Do you consider yourself normal? Do your friends? Is there even a clear consensus on what the word means? Typically, “normal” is the word that we use to describe someone whose thoughts, actions and ideas fall in line with the majority of people in society. Normal can mean drastically different things between communities, states or even countries. Understanding this word and how it we interpret it can help us get a clear picture of how we see ourselves and others.
What’s Normal and What is Abnormal?
I was born and grew up in New York City. I am 40 years old. The majority of my friends never learned to drive and have never been behind the wheel of a car. I often eat my lunch standing up at a counter or sharing a table with strangers while eating in silence. I walk to the grocery store. My boss, who earns more than $200,000 a year, regularly rides public transportation. All of these things are normal to me. To a person who grew up in Alabama, however, this life would seem absurd and abnormal.
Simply put, normal is how the majority of people in your culture or community think, act or live. Normal means growing up with a certain set of religious beliefs because your parents, neighbors, teachers and community leaders held these beliefs. While the majority of Americans have likely never ridden in a horse and carriage, this practice is perfectly normal to the Amish, for which this is a regular means of transportation.
Normalcy and Mental Health
When we refer to someone as not being “normal,” we are often referring to their mental health. Someone whose thinking deviated beyond the parameters of what medical professionals deemed acceptable would be considered “abnormal.” Most people deal with some degree of stress in their daily lives. A normal way of coping would be to take a break, talk to a friend or step away from the stressor for a while. According to medical experts, an abnormal way of coping would be to lash out violently, use substances like alcohol or drugs or harm oneself.
Many people undergo intense therapy and take mind-altering medication to be considered “normal.” The pressure to conform and think like everyone else is so strong that there are entire industries devoted to making “abnormal” people “normal.” The problem with this reasoning is that there has to be a standard, which is often subjective, by which normalcy is measured. If one person is content to live in the suburbs with three kids and a dog, and another person wants to live off-grid alone in a cabin in the woods, which person is leading a “normal” life? And who determines what is normal?
Being Normal is Overrated
Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook, was a weird, socially awkward kid who was so “different,” and “abnormal” that he got rejected from a popular fraternity on his college campus. He went on to be a technological pioneer, and his creation has changed the lives of people all over the globe. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs—all considered “abnormal” by societal standards, yet went on to achieve great things in their personal lives while touching the lives of others.
The beauty of life is that we can often choose to go against the grain and forge a life that is unique to us. There are entire U.S. cities whose personality scream “abnormal,” and where people are free to buck trends and be exactly who they want to be. New York, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami are all cities in which people flock to embrace their creativity, invent themselves and discover who they really are without being forced to be normal.
Overcoming the Stigma of Abnormal
There are two schools of thought when it comes to mental normalcy and dealing with people who have mental illnesses. The first is that we should give people the tools they need to become like everyone else. Medication, talk therapy, social supports, and government assistance. These things will give them the tools to conform to society’s expectations. The second is that society should embrace people as they are, and stand with them, supporting them through their mental illnesses.
So strong is the stigma against mental illness and abnormal thinking that many will go years without seeking treatment. They may go to great lengths to hide their perceived dysfunction, doing their best to appear as “normal” as everyone else. This is damaging not only to the person but to everyone that loves them.
What is normal? Is it a certain type of job, a way of dress or a way of seeing the world? Are you normal because you follow the beliefs of your peers, or are you abnormal because you have your own ideas about life and the world? Ultimately, the most normal people are the ones who see themselves as in charge of their world, their thinking and embrace who they are, whether the world considers them normal or not.