“Am I normal?” Robert, a 24-year old programmer, asked me a few months into our work together.
“What makes you ask that question right now?” We had been talking about his new relationship and how he was feeling good about getting more serious.
“Well I just wonder if it’s normal to feel as much anxiety as I do.”
“What is normal?” I asked him.
So, what is normal?
According to the dictionary, normal means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.”
But when it comes to humanity normal does not apply. It’s true that most of us try to “conform to a standard” socially, but in private, our freer true Selves have quirks, and unique preferences; we are infinitely complex, highly imperfect one-of-a-kind creations – our billions of nerve cells uniquely programmed by genetics and experiences.
Yet we wonder, “Am I normal?” Why? It has to do with our very human fear of rejection and disconnection. When someone brings up normalcy what they are usually wondering is, “Do I fit in?” or “Am I lovable?” or “Do I have to hide aspects of myself to be accepted?”
I suspected Robert’s sudden question about normalcy had to do with his new relationship. Love renders us vulnerable to rejection. We naturally become vigilant for what we dare not expose.
I asked Robert, “Do you judge yourself for feeling anxious?”
“Yes,” he said.
“What do you think it says about you that you have anxiety?” I asked.
“It means I am defective!” he replied.
“Robert, can I get you curious about who taught you to judge yourself for how you feel or how you suffer? Where did you learn that having anxiety makes you defective? Because it surely does not!” I said.
Robert said, “I think I’m defective because as a child I was sent to a psychiatrist.”
“There you have it!” I exclaimed.
If only someone had said to a young Robert, “Anxiety is part of being human. And it sucks! But we can learn how to calm anxiety – in fact, it’s a really important and valuable skill. I’d be so proud of you if you wanted help learning this skill. You’d be ahead of the game since all people need to learn anxiety management skills to stay healthy. Would you like to try?”
Adult Robert now knows that if his girlfriend has a reaction to his anxieties, they can talk about it and find out what makes it a problem for her. Maybe she isn’t right for him or maybe they can work it out. Either way, it’s about both of them, not just Robert.
Normalcy and Shame
Robert had spent a lot years exacerbating his anxiety with feelings of shame about “being defective.”
Thinking we are abnormal or different is one of the main causes of shame. Not a healthy shame that ensures we don’t run around picking our noses or peeing in public, but a toxic shame that makes us feel deeply alone. No one among us deserves to feel bad about who they are*, what they feel, or that they suffer.
What if we were to do away with judgments entirely and embrace the complexity of humanity? What if instead of asking, “Am I normal?” we asked, “Aren’t I human?”
Want to try an exercise? Here are a few questions to stimulate your curiosity about judgment:
Search deep and honestly. What do you believe is not normal about you? What do you hide from others?
What do you believe would happen if someone found this out?
Where did you get that belief? Was it an actual past experience?
What would you think if you found out someone else had that same secret?
Is there some other, more understanding way, you could approach your secret?
How does it feel to ask yourself these questions?
Judgment of others:
Name something you judge about others.
Why do you judge it?
If you didn’t judge others in this way, what emotions would you have to contend with in yourself? Circle all that apply: Fear? Guilt? Shame? Sadness? Anger? Other?
What’s it like to focus on YOUR feelings rather than moving straight to judgement?
Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” (Morticia Addams)
(*Unless a person purposely and intentionally hurts others, then it makes no sense to feel both shame and guilt)
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author in private practice in New York City. Her New York Times article, “It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes It’s Shame” was the #1 emailed article and lead to the book Hilary is currently writing on her work with emotions (Random House, 2017). She also enjoyed being the Mental Health Consultant to the television show Mad Men. You can sign up for Hilary’s blog to learn more about emotions, tips for everyday living, and updates on the book at hilaryjacobshendel.com.