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  • quinnwhiting

There Is No Normal

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

A green neon sign on a black background reads, "Normal gets you nowhere." The word "nowhere" is upside down on the sign.

Clients often ask questions like, "Is it normal if I do this?" or "Am I normal for doing (or liking, not liking, or so forth) this?" Depending on the energy of the session at the moment, my response is often this:

"Normal is a setting on a dryer."

And, truth told, I'm not sure dryers even have a Normal setting anymore! Most have settings like Auto-Dry, Permanent Press, and Air Fluff.

But the point remains that normal is such a subjective term. One of the common stressors we struggle with is the idea that there is some universal measure of what is and isn't "normal." And it's no surprise. We get messages from all around us trying to tell us that doing this thing is normal and doing that thing is "abnormal." We hear it from the media we consume, the advertising that surrounds us, and even the people we love and respect.

I often think of the character of K in the original Men in Black movie talking about how people "think they have a good bead on things" when he talks about how it would disrupt humanity's view of life if people knew about the aliens in the movie. The concept of "normal" is kind of like that. It helps people think they have a good bead on things.

But is it really a useful concept when we're trying to be our authentic selves or trying to address our personal challenges? The things we do to cope with our challenges, our likes and likes and dislikes, the ways we like to show up in the world - these are all unique to each of us. And there are far too many of us on this planet being our unique selves to have any common standard of "normal."

So, let me offer you the same question I often ask of my clients in these conversations - does that thing you worry about being "normal" cause you distress?

One of the real measures of whether or not you might want to change a way of thinking, reacting, or doing is whether it causes you an unacceptable level of distress. (Notice I did not list feeling. More on that in a future post.) And this can be different for different people.

Let's use an example from work I've done with folks in the past - the use of video games as a coping tool.

Let's say Person A asks if it is normal to enjoy video games as an adult. As we talk, the person shares that they only play them a little as a way to relax. They enjoy the stories and the challenges. I find out that their game time does not interfere with other important parts of their life like work, taking care of their health, and social connections. In fact, they often connect with friends in games sometimes. So, Person A decides that their gaming does not cause them distress. It actually adds quality to their life.

But maybe they have a little tug of shame that causes them distress because some part of them says, "That's not normal." In that case, the shame may be the source of distress that has something to unpack in counseling. But the gaming itself isn't a case of normal or not-normal.

Person B, on the other hand, comes to counseling because they find their gaming is affecting other aspects of their life. They ask the same question - is playing video games as an adult normal?

In our sessions, they share that they use it as a way to distract themselves from other problems and often spend hours and hours on the computer. As a result, they are often late to work and often too tired to go do face-to-face things with friends even though they'd really like to. They share that they are starting to think that their gaming is a problem but they don't know how to change because its what they're used to.

In that case, the question of normal is once again not a core issue. The pattern of behavior is taking away from their quality of life rather than adding to it. They decide it is a source of distress and a challenge they want to address in counseling.

In both scenarios, the idea of normal and not-normal isn't actually helpful. It's really about whether or not that "not-normal" thing is causing them enough distress that they decide something needs to change.

So... my challenge to you for this article is this. Can you relax your hold on the idea of "normal" to look past that and ask yourself "what is it about this that causes me distress?" How does this "not-normal" thing add to your life? How does it take away from it?

What you find beneath the question of "Is this normal?" might be where the real work begins.

I believe in you,



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