Am I Normal?
People ask me this question every day. Maybe not in those exact words, but that is what many people really want to know. Countless individuals and couples seek counseling because they worry that they or their loved ones are not “normal,” and hope I can help them fit in better.
Maybe they feel that they worry too much, or that they are too depressed. Maybe they worry that they gamble, smoke, use alcohol or other drugs, eat or use pornography too much; or that they don’t exercise, communicate, work or play often enough.
Parents sometimes compare their children with other children, or with their often idealized memories of themselves at the same age. Couples often want to know if they are doing things too often or not often enough. Individuals think they might spend too much time playing video games, watching internet videos or playing golf, or too little time exercising, playing, studying or working.
Though their goals might vary, it almost always comes down to worrying that we are not “normal.”
What is “normal?”
“Normal” always involves a comparison with the “average.” For example, the “average” American man is 69.2 inches tall, give or take 2.66 inches. That means that any adult male who is shorter than 66 inches or taller than 72 inches is “abnormal!”
The same can be done with any other measure, including weight, hair length, number of tattoos, steps taken, miles driven, etc. But… is that really useful? Should we care how we “stack up” with other people? Does that make us happier or healthier? I think not.
What do I want?
So, if “Am I normal” isn’t the right question, what is? I think the words of one of my patients sum it up nicely. “I want to be the best me I can be.” I find that most people want to maximize happiness – their own and their loved ones’ – while at the same time reducing distress and suffering.
How’s your sleep? Do you feel rested when you wake? Is your sleep interrupted? Do you sleep more or less than you want? Sleep can be a problem in and of itself, but poor sleep can cause difficulties with attention, concentration, moods, etc. Sleep problems can also be signs or symptoms of other physical or emotional disorders.
How’s your appetite? Do you eat more or less than you want? Do you find yourself regretting your dietary choices? As with sleep, problematic eating can be an issue itself or it can contribute to or be symptomatic of other disorders.
Are your relationships satisfying? This includes marital or dating relationships, as well as those with your children, parents and other relatives, friends and acquaintances, co-workers, bosses, etc. Do you feel that your relationships contribute to a better life for yourself? Do you worry that you spend too much time with people who are a “drag” on your happiness?
Are you happy? Most reasonable people do not expect to be happy all the time; but surely we have a right to be happy at least some of the time. Right? Do you believe that you have that right? If not, that can be a problem itself!
The great thing about these questions is that they are all things we can change! There are things we can do about these issues.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
There are almost as many approaches to therapy as there are therapists. Almost every approach can point to research that “proves” that it works. But most of the most effective approaches are forms of “cognitive behavior therapy” (CBT). This means that they focus on the two things we can actually change: our own thoughts and our own behaviors.
CBT can be helpful for people struggling with day-to-day stress, as well as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, schizophrenia, etc. CBT has also proven effective in the treatment of a variety of addictive or compulsive behaviors, including alcohol and other drugs, smoking, vaping, gambling, sex, pornography, gaming, social media use, etc.
People tend to like cognitive behavioral approaches because they are practical, focusing on the here and now rather than on the past. They are also quick and efficient, typically taking no more than 12 to 16 sessions.
Well known forms of cognitive behavior therapy include “Dialectical Behavior Therapy” (DBT), “Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy” (TF-CBT), “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT), “exposure therapy,” and most mindfulness-based approaches. Even “EMDR,” a well-known treatment for PTSD which involves bilateral stimulation of the brain is a form of cognitive behavior therapy.
How can I find the right therapist?
There is substantial evidence that 60% of the effectiveness of therapy is associated with the relationship between the counselor and the patient. While it is not necessary that you “like” the therapist, it is important that you “connect.” Shop around. Ask questions.
Does this person listen to me?
Do I feel respected?
Does this therapist “get” me?
Can I work with this person?
Do I believe this therapist can help me?