04/01/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is "Normal"?


Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

What do we mean by the words "normal" and "abnormal" as they apply to the mental and emotional states and behaviors of human beings? Can those words be sensibly used at all, given their tremendous baggage, their built-in biases and the general confusion they create?

This is no idle question. The "treatment" of every "mental disorder" that mental health professionals "diagnose," from "depression" and "attention deficit disorder" on through "schizophrenia," flows from how society construes "normal" and "abnormal." This matter affects tens of millions of people annually; it affects everyone, really, since a person's mental model of "what is normal?" is significantly influenced by how society and its institutions define "normal."

The matter of what is normal can't be and must not be a mere statistical nicety. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be a Christian just because 95 percent of your community is Christian. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex just because 90 percent of the general population is heterosexual. "Normal" can't mean and must not mean "what we see all the time" or "what we see the most of." It must have a different meaning from those.

Nor can it mean "free of discomfort," as if "normal" were the equivalent of oblivious and you were somehow "abnormal" when you were sentient, human, and real. This is exactly the current game played by the mental health industry: It makes this precise, illegitimate switch. It announces that when you feel a certain level of discomfort you are abnormal and have a disorder. It turns unwanted into abnormal by fiat, turning "I don't want to feel this sad" into "I have the mental disorder of depression."

In this view, "normal" is living free of excessive discomfort; "abnormal" is feeling or acting significantly distressed. Normal, in this view, is destroying a village in wartime and not experiencing anything afterward; abnormal is experiencing something, and for a long time thereafter. The consequences of conscience, reason, and awareness are labeled abnormal and robotic allegiance to wearing a pasted-on smiley face is designated normal. Is that what we really mean? Is that what we really want?

It is simply not right to call the absence of significant distress normal and the presence of significant distress abnormal. That just isn't right. -- Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

Sadness, guilt, rage, disappointment, confusion, doubt, anxiety and similar experiences and states are all expected and normal, given the nature and demands of life; except, that is, to mental health professionals, where those states and experiences become markers of abnormality and cash cows. It is simply not right to call the absence of significant distress normal and the presence of significant distress abnormal. That just isn't right.

If "normal" mustn't be "what we see the most of" or "the absence of significant distress," how else might it be conceptualized or construed? Is there perhaps a way that the words "healthy" and "unhealthy" capture what we might like "normal" and "abnormal" to mean? Unfortunately, that emperor is also naked.

It is reasonable to say that if you contract tuberculosis or manifest cancer you have gone from a healthier state to an unhealthier state. But it is not reasonable to say, for instance, that it is "healthy" for you to suffer no ill affects from killing unarmed civilians and "unhealthy" of you to experience distressing consequences. Yes, in the latter case you are suffering; but PTSD in this instance is not like cancer. It may in fact amount to the healthy (and nevertheless extremely distressing) functioning of your conscience. This PTSD may in fact be proof that you are healthy, proof, that is, that you are a person with a functioning conscience, rather than proof of any "unhealthiness."

It isn't legitimate to announce that a person is "healthy" because she is not feeling distressed and "unhealthy" because she is feeling distressed. Growing sad because you caught your mate cheating on you doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing anxious because you can't pay your bills doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing bored and restless because your job under-utilizes you doesn't make you "unhealthy." If you leap from "I am distressed" to "I am unhealthy," you are leaping into the arms of the medical model for no good reason.

Whole industries grossing billions of dollars are built on the words "normal" and "abnormal" and on the ideas of "well" and "disordered." It is therefore inconceivable that the right thing can be done and that the situation can change. Even right-minded mental health professionals can't really conceive of doing away with the current idea of "mental disorder." If they did away with it, what would they have and where would they be? Given that even the best and the brightest in the field are attached to an illegitimate naming game, there is probably no real hope for change. But those changes are desperately needed as we merrily go about labeling, medicating, and not adequately serving huge portions of our population.

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