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Normopathy, the Abnormal Push for Normalcy

When the desire to fit in becomes deadening.

What kind of global selves are we becoming, asks psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas in Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment.

Rapid developments in industry and technology have not only changed our ways of life, but also our forms of thought. Bollas describes a new personality morphing from the dramatic shifts of modern living: the normopath.

The normopath is defined by a particular kind of anxiety—psychophobia, or the fear of looking within and examining one’s own psyche. Normopathic selves reject self-reflection and have diminished curiosity about inner life. The cognitive corollaries, suggests Bollas, are CBT therapies alongside our nation’s widespread dependence on prescription drugs and evidence-based health care system. Result-oriented attitudes have replaced a deeper, more profound self-inquiry.

In her book, Plea for a Measure of Abnormality, psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall coined the term “normopathy” to mean a fear of individuality. As a symptom, it’s difficult to identify because it is often hard to see; the normopath is trying to fit in and be like everyone else. Yet he is abnormal in the pursuit of normalcy. He has lost touch with himself. This kind of person yearns for social approval and validation at the expense of individual expression and creativity. The concept of normopathy resonates with D. W. Winnicott’s idea of the false self, which is formed in response to the demands of the external environment rather than from impulses and desires from within.

The normopath often exhibits hyper-rationality in dealings with others. For instance, he loves facts. He is drawn to factual data, not in order to share or develop a common body of knowledge or research, according to Bollas, but rather, “facts are collected and stored because this activity is reassuring. It is part of a personal evolution in which he [the normopath] unconsciously attempts to become an object in the object world.” With every digital upgrade he makes on his iPhone and tablet, he becomes more object-like, a vehicle for his devices, a receptacle for the transmission of their vast information. (Did you really even want to upgrade?) In the realm of the normopath, human reality is laundered of idiosyncrasy as well as emotion. For many of us today, the perceptions of others, the world, and ourselves are increasingly mediated by computer applications.

Research into cognition and development conducted by Katie Davis and Howard Gardner points toward a new “app generation” that views their lives as a series of apps, which ”creates an expectation for immediate answers to life’s questions and a one-track life trajectory.” The authors demonstrate that over the past two decades there has been “a decrease in language creativity.” Putting the self’s experience into words and telling it to another has been crucial to talk therapy, as well as human sensibility and consciousness. The normopath has lost this vital connection between feeling and speech. Davis and Gartner claim digital devices deprive us of private time and space for contemplation, during which the brain is able to make “larger connections between concepts and events.” Such moments are, they state, “especially key to the development of self-awareness and empathy in children.”

Bollas discovered normopathy in his own clinical practice during the 1970s-80s in California and the Southwest with a number of patients who had nervous breakdowns. There was Tom, for instance, who attempted suicide in high school after fumbling the football during a game. Another characteristic of this “idiom of personality” is horizontal thinking, the inability to prioritize and create scales of relative value and meaning. There is homogeneity, a false equivalence that makes all ideas and actions seem equally valid. Fumbling a ball and suicide reside on the same phenomenological plane. This clinical moment with Tom epitomized a tendency Bollas was to observe repeatedly over subsequent decades: actions wildly out of sync with affect.

When an interpretation is made to the normopathic patient, rather than marinating over the connections between feelings, ideation, and experience, the interpretation is immediately tracked into a strategy for behavioral change. This is much like what happens for those with an app mentality. This kind of operational thinking—turning thought immediately into action—is a key feature of the normopath. The patient does not remain open long enough for retrospective insight to emerge. Interpretations are received as sound bites rather than heard in within a more holistic context of the past, present and future of personal experience. “The process of exploring the internal world and using reflective thought to unravel unconscious conflicts is clearly too slow,” asserts Bollas. Ours is the age of Fastnet and FIOS. For the normopath, human feelings are troublemakers that require “formulaic structuring in order to be controllable.”

Tom’s family lived in a gated community, an enclosed cluster of buildings. Bollas sees the rise in popularity in this kind of human habitat as a metaphoric expression of “normopathic society.” The geographic segregation of compound living echoes the psychological tendency to separate and fortify oneself from diversity and others unlike oneself. Gated communities signify gated realities. This form of housing exacerbates social stratification and class differences. Within areas of high violence and crime, the increase in compound living demonstrates the government’s failure to implement safe and secure urban planning strategies. “This is contrary to the vision of a democratic and open city… it can create a sense of fear, a sense that we don’t trust each other,“ says UN-Habitat Chief Joan Clos. When people do leave the compound to dine out or attend the theater or cinema, “they remain inside an unconscious envelope derived from the compound culture,” states Bollas. “They walked among the ordinary folks of their cities like tourists who found the lives of locals ‘interesting’ or amusing or ‘sad’: a sort of moral compensation for disassociated indifference.” He understands this behavior and these urban design strategies as expressing the emotional alienation of a privileged middle class. Such emotionally and intellectually undernourished selves come into being, he suggests, “within a society that has suffered radical internal loss.”

American children’s author Jeff Brown gives us the protagonist Flat Stanley who, while sleeping, was crushed into two-dimensional existence by a falling bulletin board. This juvenile character could well be an avatar for the normopathic individual who negates inner life. But it is late consumer capitalism that has squeezed individual development and social progress, argues Bollas. Today people are subjugated to armed greed and destructive leaders who send their citizens off to be killed in war. The normopathic state of mind has gradually developed as a result of these social oppressions and in response to historical atrocities committed over the last century including the World Wars, the detonation of the atomic bomb, and Vietnam. These shocks, these cumulative shared traumas, have blunted peoples’ collective ability to sense loss. Extensive analytic research illuminates how collective traumas of the past are transmitted intergenerationally and thus passed down through the generations. Bollas concludes we are afraid of looking within for fear of what we might find and feel: profound sorrow and recognition of our collective capacity for mutual destruction.

Within the normopath are repositories of stored grief as well as the shared experiences of human savagery beyond his ability to mourn. The title of Bollas’ book makes reference to the essay “Mourning and Melancholia” where Freud writes that the melancholic is characterized by a sense of unknown loss. Because the normopath cannot fully know the loss endured, he has developed what Bollas calls “a strangely deformed. . . capacity for mourning." His mourning remains complicated, unresolved—a form of stunted grief. Therefore it unfolds into a perpetual melancholia and a bewildered moral orientation to history and to the understanding of others.


Bollas, Christopher. (2018). Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment. New York and London: Routledge.

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