Beliefs that harm us: The concept of “normal”
I would like to begin a series of articles about words, beliefs and expressions that we use often in our daily lives but which can cause us great harm psychologically.
I am going to begin with the concept of “normal”. What is normal? When we say (or think) that this or that is the “normal” way of doing things, the “normal” way to be or to feel or to relate to people, what criteria are we using to decide what constitutes “normal?” Normality is an abstract concept, one that no two people are likely to define in the same way or feel the same way about. Yet our tendency to see “normality” as a universally defined concept affects us if we feel we don’t fit in.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a “strange creature” for thinking about something in a certain way until you meet someone else who shares your opinion? An example of this is seen frequently in group therapy. In a situation where people share intimate details about themselves, we are always amazed to discover that we have so much in common with other people, even things that we had previously considered abnormal.
In my experience, the more we open ourselves up, the more we realize that normality doesn’t exist. And, if it does exist, the criteria is more wide-ranging than we think. Each person has a unique way of viewing the world, of behaving, of feeling etc. and that is a wonderful thing!
Unfortunately, we frequently use the idea that this or that is normal in order to manipulate others. For example, if someone tells you:
“Your behavior isn’t normal,”
what they really mean is:
“I don’t want you to behave in that way”.
The first sentence makes you feel like it is you against the world, instead of your opinion vs. theirs, in which case you will probably end up doing what they want. What’s more, you are more likely to feel guilty about it and the best way of getting you to change your behavior is through guilt. So, the process would go something like this:
1) You do something I don’t like. What you have done bothers me (and only me).
2) By becoming a champion of the whole world’s opinions, I will then let you know that “everyone” disapproves of what you have done. How? By telling you that what you have done isn’t normal.
3) You believe it.
4) You feel guilty.
5) Therefore you end up doing what I want you to do..