Have you ever come up against the feeling of not being “normal”? This can be a really distressing possibility for people to sit with. A lot of folks I see as a counsellor come in under the premise of wanting to be “normal”. There’s often a real sense that their position outside of the margins has a lot to do with their suffering. After many conversations exploring these notions, I’m inclined to believe that they’re right: life is often more difficult for people who don’t “fit in” in certain ways. This is essentially what we’re talking about when we use words like “stigma”.
Despite my own biases against the unhelpful ways normalcy operates, I acknowledge that I enjoy a lot of privilege and freedoms in light of my own “normal” status. I’m a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, middle class man, without a mental health diagnosis. These characteristics are the historical benchmark by which normalcy is evaluated.
Normalization and Therapy
It can be all too easy for therapy to be about making people “normal”. For example, there’s been an increasing outcry against what’s been called “conversion therapies”, which are intended to diminish same-sex attractions – “turning gay people straight”. This rides on the assumption that heterosexuality is “normal” and therefore preferable to other alternatives. These kinds of practices are not new. Let us not forget that homosexuality was in the DSM for almost 20 years, until 1974. This is a great (but actually terrible) example of a long history within the field of psychology around helping people be more “normal” (which may not actually be helping at all).
Feminist therapists have helped illuminate sexist biases in psychological constructs, such as in the concept of “hysteria” – a term that refers to a woman’s uterus, and accounts for “unmanageable emotional excesses” (“emotionality” being a term ascribed to women, in contrast to the stoic dispositions expected of men). This assumes that non-emotionality is “normal” and therefore more desirable than emotional expressiveness. These and other examples demonstrate the role psychology has had (and continues to have) in policing and correcting those who fit outside the margins of normalcy.
If you can’t already tell, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of being in the business of making people “normal”, so I do my best to resist it. That’s not to say that I’m opposed to people striving toward normalcy – I think we should all be allowed to design and live out our lives however we want to. Rather, I take a position against working in ways that might involve imposing “normal” values onto the lives of others.
My own discomfort with this has a lot to do with my perspective that “normal” is a very narrow set of criteria, which is often made synonymous with “acceptable”. This is clear in the examples above. What is deemed “normal” becomes privileged as the standard to aspire toward, while the people and things that lie in the margins are positioned as less than desirable. Given the diversity of human life (even within a single country like Canada), this leaves a lot of people at a real disadvantage.
Is Abnormal Really Bad?
The idea of normalcy is often taken up in ways that prescribe “right” and “wrong”, or “better” and “worse” ways to be. It’s this proficient/deficient binary that 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 what is considered “normal”. This brings me to one of my biggest issues with the idea of normalcy: it is inherently exclusionary. It’s often taken up in ways that support stigma, protecting those who more closely approximate its standards, and alienating those who do not.
History has shown us that it can actually be unsafe to not be considered “normal”. Civil rights groups have spoken to how their suffering is often directly related to the responses they receive for falling outside the margins of normalcy. For this reason, people are actually wise to wish to be seen as “normal”, because with the status of “normalcy” comes more acceptance and safety. Longing for and striving toward normalcy can be an act of self-preservation – which is an excellent sign of good health. However, because I see the suffering that this paradigm promotes on a regular basis, the expectation for people to fit within normalcy’s parameters doesn’t sit well with me.
This is something that strikes me as increasingly true 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 people receive alienating responses from other people and media that imply that their “differences” are deficiencies. There is a sense that there’s something problematic about us if we don’t line up with more “typical”/“acceptable” exemplars. For folks with mental health diagnoses, this can really make the difference between feeling relatively okay with things or not. This goes back to my post on the helpfulness of positive social connections, and highlights the fact that social judgments are often based on being perceived as “not normal”.
Alternatives to “Normal”
As a therapist, a lot of people ask me if what they’re experiencing is normal. Although I see a really diverse range of people, and everyone’s stories and circumstances are different to varying degrees, the following answer usually applies:
Given what you’ve described – the context of your life and the ways other people have responded to you – it’s understandable.
I see “understandable” as 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 particularly 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 is more encouraging of us drawing exclusionary black and white conclusions, understandability is more supportive of people being who they are. The more I know about the circumstances around which someone is seeking therapy, the more I regard their experiences as understandable. If I catch myself thinking in terms of normal/not normal, it usually means I haven’t asked enough questions. To me, this says the more we know about context, the more things make sense, and the less relevant the notion of normalcy is.
Despite it’s prevalence, at the end of the day, the idea of normalcy is just an idea. It may be widely accepted and carry a lot of weight, but at the end of the day, it’s but one version of the truth. Even when it’s used with good intentions (such as normalizing someone’s experience), 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.
On the other hand, “understandability” makes room for people to be as they will without the value judgments that normalcy invokes. It honours people’s journeys and responses to events in their lives by focusing more on the context in which things happen, and less on comparisons to others – who may not even be comparable to begin with. How do you think things would be different if we focused more on understanding and less on fitting in between the margins?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.