Sunday, July 3, 2011

Defining Normal

I was thinking today about what makes something "normal". What makes a behaviour normal, what pushes it over the line into abnormal? What makes a state of mind normal, and when does it become a problem? Who gets to decide what normal is?

A little background, this issue came to mind as I was thinking about my reactions to some current stresses in my life with moving, home ownership, friends, and work. I'm perhaps particularly sensitive towards my reactions in light of the negative reaction of the insurance company towards my anxiety. Either way, as I stood in my shower crying, I asked myself, "is this normal?" I decided that it was, and that I am indeed having a healthy reaction towards stressful events in my life, but it got me thinking about how often I "make" that decision for other people as well.

Working as a counsellor, I have a many, many clients who worry that they are not "normal", or in fact, label themselves as "crazy" and/or "nut jobs". As a general rule I am quick to reassure people that are "normal" and are not in fact "crazy", and I'm not sure I've ever really thought about what a enormous power that is. I tend not even to think about it, my instant reaction when someone tells me they're "crazy" is to defend them to themselves. I'm not proud of this reaction. I think perhaps a more helpful response and one I already do to some extent use, but should probably use more, is to explore what is going on for the person at that moment. What has led them to wonder if they are crazy, how might they describe similar behaviours/thoughts in someone else etc... Because really, do I know what normal is? I have a fairly good understanding that somethings are "not normal". For example, spending hours starring at a flag pole waiting to see if you can catch a glimpse of the wind is not generally considered mentally healthy, especially when the police have to remove you from said flagpole for your own safety. Spending more of your day in tears than out of tears is also not generally considered normal or healthy. The same goes for hearing voices, running through the streets naked, binge eating and then purging or a whole host of other behaviours.

The behaviours I just talked about definitely fall more on the "not normal" side of things. But what about things like being anxious about a job interview? Perfectly normal, right? But what about when that anxiety makes it impossible for you to attend the interview and leaves you shaking in your bed? Not so normal anymore, right? Crying every day for two weeks might be considered a sign of depression, or a perfectly normal response to the death of a close friend or relative.

I wonder if perhaps a better way to address the question of whether a person is "normal" or not, is to explore the issue further with them, and then to provide information. I think I do this, and maybe could do more of this. So for the person who asks me if crying every day for two weeks is normal, we would explore what had started this, what had happened before hand, what was triggering it etc... I can provide information about the symptoms of depression, or reactions to grief etc... This then could be normalizing, without coming out and using my power as the counsellor to declare someone normal or not normal. Because regardless of my intention and effort to label as a behaviour, there would always be the risk that this was taken as a judge of the whole person.

I still have SO much more to say about this, but for tonight, this is all my eyes can stay open for. Stay tuned for next time when I look at whether "we" even want to be normal!


panks said...

Nice Article and I like the content and subject.


Anonymous said...

cant wait for your next post - enjoyed this one A LOT... I work in mental health - have done for years - and I really love my work . . now how normal is that?!! ha ha . . I enjoy and admire your transparancy - i also hear what you are saying about exploring things more with the client rather than quickly making affirming statements. I shall definitely keep reading -