poor, hence the mud puddle home. I could go on, at the time I thought I was writing a cool story with a moral (not that I really knew what morals were)  I didn’t realise it was an outpouring of my isolation, realisation of my individuality and some kind of coming to terms with my life situation. The aim was to write something other kids would read and we’d win a prize, another kid won as he copied the Mighty Mouse cartoon, it was a robbery! However, years later I was told my book was still being read by kids in my school long after I left.  I doubt it still exists, but if I ever become famous it’ll be incredibly valuable.


What this did make me realise with many years hindsight was that was the beginning of my realisation of being different, just the sense of injustice that a kid could copy and win rather than be awarded for originality has long been a bugbear of mine, I’d rather be a unique failure than a run of the mill success.


The question that leads me to this point is something that has long existed but become even more prevalent in the age of social media, why do people need to affirm ourselves as different?


I’ve spent time in and around a variety of alternative subcultures, hippies, junkies, punks, jazz musicians, heavy metal bars and more. I feel relatively comfortable in all of them, but in all of these “scenes” people will state how different and original they are (yet they all dress the same) they will all say how stupid one of the other “scenes” are (they’re all kind of stupid. One thing I really hate is elitism, everyone needs to shit and eat. But what I may perceive as elitism, to those within the elitist system will see as their identity, their meaning in life, a representation of them their likes and dislikes and the likeminded they spend time with. But in the end, they’re pretty similar, they just like different stuff.


But why the warring attitude, why the need to disparage the ones not like them? Does it go back to guilt that they may be wrong? Maybe it’s more that to affirm being part of something you must also be against something, a “scene” exists because it is a counterpoint to another scene. Humans have always joined together, in communities, tribes, factions, religions and so on. It gives us meaning. Personally I have never been a part of one, not fully anyway. I’ve skirted around the periphery of many because I like and identify with aspects of them all. When you’re in a metal bar and you say you play jazz saxophone, people quickly walk away with puzzled looks on their faces.


Uniqueness is something I look for, in art, music, people and food. But even the most unique still need a sense of family and community, not many people choose isolation from others (Many people with Autism do, but there’s different reasons for that) As difficult as others can be, and being around others causes conflict we still seek this out. That said, I’ve never done anything for the sole purpose of being original, I just do what I do which happens to be different to most.


Maybe, those who follow me do so because I am so different, I say this not from ego, not from the need to state my own uniqueness but to ask why they do. For some I am a challenge, many don’t know how to deal with me. I have conflicted with people over it. Many years ago I moved to a new place and went to a party, I thought I was getting on brilliantly with this group of strangers (barring the one friend who had invited me) later in the evening my friend warned me of an individual who wished to beat me up.

I asked why, as I hadn’t realised I’d offended anyone. This person was pointed out to me, he was giving me aggressive stares. This went on for some months whenever I saw him, he would give the same look. One day walking down the street he was walking towards me and I stopped.


“What’s your problem bro?”


“I don’t like you”




“I just don’t, I think you’re a wanker”


“Why? What exactly did I do?”


He walked away, I was new, unknown, outspoken and confident in my general oddness, or so I assume he thought. It wasn’t the case at all, but I reckon he got the wrong end of the stick. Again with years of hindsight thinking back about myself at the time, I realise that I was really different to everyone else at that party, I was the interloper, the intruder, and I stood out like a sore thumb.


Those who frequently affirm their uniqueness usually aren’t. The need for status is strong, somehow being “different” is also a way gaining status and identity. Some choose to follow the flock, particularly in religions and they do so proudly, others don’t realise they follow the flock I genuinely don’t, never had a flock to follow.


The big question is, is this good? Is it a virtue to be so genuinely odd? I think it is, but it’s how I am. It causes conflict; it causes people to fear you at times, and sometimes to adore you. But I’ll take the conflict over indifference.


I’m not special, and neither are you, we’re all just people and we like what we like, we have different tastes, different senses, different needs. Be who you are, it’s definitely easier than trying to be like others, more fun too.