But, being normal is probably not what you think it is. “Normal”, from a psychologist’s point of view, is not 2.4 children, a dog, two cars and a white picket fence. Normal is not about where you live, your paycheck, your job or whether you get eight hours of sleep a night.
Simply put, normal is the ability to live one’s adult life according to one’s own principles, wishes and abilities without any psychological hang-ups getting in your way, without any psychological distress interfering. A famous American mythologist and lecturer, Joseph Campbell, once said we should be free to follow “our bliss”. The founding fathers put the “pursuit of happiness” into the constitution which allowed everyone to define their own happiness in what they wanted to pursue.
Psychologists often call this living “authentically”, the ability to be the real you without neurotic inhibitions. This is often easier said than done.
Living a normal, healthy and authentic life has a few different components that are viewed as essential aspects of a normal life. These are: forming healthy relationships, pursuing our goals, managing emotions, delaying gratification, resiliency and the ability to live an independent life. Many people include the ability to live according to some spiritual life of beliefs.
Let’s examine each of these ideas one at a time.
Relationships: In a normal, healthy life, we must all be able to form and maintain satisfying human relationships. These relations can be a spouse, partner, neighbors, friends, siblings or just about any adult. Whoever it is, a healthy person is capable of close, loving relationships with one or more people. Your cat, X-box, guitar or 4-wheeler doesn’t count.
This does not have to include family members if they are generally toxic to you. Our first model of a relationship is our mother – or whoever took the role of mother in our lives. We start to form ideas and feelings about relationships with her and then with other members of our family. We also learn about relationships by watching the interactions of our parents or other adults in our lives.
Many people come to psychotherapy because of various unhealthy relationships they experienced in their own families. They take this unhealthy model into their adult lives where they can’t find fulfilling, normal connections with others. We all know people who can’t commit, or who get overly dependent or who marry a series of abusers, alcoholics or cold, detached partners. There are many people who are very shy, awkward or detached around others.
Goals: A normal person also has a set of goals that he or she believes are worth pursuing. They can be daily, yearly or even lifetime goals. We need some action, behaviors, or pursuits that make life worthwhile (besides relationships). We need some opportunity to use our own particular strengths or skills in accomplishing things that we find necessary and fun.
This is “goal-directed behavior” and it is very personal to you. You may find great pleasure in a walk in the woods, or brewing beer, or going to church, or writing poetry. Most of us have a job or career goals that helps us survive – and hopefully brings us some pleasure. You may choose auto mechanics as a career, or nursing, carpentry or psychology.
Of course, there are no “normal” goals. Ernest may find his bliss by writing poems on a beach in Key West while washing dishes to pay the bills. Emily may not be happy until she is the top surgeon in New York City. A particular goal is not what makes us normal; but, the ability to have them and pursue them without psychological obstacles.
People sometimes come to therapy because fear, anxiety, depression or addictions are inhibiting their goal-directed behavior. Some people believe they don’t deserve success or get no pleasure in accomplishing goals. Some people have such low self-esteem that they don’t believe they can accomplish anything. These issues are often the focus of psychotherapy.
Emotions: Part of being human is to have emotions. An important part of being a normal, healthy human is to have access to all of our feelings and to express them appropriately. Healthy people can be happy in happy situations; sad in sad situations and angry when a situation calls for it. We should be able to express these and other feelings and to control or manage them as situations pass. Anger should subside; sadness lift. Many people come to therapy because of difficulties with emotional expression. Some can’t feel; they suffer an emotional flatness or repression. Some can only use one or two feelings. They are always sad or depressed or plagued by constant anxiety. Others just seem angry all the time. “Anger Management” sessions are a growing therapeutic industry.
Delayed Gratification: We all have things we believe we need or want. Sometimes we want it “Right Now!” When we are feeling healthy or normal, we can put off our wishes until the time is right.
We don’t usually demand things immediately.
For example, I may like the cookies you have for lunch; but, I can’t immediately take them (unless you are kind enough to offer them to me. Yes, thank you.) We may have to delay a purchase until we have the money or delay sex until we have a willing partner. Perhaps we can’t go fishing until we have a vacation day. And, No, you can’t open your Christmas presents early. We must wait until Christmas morning.
Many people enter psychotherapy with problems in delaying gratification. People with addictions always have trouble with delayed gratification. “I need the drink NOW! “, thinks Ted. Others may impulsively pursue shopping or spending money they don’t have or gambling or drugs without being able to put off gratification.
Resiliency: Being normal also includes some sense of resiliency. Life gives us no guarantees of being trouble-free. In fact, normal living provides us with many troubles, pains and obstacles. Some of these may be foreseen, like heating bills in the winter, and many are unexpected, like being laid off from a job you’ve has for 20 years. A healthy person is able to bounce back from life’s troubles and not be permanently overwhelmed by them. He or she has developed healthy coping skills or resiliency.
Of course, many people experience trauma or other extreme experiences from which they can’t “bounce back”. These experiences may lead someone to enter therapy for professional help in coping with trauma or other patterns of psychological pain. Others enter therapy to learn new ways of coping with the expected and unexpected obstacles in life and to improve their abilities to handle stresses and strains.
This does not mean that you are “abnormal” if you have some bad days or weeks after a particularly troublesome event. What it means is that you have the ability to climb back out of the depression or anxiety of that event. You may use your healthy relationships to cope, or your church or exercise or working. These are healthy and normal ways to cope. It is only when we can’t climb back from life events that our suffering may become abnormal and in need of some professional help.
Independence: Being normal also implies some ability to live an independent adult life. We should be able to support ourselves, not only financially, but in emotional and goal-oriented ways. In most Western societies, this means having the ability to have some income through which we can acquire the necessities of life like food and shelter. In other societies, it may mean having the ability to hunt or fish or farm while building a home and caring for a family. Wherever a person lives, he or she must develop the skills to survive in that culture. These skills do differ around the world; but, all people must mature into an ability to survive and even thrive where they live.
However, a large part of independence is interdependence. It is not healthy to be a hermit or a fearful recluse. Remember, the idea of normal living is to have the ability to form and keep healthy relationships. We should be able to have interdependence on others as part of a healthy life. We all depend on doctors and dentists and plumbers and teachers to provide us with some of the necessities of life that we cannot provide for ourselves. My neighbor, Sam, may be happy to provide me with rides to the grocery store; while I offer him some occasional babysitting. We all need each other and that is usually a normal and healthy aspect of living. We should be able to give to others as well as receive.
You don’t “need a village” to raise a child. However, it is a lot easier and more productive to have family and friends you can depend on to raise a family, or raise some crops or raise a roof.
Some people have trouble with aspects or independent living that lead them to seek professional help. Some citizens isolate out of fear or low self-esteem. Some have excess anxiety or fear when it comes to leaving the nest. Many individuals fear independent decision-making or may even perceive dependence on others as a repulsive sign of weakness. Some people are so excessively dependent that they may be diagnosed with Dependent Personality Disorder.
Normalcy allows us to have others we can trust and depend on when needed and to be trustworthy and dependable for others in return. It requires us to be empathetic to others at the same time.
So, what is normal? It’s the ability for you to lead a healthy and authentic life -as you define it, as you desire it. It requires an ability to manage the factors discussed above with some consistency. It does not require us to be perfect in those areas of life. Everyone has bad days or weeks-and that can be normal too, if we have the resiliency to bounce back.
I believe the factors discusses above are applicable across cultures, peoples and locations. Of course, relations or coping skills will look different in Cairo than they do in Dubuque. These factors may express themselves differently in a Cuban family than in a Vietnamese village. Interdependence will operate differently in an Israeli kibbutz compared to a Manhattan townhouse. However, I believe they are common human factors of “normalcy” that we all must negotiate.
Take care of yourself. You deserve it.