Am I normal?
This is a question I often hear in psychotherapy sessions, sometimes many times in a week. This wondering about our ordinariness or otherwise is a very human pre-occupation. We are social animals, we tend to want to belong, to be accepted, and to be part of a group.
Google a definition of ordinary and what appears is 'conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.'
The question is, when you yearn to be normal, who's standard do you want to conform to? Do you want to do or be what is expected? If so, expected by whom? Do you want to be predictable, usual, typical? Again, by who's definition?
Society provides a real pressure to conform. People can feel bombarded with images of what is apparently normal, and ingest a diet of social media posts of perfect lives and happy existences. There seems to be an intensity to the need to keep up, to airbrush, to continually smile, to be 'normal.' It seems to me that this pressure is not contributing to health and well-being, but rather that it is contributing to stress, anxiety and a range of other mental health symptoms.
Whatever the pressure we may feel to be otherwise, the one thing I can definitively say is that neither I, nor my clients are normal. People are not usual or typical, and I really do not know what to expect of them, or oftentimes what to expect of myself truth be known.
Our human experience is a diverse and varied one. We are each visited by a wide range of emotions, sensations and thoughts, and we have many, many options as to how we act and how we interpret our experiences.
Every psychotherapy client is utterly unique, because as people we are all different. Yes, of course we may share some aspects of their symptoms, and yes, there can be patterns of experience that are recognisable. And yet, one person's depression is not another person's depression, their history, current life conditions, hopes and dreams all differ. This rich diversity makes the job of a psychotherapist a daily voyage of discovery in which it is important to be mindful that we really do not know yet. When we begin to assume, the spontaneity and vibrance of the therapeutic encounter is lost.
A client can reasonably expect their therapist to suspend all their prior assumptions and judgements and to come alongside them whatever they may be experiencing, to meet them where and how they are. From here, both client and therapist can begin to appreciate what is special and resourceful about the client, and the client can heal and develop wholeness where this is missing. This provokes a deep knowing of being OK, just as we are, regardless of what others may perceive to be ‘normal.’
While re-reading Bill O’Hanlan and Bob Bertolino’s beautiful book Even from a Broken Web recently, I was reminded of Stephen Gilligan's working assumption that we are each 'an incurable deviant.' Stephen’s therapeutic approach, Self-Relations, is about finding connection to our deep, enduring wisdom, to all aspects of ourselves, and then relating to the ebb and flow of life from this generative place. Stephen invites us to know that we are each ourselves, nothing more and nothing less. We will find no-one else the same, we could not possibly, hence our ‘deviance’. When Steve speaks of this he does so with a playful twinkle in his eye, inviting you to tap into your own resourcefulness and become familiar with your own rhythms and ways of being, without fear or judgement. His invitation is one of self-discovery and making room for what is unique about ourselves, and it is a powerful one. Psychotherapy is a place where this exploration can take place. Within the deeply accepting and nurturing presence of a therapist clients can begin to discover aspects of themselves that were previously beyond their awareness, squished, minimised or even disowned.
In the closing chapter of Bill and Bob’s book, they suggest that you 'double your weirdness.' Arising from a playful anecdote and aimed at therapists in this context, this suggestion is nonetheless profound and more broadly applicable. When we are unashamedly ourselves, congruent in our presence in a room, and utterly focused on the person we are with, magical things can happen. We gift others the space to double their weirdness too, to be as they wish to be, to allow their spirit and intention to shine. The path to a peaceful heart does not consist of learning to be more usual, more normal, more conformist. It lies in finding peace both with your beauty and with your ugliness. Until we find ways to accept ourselves, it is hard to grow and heal.
So, are you normal? No. And hurray for that. You are an incurable deviant, so go forth and double your weirdness!