Being “normal”. What a concept! After three decades on this planet, I’m still not all that sure what it means to be a “normal” person. I mean, I do and I don’t. I have a clear image of what “normal” looks like, and I do a pretty good job of approximating that. In fact, although I haven’t had much say in this, I’m actually somewhat of a poster boy for what is considered “normal”…on the surface, at least. I’m a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, cisgender, middle class person, without a mental health diagnosis – which I’ve come to understand is the historical benchmark by which normalcy is evaluated.
Despite my own moral objections to this reality, I have to acknowledge that I enjoy a lot of privilege and freedoms in light of my “normal” status. However, at the end of the day I often catch myself wondering just how useful of a concept normalcy is. A lot of people I see in therapy come in under the premise of wanting to be normal. They see their position outside of the margins as having a lot to do with their suffering. For me, this raises an important question: what needs to change? The margins or the marginalized?
Therapy and the Status Quo
To be totally honest, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of being in the business of making people “normal”, so I do my best to resist that. That’s not to say that I’m opposed to people striving to be "normal" (whatever that might mean for them). I support people in making whatever kinds of life changes are important to them. But I take a position against working in ways that might involve me imposing my biases onto the lives of others.
My discomfort with this has a lot to do with my opinion that “normal” is a very narrow set of criteria, which is often made synonymous with “acceptable”. What is “normal” becomes privileged as the standard to aspire toward, while the people and things that fall outside are positioned as less than desirable. Given the diversity of human life (even within a small region like Victoria, BC), this leaves a lot of people at a real disadvantage.
Is Abnormal Inherently Bad?
One problem with the idea of normalcy, as I see it, is that it prescribes a “right” way to be. It can invoke a sort of proficient/deficient binary, which many people respond to with distress. After all, if “normal” means “healthy” or “well”, then why wouldn’t we want to strive for that?
People with mental health diagnoses and those who have experienced significant adversity in life have remarked to me how much of a difference it would make if they “fit in” better with “normal” folks. This points to one of my biggest issues with the notion of normalcy: it is inherently exclusionary. It can be used in ways that fuel the fires of stigma, giving shelter to those who more closely replicate its standards, while alienating those who do not.
History has shown us that it can actually be unsafe to be “not normal”. Groups that have stood for civil rights have shone a spotlight on how their suffering is often directly related to the responses they receive for not “fitting in”. People who are aware of these histories are wise to wish to be seen as “normal”, because with the status of “normalcy” comes acceptance and safety.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t aspire to make changes in their lives in the interest in living more contentedly. Rather, there’s something about a society that requires people to fit within narrow parameters that doesn’t sit well with me – in part because I see the suffering it promotes on a regular basis. Although this statement is very unscientific (in the sense that it has yet to be empirically researched), it appears to be increasingly true to me the more I work in the field of psychotherapy:
One of the most (if not the most) common problems that people bring in to therapy is the sense or belief that there is something wrong with who they are as a person.
This is often because they have received alienating responses from the world, based on perceived “differences”/“deficiencies”. Those responses can come directly from other people in their lives, or they can be transmitted more implicitly through various media channels. Either way, they get a sense that there’s something problematic about their ways of being when compared to other more “typical”/“acceptable” exemplars.
Alternatives to “Normal”
When people ask me, “Is this normal?”, two answers usually pop into my head. Under most circumstances, the short answer is “yes”. However, I tend to resist going with that one because it further supports the normalcy paradigm. The longer answer, which I think is more useful, often sounds more like this:
"Given the context of your life and the ways other people have treated you, your suffering and the ways you've responded are understandable."
I find “understandable” to be a preferable alternative to “normal” for a few reasons:
1. It’s not so heavily value-laden.
Normalcy is often closely associated with proficiency or acceptability. When things are understandable, it means they make sense. There’s no value judgment or standard to measure up to.
2. It takes context into consideration.
Although we typically take it for granted, the idea of “normal” is implicitly comparative. In most cases it’s used to refer to the overall general population. However, many of the people I talk to who are concerned about the normalcy of their responses to events in their lives are not fairly representative of the general population. This may be because they’ve had experiences that most of their peers have not, or because the context in which things have happened is somewhat unique.
3. It’s more inclusive.
When we’re concerned with being “normal”, we’re more likely to try to obscure or diminish parts of ourselves that might otherwise be worth celebrating. Looking at things from a position of understandability is more supportive of upholding people’s dignity and humanizing their experiences and responses to those events.
While normalcy strikes me as being more black and white, understandability is more accepting and open to people being allowed to be who they are. In personal and professional contexts, I find that the more I know about the circumstances that have led someone to seek help, the more I regard their experiences as understandable. On the flip side of that, when I catch myself thinking in terms of normal/not normal, it usually means I haven’t asked enough questions. To me, this says that the more insight we have into someone’s (or our own) situation, the more it makes sense, and the less relevant the notion of normalcy is.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that despite it’s popularity, the idea of normalcy is simply that: an idea. It may be widely accepted, and often given the status of truth, but at the end of the day, it’s just one version of the truth. Because of its inherent comparative properties, even when it’s used with good intentions, it still excludes those who fall outside of its narrow margins. After all, there can’t be “normal” without “abnormal”. This supports stigma and alienation, which many people respond to with great distress, which they often seek help to address with folks like me.
“Understanding”, on the other hand, makes room for people to be as they will without the value judgments that the idea of “normal” invokes. It honours people’s journeys and responses to events in their lives by focusing more on the context in which they happen, and less on comparisons to others – who may not even be comparable to begin with. If we, as a society, focused more on understanding and less on fitting in between the margins, what do you think would be different?
What's your opinion on the notion of being "normal"?
Do you think it can be useful at times, or is it largely problematic?
What are some alternatives to "normal" that you like?
Have you struggled with feeling normal or fitting in? Have you received judgment or stigmatizing responses, or feared you might be misunderstood?
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