What is normal? I often have clients ask me this question in an attempt to gauge their own symptoms. Is my level of anxiety normal? Does everyone fear social interactions? Do most people feel worthless at some point? Is my lack of motivation abnormal? These are “normal” questions but what do the answers to these questions really give us?
Does knowing how your symptoms compare to others make you less anxious, less depressed, less [insert symptom here]? These answers generally have no bearing on one’s own experience. Sure, it might give some immediate comfort to know others have similar experiences, but knowing that other people feel sad doesn’t make one’s sadness less present. Having the knowledge that others might ruminate less than you doesn’t make your racing thoughts stop. And being aware that others might also feel isolated doesn’t eliminate loneliness.
Instead of asking what’s normal, can we instead ask what is helpful? What is a behavior that is supportive of moving towards what is important even when feeling not so normal? Is telling myself that I’m socially inept and bound to mess up in a social situation helpful for being engaged with others? Is wrestling with the thought that I’m going to fail helpful for motivating me to try something new? Does thinking of oneself as abnormal improve feelings of self-worth?
So the question I pose back to clients is this: Are you willing to quit comparing yourself to others and instead try behaving in a way that is helpful for you, despite having thoughts/feelings/symptoms that might seem wildly abnormal?
by Dara Denton, LPC