Normal is as Normal Does

Quick…define “normal”.

I bet that was not as easy as you thought it would be.  Before I became a psychiatrist I had a presumption of what normal was, but, in retrospect, I never really thought about it.

For example, is it normal to be jumping and spinning around, waving your arms all over the place?  For some people the answer is yes; especially if you are at a concert and enjoying the music.  Is it normal to be stooped over, making all kinds of faces and saying things like, “ba ba jus a looka da li’l puppa puppa.”  Of course it is, if you are with a cute little puppy dog.   On the other hand, these behaviors could look very strange if you were standing in line at the library waiting to check out a book.

So what exactly is “normal” human behavior?  I believe that there is no simple answer or definition to this question.  This becomes even more complicated for people who have experienced episodes of depression or anxiety.  Commonly, my patients have no idea what it feels like to be “normal”.  They are so used to feeling sad, scared, despondent, terrified or angry that in their minds, that is their normal state. 

The more I think about this problem, the more it makes sense.  The human brain is wired to try to feel “normal” at all times.  It is therefore an understandable defense for a person who does not feel good to unconsciously start to believe that is just how he or she should be.  Granted, we all do have different personalities and temperaments that will lend one person to be naturally more intense or “type A” and others to be naturally more relaxed or “type B”.  That is great; it is the small differences in each of us, both physically and mentally, that make human interaction so interesting.  Imagine how boring it would be if we all thought and acted the same.  These things become abnormal, however, when the different anxiety or mood states create disruption in a person’s life.  This could be in any area of life; academics, careers, social or home interactions

I therefore propose that the definition of “normal” in a human being be conceptualized as one of boundaries.  There is a certain point that any behavior or thought pattern becomes abnormal.  I like to think of that point or boundary to be a unique and individual one for every person.  As I like to simplify things as best as possible so as not to clutter my mind, I subscribe to a permutation of the Golden Rule around this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
In other words, if a person’s state of being is not causing that person or anybody around him or her any harm, couldn’t that be considered normal no matter what?  Who am I to say that the guy ballet dancing on the street corner, wearing a propeller-beanie cap, speedo’s and cowboy boots is abnormal?  Perhaps he thinks I am nuts because I am sitting static in my uncomfortable business casual outfit, fuming at the traffic.  He is not hurting anybody or causing any problems (that is as long as you are mostly watching traffic and not him).

My point is that I believe it is crucial to have a flexible and dynamic idea of what normal is.  As a psychiatrist, I vow to never tell anybody how to be normal, but to focus on helping each individual find what their “normal” is.  There are caveats to this, for example the severely mentally ill patient who has lost insight because of the illness, or the defiant teenager presenting solely due to the parents’ wishes.  Overall, however, it is an approach that both preserves the diversity of each one of us and fosters the unique strengths, interests, and talents that every person possesses.

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