What Do We Mean by 'Normal'?

It is time to rethink 'normal' and 'abnormal'

Posted Nov 15, 2011

It is past time that we rethink what we mean by the words "normal" and "abnormal" as those words apply to the mental and emotional states and behaviors of human beings. Indeed, it is a real question as to whether those words can be sensibly used at all, given their tremendous baggage and built-in biases and the general confusion they create.

This is not an idle question without real-world consequences. The "treatment" of every single "mental disorder" that mental health professionals "diagnose," from "depression" and "attention deficit disorder" on through "schizophrenia," flows from how society construes "normal" and "abnormal." This matter affects tens of millions of people annually; and affects everyone, really, since a person's mental model of "what is normal?" is tremendously influenced by how society and its institutions define "normal."

The matter of what is normal can't be and must not be a mere statistical nicety. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be a Christian just because 95% of your community is Christian. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex just because 90% of the general population is heterosexual. It can't be and must not be "normal" to own slaves just because all the landowners in your state own slaves. "Normal" can't mean and must not mean "what we see all the time" or "what we see the most of." It must have a different meaning from that for it to mean anything of value to right-thinking people.

Nor can it mean "free of discomfort," as if "normal" were the equivalent of oblivious and you were somehow "abnormal" when you were sentient, human, and real. This, however, is exactly the game played by the mental health industry: it makes this precise, illegitimate switch. It announces that when you feel a certain level of discomfort you are abnormal and you have a disorder. It equates abnormal with unwanted, turning "I don't want to feel sad" into "I have the mental disorder of depression."

In this view "normal" is living free of excessive discomfort; "abnormal" is feeling or acting significantly distressed. Normal, in this view, is destroying a village in wartime and not experiencing anything afterward; abnormal is experiencing something, and for a long time thereafter. The consequences of conscience, reason, and awareness are labeled abnormal and robotic allegiance to wearing a pasted-on smiley face is designated normal. Is that what we really mean? Is that what we really want?

Sadness, guilt, rage, disappointment, confusion, doubt, anxiety and other similar experiences and states are all expected and normal, given the nature and demands of life; except, that is, to mental health professionals, where those states and experiences become markers of abnormality and cash cows. It is simply not right to call the absence of significant distress normal and the presence of significant distress abnormal: that just isn't right.

If "normal" mustn't be "what we see the most of" or "the absence of significant distress," how else might it be conceptualized or construed? Is there perhaps a way that the words "healthy" and "unhealthy" capture what we might like "normal" and "abnormal" to mean? Perhaps "normal" could equal "healthy" and "abnormal" could equal "unhealthy"? Unfortunately, that emperor is also naked.

It is reasonable to say that if you contract tuberculosis or manifest cancer you have gone from a healthier state to an unhealthier state. But it is not reasonable to say, for instance, that it is "healthy" for you to suffer no ill affects from killing unarmed civilians and "unhealthy" of you to experience distressing consequences. Yes, in the latter case you are suffering; but PTSD in this instance is not like cancer. In this case it may in fact amount to the healthy (and nevertheless extremely distressing) functioning of your conscience. This PTSD may in fact be proof that you are healthy, proof, that is, that you are a person with a functioning conscience, rather than proof of any "unhealthiness." 

It will not prove legitimate to announce that a person is "healthy" because she is not feeling distressed and "unhealthy" because she is feeling distressed. Growing sad because you caught your mate cheating on you doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing anxious because you can't pay your bills doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing bored and restless because your job underutilizes you doesn't make you "unhealthy." If you leap from "I am distressed" to "I am unhealthy" you are leaping into the arms of the medical model, a place you do not want to plunge for no good reason.

Whole industries grossing billions of dollars are built on the words "normal" and "abnormal" and on the ideas of "well" and "disordered." It is therefore inconceivable that the right thing can be done and that the situation can change. Even right-minded and high-minded mental health professionals can't really conceive of doing away with the current idea of "mental disorder." If they did away with it, what would they have and where would they be? Given that even the best and the brightest in the field are attached to an illegitimate naming game, there is probably no hope for change.

But those changes are needed and I have some proposals to make. Please stay tuned!


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, and widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach. His latest book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning (New World Library, February, 2012). He is the founder of noimetic psychology, the new psychology of meaning. Please visit Dr. Maisel at http://www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at ericmaisel@hotmail.com. You can learn more about noimetic psychology at http://www.entheosacademy.com/courses/7




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