What’s ‘normal’?

Beach seen through windowI wrote an article in The Lancet Psychiatry, on ‘Wanting To Be Normal’. I chose a subject very close to my heart. It seems to have rung quite a lot of bells with people. See what you think.

I have heard this desire expressed a large number of times, inside and outside my work. As a client in therapy I have also said it myself. The sense of being different from others has a multitude of meanings which are not always obvious.

As a therapist and author, I always try to think before using the word ‘normal’ in any context. ‘Ordinary’ is often better. ‘Regular’ or ‘average’ might do, with care. ‘Unusual’ is usually better than ‘abnormal’. Any suggestion of ‘abnormality’ at worst equates to being diseased, a freak, other, or fodder for essentialists who ‘always knew’ there was something wrong with us, whether or not they can immediately locate a visible minority to park us in. This kind of othering can start in our homes as children. It can move through teenage years and into adulthood. It can seem as if these feelings will never go away.

‘Normality’ in love and at work
There are many unexpected ways the drive to ‘normality’ can emerge in adult life. This piece, ‘Don’t Do What You Love’ is a good example of how it’s very easy to persuade yourself to do the same thing over and over at work, even if it’s not working out for you, because at some point surely you’ll be accepted and everything will be fine. In relationships, despite the sheer volume of material on the internet, it is possible to feel incredibly isolated if we can’t immediately find someone who understands us. Dr Meg John Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules, has written at length about how to stop trying to be normal in sex and relationships, without giving yourself a hard time about it.

Appearing to be ‘normal’ carries a number of privileges. Here’s a satirical view of the kink of ‘normaling’, the sexual cousin of normcore.

I think ‘wanting to be normal’ is a primary cause of depression, as well as a symptom of it. The picture below, that I took in Cornwall a few years ago, sums up what I’m talking about. The ‘normal people’ are over there outside, having fun in the light, with nature, being ‘natural’. The person who considers themselves ‘abnormal’ sits in the dark, held back by a very specific view of what normal appears to be. I debated whether to put this here because the heavy blackness makes this image quite hard to look at. For me, though, it sums up what I am trying to say, and what I have heard from others.