• Best-selling Normal People has recently hit the small screen and has brought record traffic to BBC 3 

  • The story follows Marianne and Connell as they weave in and out of each other's lives – therapist Wendy Bristow explores the themes of shame, self-worth and relationships that are so important to their trajectory

  • If difficulty in relationships are at the core of your emotional distress, our therapists and counsellors can help – find yours here

The book is a mega-seller and has been dubbed ‘a future classic’. The 12-part TV adaptation (currently on BBC iPlayer) has, according to the Independent, ‘ generated astronomical levels of attention’ since it aired in late April. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s tale of an on-off relationship between young lovers, Marianne and Connell, is at once a coming of age story and a profoundly moving exploration of love, sex, the challenges of youth and class. It also illustrates how insecurity, low self-esteem, or a feeling of unlovability play out in relationships.

Rooney has been hailed as the voice of Millennial youth. But people of all ages and generations can relate to the story’s central couple because these themes are universal.

In the story, Marianne and Connell each suffer from evident insecurities. Connell comes from a loving home with a single mother who works as a cleaner for Marianne’s parents. He is a football star and incredibly bright but also ‘shy’ and has trouble expressing himself. The story starts when they’re at school in smalltown Sligo where Connell is popular, handsome, and personable. Marianne, by contrast, doesn’t fit in due to her standoffishness, outspoken personality and tendency to read Proust in breaks rather than hang out with her peers. Plus she lives in a huge mansion with a solicitor mother (and bullying brother) which puts her in a different class bracket to most of her school.

Yet Marianne and Connell have plenty in common including intelligence and academic achievement, love of literature and sensitivity. Not to mention galactic levels of lust for one another. Secretly, they start having sex. Only secret because Connell would be kidded remorselessly if his friends knew he was bedding the school pariah.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

At the heart of the story, through all the twists and turns of their on-off relationship, is how, when you don’t believe you’re loveable or deserve love, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy generating experiences that reinforce that feeling of unworthiness. We watch – sometimes through gritted teeth – as Rooney shows just how painful that can be.

In a love story, storytelling experts say, there has to be a reason why the protagonists can’t be together. In Romeo and Juliet – the original ‘star-crossed lovers’ – it’s because they’re on opposing sides of a feud between two families. In Normal People, while the pair come from different sides of the class divide, in 2020 that’s no real barrier to true love. What keeps them apart is shame, rejection and misunderstandings. They are unable to talk openly and honestly with one another because they are hampered by a mutual lack of self-worth. While it comes about for different reasons and manifests in varying ways, it’s pretty much equal and part of the bond uniting them.  

When we believe we’re basically OK we tend not to question whether other people will find us acceptable. Part of the reason the story strikes a chord is that we’re all less confident about this when, as teenagers, we embark on the lifelong learning curve of relationships. But with these two, it goes deep and lasts beyond the usual teenage mess-ups.

While Marianne appears the most articulate and forthright – after their first kiss she says ‘Can we take our clothes off now?’ – she’s unable to believe Connell truly likes her and asks for reassurance in ways that reveal fragility and neediness. In a typical interaction she says: ‘Would you say your feelings were involved? Connell: ‘Obviously’. Marianne: ‘Who is it obvious to?’

But then – without giving away spoilers – Connell acts in a way that has grown men squirming on the sofa in recognition, remembering the idiocy of their teenage selves. And that has everything to do with how, when you don’t trust yourself, you orient entirely around what other people think. Or, more to the point, what you think other people will think.

What’s ‘normal’?

Quite why Connell is so shut off is not exactly clear in the TV series but he certainly feels out of place at University when he’s suddenly a small fish in a large pond rather than the other way around. He admits late on to having felt lonely all his life. His story is a convincing depiction of male depression - and that never comes out of nowhere. We aren’t told why his father is absent. His mother jokes, albeit lovingly, that he’s product of her ‘teenage mistake’ which might have something to do with it.

Neither do we know, from the TV adaptation, why Marianne’s brother is so foul to her or why her mother tolerates and allows it. But it’s obvious the family dynamic has damaged Marianne, even if her inability to make the link herself gives the story its title: ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.’

In my experience, clients in therapy often wonder whether they’re ‘normal’. Being unsure about this is in itself a sign that you’re unable to completely accept yourself in all your fantastic human contradictions. The pair in Normal People are both extremely bright and sensitive and there can be a downside to this combo. You feel so deeply and notice so much – and then can create so many thoughts about it. So if you’re not convinced you’re loveable it’s like your mind is constantly on the alert, scanning for proof either way. Even when you are loved, you can’t quite believe in it and can act in ways – either begging for reassurance or failing to express yourself – that can alienate the other person.

The toxicity of shame

There’s one particular development when if Connell could only tell Marianne something that would evidently make him feel exposed, needy and vulnerable, he can’t bring himself to articulate it and she assumes he’s breaking up with her. As a therapist I would never condone violence but most people might feel like metaphorically banging their heads together at this point.

What we’re seeing, though, is shame. And that, as US shame researcher Dr Brene Brown points out, ‘creates one of the dynamics most lethal to relationship’. Men, her research revealed, feel shame when, among other things, they feel ‘wrong’, ‘defective’, ‘soft’ or ‘weak’. Feeling vulnerable generates shame – as shame makes you feel vulnerable -  and Brown argues we defend against it. In men that often takes the form of shutting down.

Telling someone how you feel, really opening up to them, makes you feel vulnerable. All relationships are a risk. The more you love someone the more power they have to hurt you. But the ways you might try to hold them at bay create exactly the kind of misunderstandings that happen in Normal People.

As the US psychotherapist Stanley Keleman puts it:  ‘Love is the willingness to educate the other person as to who you are’. When you are able to show another human your worst as well as best side – and still they love and accept you for it – it can be truly transformational. But I suppose if  Marianne and Connell had been able to do that there wouldn’t have been much of a plot.

Connell is finally able to open up more via therapy. Unlike many TV representations of the therapeutic process (see my piece on Sex Education here) it’s an entirely believable depiction and works - with beneficial effects for the relationship. Meanwhile Marianne’s self-destructiveness takes her to a low that shocks her into taking better care of herself. Eventually the two of them manage to talk to one another in a way that has viewers sighing with relief.

In Normal People, as in real life, it’s still something of a messy one-step-forward-two-steps-back process. But if you can take the risk and start, the benefits mean you can reverse a downwards spiral of self-worth into one going in the right direction. This really does begin, as Keleman says, with the willingness to accept yourself and show another person who you truly are, ‘normal’ or not.

Wendy Bristow is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London

Further reading

What's the connection between shame and low self-esteem?

Why can't I stop thinking about someone I barely dated?

Why vulnerability is worth the risk

7 ways to strengthen your sense of self-worth

Why we feel shame and how to let it go

How our childhood affects our sense of self-worth