“Normal” Is a Setting on a Washing Machine

The title of this post is a quote many of my clients have heard me use, as it’s one of my favorites. It also happens to be one that I find myself using quite regularly, as “being normal,” “acting normal,” “looking normal,” etc. seem to be of such concern. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked such questions as “Is it normal not to have any idea of what I want to do for my next career?”; Is it normal to be this depressed about losing my job?; “Is it normal to take this long to get over a breakup?”, etc.

As you may have guessed by the title of this post, “normalcy” is not something I place a lot of emphasis (or value) on. There are a few reasons for my relative lack of concern about one’s normalcy.

First, let’s look at the definition of the term. The very first thing you read when you type “definition of normal” into Google is (from dictionary.com):

Conforming to a standard, usual, typical, or expected (adj.)

The usual, average, or typical state or condition (n.)

Fill in the blank with one of the four adjectival synonyms listed above: “You’re a usual kind of person.” Or “You’re an average kind of person”. Or a “typical” or “expected” type of person. Not so hot-sounding, is it?

You get a slightly different answer (oddly enough, from the exact same source) by simply typing in the word normal, a two-section definition that begins with the general use of “normal” and then specifies its meaning in the world of psychology:

n. conforming to standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.

Psychology

a.approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.

b.free from any mental disorder; sane.

It’s understandable that people don’t want to be suffering from a mental disorder, but that concern usually isn’t at the heart of my clients’ issue. Much more typically, it is a worry about seeming different / odd. I think this concern has its primary source in the generally painful and traumatic process of adolescence. As I’m sure most of you remember, the last thing most of you wanted to appear to your peers in Middle School (or Junior High School back in my day) was different. The teasing or, in more extreme cases, ostracism or even physical abuse, were intensely painful. Peer pressure continues throughout life, and even many (if not most) wealthy, successful professionals or executives want to be sure they act, eat, dress, reside, and often think along the lines of others in their group. Drive the right car, join the right club, have their children go to the right school.

Back to my psychotherapy, life coach and career counseling work: when a client raises this concern I really attempt to understand its genesis. I want to be sure that the concern about normal thought or behavior doesn’t stem from a potentially damaging place or is significantly impacting in a negative way my client’s life. For instance, if a client asked me “Is it normal to cry for weeks for most of the day after losing my job” or “Is it normal to want to hurt my spouse when he/she says I’m a loser” or “Is it normal to have five cocktails a night” I wouldn’t use the “setting on a washing machine” quote, and would delve into exactly what was going on. But the majority of concerns about normalcy are grounded in thoughts or actions that are considerably less destructive, and that’s where the quote has value. If you’re able to focus on what is right for you, rather than what is “normal,” you’re going to ultimately be happier and, probably, more successful.

Particularly for clients coming to me with career issues I emphasize creativity – thinking “outside the box”. Almost by definition, something outside the box is “abnormal” – an outlier on the bell curve that can represent the range of every human behavior. Limiting yourself to working within the “normalcy” of the center of that curve will keep you stuck, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

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