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Am I Normal?

It's common to wonder whether we're normal, but we might want to use caution.

“If I tell you this, you’re going to think I’m a nut job.”

Lukiyanova Natalia Frenta/Shutterstock
Source: Lukiyanova Natalia Frenta/Shutterstock

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that (or something like it), I’d have a majestic mansion, complete with a panoramic ocean view. Humans are pros at pathologizing ourselves.

“Try me,” I usually utter. And then I wait silently to hear something that is virtually always so ... normal.

But what does normal even mean, anyway?

Well, I guess that depends on how you define it. Since the 1500s, we’ve attached a host of other meanings to the term. Here are a few:

  • “Conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural”
  • “Serving to establish a standard”
  • “Approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment”
  • “Free from any mental disorder; sane”

That’s an admirable attempt to define normal . And it probably does the job if we’re talking about it in a value-free way. But we generally don’t use "normal" in this manner, do we? I don’t know about you, but when I hear folks talk about what’s normal, it often translates into an underlying question or idea that’s much more profound. For example:

  • “Am I normal?” Read: “Are most people like me?”
  • “Is this normal?” Read: “Do most other people do, feel, or think what I do, feel, or think?”
  • "That’s normal, right?" Read: “Please reassure me that I’m not alone in what I do, feel, or think.”

Now let’s do one more translation to get at what we’re really talking about: “Am I okay? Is what I’m doing, thinking, or feeling acceptable?”

“This is quite normal. A lot of people have the same sort of experience.” This reply generally brings a wave of comfort, as a burden is lifted off someone’s shoulders. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the original concern the person was asking about just vanishes. Yet, the relief that comes when people realize they’re not as different as they feared illustrates what I like to think of as the layer cake of our personal experience.

  1. Layer one contains what happens to us in life, from the heart-wrenching to the intensely sublime, and everything in between.
  2. Layer two comprises of our actions, emotions, and thoughts, including our reactions to life’s moments and circumstances from layer one.
  3. Now, layer three is made up of how we brand the other two layers. If we tag a situation, an action, a feeling, or a thought as “normal,” we often take this to mean that even if it's unpleasant, it’s pretty typical, and we’re not alone. We can at least weather the storm we’re dealing with in layers one or two without having a burden on layer three to contend with. For example, the self-consciousness that arises when meeting new people can become a little easier to bear with and accept when someone knows that many others face this too.

On the other hand, the stamp “abnormal” just stacks more distress upon us, sometimes even more than our original experience in layers one or two. For instance, if a person believes intense sadness is something that only “weak” or “weird” people feel, then the shame and fear that there’s something wrong with them get heaped on top of the sadness. In other words, now there’s a whole new problem, and it may feel so real that we don’t even realize it’s unintentionally self-created.

We gauge being whole and healthy based on how most (or many) people are. We reach conclusions about whether there’s something wrong with how we behave, feel, and think based on the degree to which we are different from, or similar to, other people. On the one hand, it’s understandable that we look to others for hints on how to act and feel, for clues on how to think about ourselves, people, and the world. Social influence is powerful and pervasive, and most of us are highly motivated to fit in. We are deeply social, relational creatures. In line with this, research shows that when we are lonely, our health and quality of life take a major hit. So it makes sense that we determine whether we’re "normal" by taking our cues from others. At the same time, there are a few reasons why we might want to do this judiciously.

Reason 1: It might not always be so healthy to be “normal” by the group’s standards.

For example, in the recent past, it would have been entirely normal to smoke cigarettes anywhere, including hospitals and airplanes.

Reason 2: “Normal” can be a moving, biased target.

Have you ever heard of “drapetomania?” In 1851, Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright created this term to refer to a psychological condition. And how would you know whether you had it? Well, if you tried to escape slavery, you’d qualify. That’s right. If you were a slave and endeavored to be free, this would have been a symptom of a psychological problem and labeled abnormal. In a more recent example, up until 1973, if you were gay, bisexual, or lesbian, you also would have been diagnosed as having a psychological disorder .

Reason 3: What you might think of as abnormal is actually quite typical.

Do you beat yourself up because you don’t feel a high level of enthusiasm or investment in your work? Eighty-five percent of people around the world are right there with you. Do you find that you don’t feel all that gratified and content with your life, and you’re hard on yourself for feeling this way? Do you wonder what’s the matter with you, and why you can’t be more happy-go-lucky like other folks seem to be? You might want to check that assumption because a poll reveals that only 33 percent of people consider themselves “happy.”

As a psychologist, I’m keenly aware of the stigma many individuals associate with being diagnosed with a psychological condition, convinced it makes them abnormal. And yet, when we look at the statistics, approximately 46 percent of the population will meet the diagnostic criteria for a psychological disorder at some point in their lifetime. That’s practically the equivalent of a coin toss. Does this mean that people shouldn’t seek help or support if they’re suffering? Of course not. But it does mean it’s time to re-examine the idea that having a psychological condition means a person is different from everyone else.

Reason 4: Abnormal can be wonderful.

Think about the people you admire most. Are they normal? Probably not. They likely have some remarkable characteristics, abilities, and skills, such as immense degrees of kindness, courage, compassion, intelligence, comedic ability, adventurousness, creativity, or athletic ability.

Reason 5: Trying too hard to be “normal” can get in the way of living your life.

Do you have a hobby, an interest, a habit, a personal quirk, or a way of life that is a bit off the well-trodden path, but doesn’t hurt you or anyone else? Does it bring you happiness and fulfillment? Good for you. Abnormal can mean we’re walking to the beat of our own drum and living life authentically. Life is priceless and fleeting, so let’s live it on our terms and embrace our own inner weirdness, our eccentricities, and oddities. Rest assured, everybody has them.

References

Colman, A. (2008). Drapetomania. In A Dictionary of Psychology (3rd ed.). doi: 10.1093/acref/9780199534067.001.0001

Cummings, K., & Proctor, R. (2014). The changing public image of smoking in the United States: 1964-2014. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention : A Publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, Cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 23, 32-36.

Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K., & Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602.

Weinstein, D. (2018). Sexuality, therapeutic culture, and family ties in the United States after 1973. History of Psychology, 21, 273-289.

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