Is This (am I) Normal ? 

People worry a lot. We especially worry about whether we’re normal. In fact, we’re programmed to worry and a lot of it is done in secret.  Sometimes we worry about a minor physical symptom and fear that it might be the sign of a dreaded disease. Even more commonly we’re afraid that some little thing we think, feel or do might be a sign that we’re not normal or even crazy. Today we’re going to break the silence and talk about some of these secret worries, explain why we worry so much and share some tips to help you realize that you are normal and to help you stop, or at least reduce, your worrying.

Why we worry so much about whether we are normal or not is complicated and is influenced by a number of factors. There are three main forces, however, which create a false sense of abnormalcy:

1. Ethnocentrism. Cultural norms are always unrealistically narrow and exclusive. Not only are we often ignorant of the wide spectrum and diversity of human nature but think the way we do things is right and tend to fear and condemn other ways as wrong. Instead of accepting that people do things differently, we tend to label them as bad or not normal or wrong.  For example, on a trivial level, we may think someone from Europe hold his/her fork with the “wrong” hand when eating. Having intolerant feelings as to how or to whom one worships is a more serious problem.

2. Denial.  Psychologically, we tend to deny the less attractive aspects of our nature, like anger, violence, jealousy, sexuality etc. Freud called repressing the Id. Rather than acknowledging the reality of the uncivilized parts and focusing on how to manage them, we tend to divide people up as if only some folks had the bad traits but others didn’t. This tendency avoids acknowledgement of the fact that that we all have a dark and irrational side. Obviously, since everyone has the characteristics that they are told only abnormal people have, many erroneously believe that something is wrong with them.

3. Wounded self-esteem. As if these factors weren’t bad enough, there is more. We know that from childhood on not only are kids taught all kinds of erroneous ideas about what is normal but unfortunately many kids are literally told, in moments of parental frustration, that they’re not normal. These early messages create poor self-esteem which not only lacks confidence but is also anxious about just being OK. Here are a couple of common areas folks needlessly fret about:

Common Examples Some things we worry about are trivial like

Talking to yourself: Everyone does it yet many think that something is wrong with you if you do. Talking to oneself can be a helpful exercise to think through problems, process intense feelings or organize one’s time. Indeed, self-talk is an important coping tool, even if it is “out loud”.   The important distinction regarding talking to oneself is social awareness. It is a private thing.  Folks who talk to themselves when they are aware that other people are present exhibit a completely different kind of problem.

Other things are more disturbing like having inappropriate thoughts or having normal thoughts and fantasies at unusual times:  Folks worry that they if have inappropriate thoughts or have normal thoughts at the wrong times then something is wrong with them.  Not true.  For example, it is common for someone to be at a funeral and start to giggle or have a sexual thought in a worship service. It is just part of the human psyche and nothing to worry about.  It is quite normal to have all kinds of thoughts in all kinds of circumstances but a key distinction has to do with one’s the ability know the difference between thinking and doing. It is important to be able to resist the temptation to act on an socially inappropriate impulses.  Allowing yourself to have uncensored feelings, however, is healthy. In fact expressing them verbally or in by writing in an uncensored, primary process journal is a good way to manage uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.  Objectionable thoughts or impulses are only a problem when they can’t be controlled and are actually manifested in literal ways which are harmful.

How to reduce worrying about normal things?

Okay, what can be done to overcome the obstacles to feeling normal ?  We need to question our worries and reality test their validity. Ask yourself:

1. Are my thoughts about myself realistic or overly harsh?

2. Can I control my negative impulses?

3. What actual harm am I doing to myself or someone else?

When is something problematic ?                                                                                    

Thoughts or behaviors are problematic when they:

1. Interfere with your happiness or ability to function.

2. Are out of control and I am unable to appropriately manage it.

3. Interfere with someone else’s happiness or ability to function.

Personally, I would like to get rid of the terms “normal” and “abnormal” and substitute words like problematic or dysfunctional or maladaptive.  The word normal gives the false impression that a sharp distinction exists between people (e.g. sane vs. insane). Historically this view grew out of a medical model which really doesn’t help us understand the complexity or subtleties of human psychology.  For example, in medicine, an organism may be infected with a bacterium or not, i.e. it may be healthy or sick but this all or nothing contrast really doesn’t apply to emotional issues.

In psychology, the distinction between health and illness is a relative one.  Our emotional life is a continuous spectrum wherein health lies on one side and disordered on the other.  Psychologically, we all are located somewhere on the health/disordered continuum.

A person has become dysfunctional when s/he is unable to regulate and control his/her thoughts and impulses. For example, social drinking is one thing, alcoholism is another. Only when a thought pattern or behavior begins to interfere with our ability to function at work, in relationships or with our happiness with life are they considered a diagnosable disorder.  In other words “abnormal” is not so much a matter of what a person thinks or does but negative impact it has on his/her or another person’s life.   When our behavior gets in the way of or alters our living in a negative way, then and only then is it time to be concerned and seek professional help.  Otherwise, we need to worry less and not only accept but to appreciate the diversity and complexity of life.

The Rev. Michael Heath prepared these remarks for his Bridge Street segment, Life Smarts 3 13 2013