Updated: Jan 13
You come into therapy because you have a problem, of course. You’re sad, or anxious, or overwhelmed by some situation, or you’re facing a decision you don’t know how to make. Stuff like that.
But most people come into therapy also weighed down by two huge questions: Am I normal? And can I change? This is the beginning of a two-part series where we tackle these questions.
So. ARE you normal?
Well, that was easy. We’re done! Bye...
No, wait! The thing is, that answer—yes—may not be true. Are some people so unusual that no one could say they're normal in some respect? Sure. But my point is that saying “you’re normal” is certainly much truer than most of us realize, and that’s very important.
The crucial thing for all of us to understand is that “normal” consists of a much broader range than most of us think. Suppose you’re a woman. You have some degree of height. Well, is your height normal?
There is an organized way to think about this.
What this graph says is that 68.2% of us (34.1% + 34.1%) are within one standard deviation of the mean when it comes to anything that’s normally distributed—height, weight, intelligence, the number of blue shirts in your closet. And 95.4% of us (13.6% + 34.1% + 34.1% + 13.6%) are within two standard deviations of the mean.
So let’s use this to think about women’s height.
The average American woman is 5 feet 5 inches tall. Women within one standard deviation of the mean—68% of woman—range from 5 feet 1½ inches to 5 feet 8½ inches. Do you see anything not normal about a woman in that height range? Of course not.
What about two standard deviations from the mean gives a range of women’s heights ranging from 4 feet 10 inches to 6 feet even. Are women at the ends of that range not normal?
A lot of women celebrities are at the short end of the range. Kristen Chenowith and Lil’ Kim are 4 feet 11 inches. Abnormal? I don’t think so! Kourtney Kardashian, the Olsen twins, Kylie Minogue, Paula Abdul, and Jada Pinkett Smith are all 5 feet tall. Abnormal? Nope.
As for the other side of the range, Aisha Tyler, Jane Lynch, Allison Janney, Uma Thurman, Brooke Shields, Geena Davis, Sigourney Weaver, and Leslie Jones are all 6 feet tall. Abnormal? Try telling it to them!!
Okay. And so in the same way, when it comes to things like anxiety and depression 95% of people are in a normal range. Meaning: this is the way our friends, family, and neighbors are. It’s part of how we are even if the way we are shows up in a somewhat exaggerated form.
Now I’m not saying that someone two standard deviations away from the mean on the anxiety side of things is going to be feeling comfortable with his or her anxiety level. Just the way a lot of 6 feet tall women when growing up wished they were shorter.
But the point about saying you are normal here is to reassure you that you belong in the realm of ordinary human beings, not in a freak show. People get anxious and depressed. Sometimes they have trouble coping. Sometime this situation feels extreme. But extreme does not mean abnormal.
If you are very anxious, let’s say, more so than 95% percent of people, you are still just like us. You are sharing a feeling, an experience, a way of living even, that most people can relate to. You are one of us. We can connect with you. Or we should.
What’s more, there is the issue of why you are so anxious (or depressed or unable to cope). Is it YOU? Rarely!! Almost all the time, people get pushed towards the higher ends of the problem distribution NOT because of who they are but because of one of three things (usually all three):
1. Circumstances. You’re going through something so difficult it would make anyone anxious. If I’m not as anxious as you are at this moment, it’s because I’m not going through what you’re going through. I don’t have, for example, the combination of money and health and housing worries that you may have. If I were going through what you're going through, I'd be feeling the way you do.
2. Lack of tools. Did you ever see someone try to unscrew a screw without a screwdriver? Now that’s a depressing sight! You need the right tools to be able to do things. In the latter part of the 20th century we came to realize that not being able to cope with things like anxiety and depression was a result of just not having the right tools. Some people pick up these tools in their families growing up. Those of us who don’t are too often defenseless in the face of anxiety and other psychological problems.
3. Lack of community. Suppose you find yourself with a problem with which you feel very odd and lonely. No one—you think—is struggling with what you’re struggling with, or is struggling so badly. Well, I guarantee you’re not alone. There are 330 million people in the United States. Whatever you’re going through, others are going through. Many, many decades ago, gay men and lesbians grew up feeling they were utterly alone. Now they hold parades and know they belong to a wide community throughout our country. More recently people who felt as though they had somehow ended up in the “wrong” body felt insane. Now there is a whole transgender movement telling people that such feelings are not only common but they’re okay and we can do something about them.
So there is very good news here!
The fact that you are at a high level of some problem or other not only doesn’t mean you’re not normal. It doesn’t even mean there’s anything wrong with you. It usually just means you’re facing difficult circumstances with inadequate tools or that you haven’t found your community yet. THAT’S IT!!
So please, I beg you. Do not let fear of discovering you’re not normal get in the way of your getting the tools you need to cope much, much better with your life.
The artwork here, except for the cover image, is all self-portraits by artists. Renoir, 1910; Degas, 1895; Alice Neel, 1980; Frida Kahlo, 1951; Chagall, 1913; Basquiat, 1982. The cover image is Zandomeneghi's A Letto, 1878.