Am I NORMAL?
Our picture of normal behavior – the assumptions about what it is like to be alive, to be a human being – is skewed. Culture tries to project the idea of an organized, poised, and polished self, as the standard way most people are. And this encourages us to get impatient and disgusted with ourselves when we do not live up to expectations. Many things that we might assume are uniquely odd or disconcertingly strange – and which cut us off from other people – are in fact completely average and pervasive.
How many times have I shouted at myself to buck it up, get it together, and stop being so weak or so weird.? But for me, it is better to stop expecting to be normal in the sense of being calm, coherent, and rational, and getting ashamed when I am not. It is far more useful to recognize the boundless and sheer normality of madness, waywardness, and alarm in every single human soul.
Sometimes I have these peculiar thoughts and habits and if anyone found out about them I am fearful that they would label me and cast me out of their social sphere immediately. Are you as desperate as me to fit in? Our picture of what is normal is very often way out of line with what is actually true and widespread.
The fate of normality is very much in the balance. The ability of technology to see us as we have never been seen before is on the rise. Yet, the notion of a shift in what is considered normal invites unease: we do not want conformity but increasing anxiety level is not a good outcome either. It is a short hop from critiquing normalcy to claiming that we are too concerned with self.
Often confronting your odd behavior can bring relief, as will a plan for addressing the problem. Talking to a therapist is often a good way to see your particular problem. Maybe you are not as abnormal as you thought. But there is no evidence that the proliferation of therapy has done harm to our identity or all that much good.
The question of normality creates strange paradoxes. Often it is relatively healthy people who feel defective. The worriers may believe that they have too much or, more often, too little ambition, desire, confidence, spontaneity, or sociability. Their keen social awareness (a strength), when combined with a few obsessive behaviors, causes them to fuss over glitches in the self.
In contrast, those with serious problems often insist on their normality. Anorexics and alcoholics may profess certainty that they are fine. People afflicted by disabling panic attacks or depression have often tried to hide their problem. That mood disorders are common and largely treatable makes them more acceptable; to suffer them is painful but not strange.
In other words, in the therapeutic setting, the proliferation of diagnoses has diverse effects, making some people feel more normal, some less so, and touching others not at all. There is no automatic link between a label and a sense of abnormality.
How will it feel to live in a culture in which few people are free of psychological defect? Well, we have been there before, and we can gain some clues from the past. A study done in the 1950s asserted that 80% of Americans were abnormal. But when everyone is abnormal, being included loses its sting. We are in a period where therapy is no longer unusual —while its gravity, in terms of social stigma, has diminished. In fact, it is sort of hip to be in therapy. Also we have redefined normal to include broad ranges of difference.
Where once people pursued normality through efforts at self-reform, now they proudly redraw the map to include themselves. In this context, diagnostic labels confer inclusion in a community. Today, an emotional difficulty can be understood both as a disorder and a unique perspective.
We can hold two forms of normality in mind. Normal as free of defect, and normal as sharing the human condition, which always includes variation and vulnerability. I believe we are entering a period in which abnormality is universal and unremarkable.
Normality may be a myth we have allowed ourselves to enjoy for decades, sacrificed now to the increasing recognition of differences. The awareness that we all bear flaws is humbling. But it could lead us to a new sense of inclusiveness and tolerance, recognition that imperfection is the condition of every life.