What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘Am I Normal?’

Photo-Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Dear Therapist,

Am I normal?


Dear Unsure,

As I went through my inbox this week and read people’s questions, yours popped out because no matter what readers asked about — dating, sex, marriage, family, friendship, loneliness, fantasies, regret, guilt, betrayal, work — lurking between their lines was your core question: Am I normal?

It’s the same question people ask, directly or not, in therapy.  Is this normal? Do other people do this? Feel this?  Think this? Struggle with this?  Is my partner, mother, boss, roommate abnormal … or am I?

I tell you this to assure you that, at the very least, your question is entirely normal.  But here’s where things get murky.  There are many ways to think about normalcy, and while I can’t answer your question, I can share with you how I think about normalcy so that you can draw your own conclusion.

First, let’s define normal.  Technically, it means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.”  But what’s “usual, typical, or expected” is also specific to a culture, time, and place.  Racism, for example, might fit these criteria in some places, but does that mean that a person in that community who isn’t racist isn’t normal?  Or consider that for a majority of young women in this country, dissatisfaction with their bodies is typical.  Does that make a woman who loves her body abnormal?  This “what’s most prevalent” way of thinking about normalcy is how LGBT people came to be, until not that long ago, considered “abnormal.”  It wasn’t until 1986, believe it or not, that “homosexuality” was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The purpose of the DSM is to classify mental disorders for diagnosis — but by doing so, it also distinguishes between “normal” and “abnormal.” Not surprisingly, this manual gets updated from time to time to reflect how fluid “normal” and “abnormal” can be. Until a few years ago, for instance, there was something called the “bereavement exclusion” in the DSM. In the first two months after a loss, if a person experienced the symptoms of depression, the diagnosis would be “bereavement.” But if those symptoms persisted past two months, the diagnosis would switch to “depression.” This “bereavement exclusion” no longer exists and the change was precipitated by a debate about the nature of grief and the nature of depression. Were people really supposed to be “done” grieving after two months? Couldn’t grief last six months or a year or, in some form or another, an entire lifetime? Was a lingering sadness around the death of a spouse or a child really abnormal, or was it perhaps a healthy, “normal” (meaning, “typical or expected”) response to a tremendous, life-changing loss? Besides, couldn’t two different people grieve differently and both still be considered normal?

A wise mentor once said, “I always try to see the whole person and not just the moment they’re in” (excellent advice for anyone in a marriage, by the way), and I feel the same way about diagnosis and normalcy. I always try to see the underlying struggle and not just the five-digit code I can put on an insurance form that distinguishes normalcy from pathology. That’s not to say that using an organizing principle doesn’t help to give me a way to understand a patient. But if I rely on it too much, it blinds me in ways that interfere with forming a real relationship with the unique individual sitting in front of me. It’s dangerously easy to lose an entire person behind a diagnosis, and a diagnosis comes with a stigma: You’re abnormal.

Ultimately, I’m not trying to make patients become “normal.”  I’m trying to relieve their suffering.

With all this in mind, Unsure, I’m going to assume that “normal” means something to you beyond simply, “Am I typical?” When a patient asks this in my office, underlying the question is often some version of: Am I alone? Do I fit it? Am I acceptable? Am I lovable? It’s not that people want to conform as much as they want to connect. It’s not, Can I change so that I can be loved? It’s, Can I be loved the way I am, in all of my idiosyncratic glory?

It makes sense that people ask, because often when we’re younger, we’re told that we aren’t so normal after all — even by people who love us, like our family members and friends.

You’ve probably done this inadvertently to people you care about, too — because most of us do at some point. Peers do it: Be normal. Act like the rest of us. Don’t threaten our social standing with your weirdness. Partners do this: Don’t act in ways that might make me have to contend with something I’m ashamed of in myself. Parents do this: Your leg doesn’t hurt, you love Grandma and Grandpa, you want to go on this trip, you don’t “hate” so-and-so (or, um, me). A parent may say, “You can be angry but you can’t say you hate me” which translates to, “be angry but in a way that won’t make me anxious.” When people have inconvenient feelings, we try to tell them that they don’t feel that way or shouldn’t feel that way. That what they’re feeling isn’t normal.

No wonder so many people end up asking, in essence, Is it okay to feel this or think this or desire this? 

Here are some “normal” — meaning, typical — things I hear: I feel lonely. I feel enraged. I feel overcome by envy. I get hurt easily. I have quirky ways of doing things. I get irrationally irritated. I feel disgusting. I masturbate a lot. I never masturbate. I lie too much. I can’t see the point of my work. I have bizarre dreams. I’m terrified of darkness. I can’t stop thinking about food/sex/the TV show I’m obsessed with/my ex.  I wish my sibling were dead. I talk out loud to myself. I hate my parents but wish they’d call. I love my parents but wish they’d call me less often. I have unkind thoughts. I have desires that seem at odds with who I am.  I don’t feel bad enough about what I did. I feel so bad about what I did that I can’t let it go. I care too much. I care too little. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of success. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being alive. I think my neighbor’s been stealing my mail. I fantasize about my co-worker/boyfriend’s best friend/spouse’s sister.

The funny thing about “normal” is that people tend to worry that they aren’t while simultaneously claiming it’s the last thing they want to be.  Normal is boring, they say, which is like saying they never wanted the job they got rejected from in the first place.  While I don’t know how typical you are, Unsure, I’ll bet you share the very typical human need to belong, or you wouldn’t care so much about how normal you are.  But there are many ways to belong without losing our distinctive selves.  Normal or not, a more important question might be, “How can I love who I am?”

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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The information provided by What Your Therapist Really Thinks is for entertainment and educational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘Am I Normal?’