I Just Want To Be Normal
“I just want to be normal.” In over three decades of counseling work, it is one of the most frequently shared statements I have heard by clients in my office. It is a statement that functions as more than an entrée to a recounting of the overwhelming problems and suffering that drive a person to seek professional help. It is also a disclosure revealing a person’s sense of alienation from the vast “normal folk” who supposedly have their lives together-enough that they don’t need to seek counseling for their problems. Frequently, just the act of seeking help leaves a client perceiving himself or herself as inferior in comparison to the “normal” folk who are “strong-enough” to “solve their own problems.” I put these terms in quotes because they represent commonly held myths about mental health and the question of seeking professional help.
Perception vs. Reality
These are tragic perceptions that often lead persons to refrain from seeking help in the first place. Why are they tragic? Because so many normal people become clinically depressed, or overcome by so much anxiety, they lose their jobs. So many normal people watch their marriages fall apart and their children repeat the same mistakes that have made their own lives so miserable. So many normal people come to stages, or events, or tragedies in their lives where they “self-medicate” the pain by drowning themselves and their loved ones in addictive substances. The suffering of so many normal people leads to catastrophic physical illness or suicide. “But these are not normal people,” you may object.
To this, I would reply, “Look around you and tell me what’s normal.”
It’s my most common response to the statement, “I just want to be normal.” I invite clients to look around at people the next time they are standing in the check-out line. “How many friendly smiles and beaming countenances do you see around you? How many of the expressions you see would you like to wear? What you see is normal. Do you really want to be normal? Just normal?”
At some point in the session, I reassure the client that she or he most assuredly is not normal, because most normal people do not have the courage to seek counseling. Many normal people erroneously believe it is “weakness” to seek help, because they subscribe to the myth that to do so would mean they are not one of the “strong” people who can handle everything themselves. Rather than admit to having problems like the rest of us – problems that will at times overwhelm us – they would rather fake an image of keeping things together while their lives secretly fall apart. The good news is that lives tend to begin falling apart secretly – in private. The bad news is that the unraveling life eventually becomes public, beginning by influencing those who are close to us and moving outwards. The confidentiality offered in the counseling and psychotherapy setting is designed to offer containment and support when a life begins to fall apart. Ideally, it offers a place to go before a life begins to become unraveled. But it takes courage to seek help, and courage at that level is not so normal in society.
Courage - Overcoming Normal
Courage is our most mature response to fear. We experience fear when we perceive threat, whether it be threat to our lives, to our sense of who we are, or to the lives of others who matter to us. Sometimes the fear is a normal response to perceived threat of change, because we want to keep things as they are. Few of us respond maturely to fear. The most immature response to fear is to deny it, ignore it, or thoughtlessly react to it. First, maturity requires that we acknowledge and accept our fear, then have enough wisdom to see things as they are and the presence of mind to consider the options. Finally, we must act after accurately perceiving our most appropriate response to that threat, in terms of what Life calls us to do. Invariably, our response to any kind of threat requires our willingness to sacrifice – whether it be a readiness to sacrifice our opinion for the sake of better understanding, or our lives for the sake of our loved ones. Ask any hero. There is no courage without fear and no sacrifice without courage. Since sacrifice requires courage, courage is our most mature response to fear. How does this relate to the need to be normal and the courage to get help?
Among the many kinds of courage, the courage to sacrifice what we are – for what we can become – ranks second only to the courage to lay down our lives for the lives of others. Seeking professional help when our lives are challenged, overwhelmed, or unraveling is an expression of that kind of courage. It is the courage of looking into and changing ourselves instead of attempting to change others to suit our desires. Unfortunately, that’s not so normal. Resistance to the demands of change, growth and the development of maturity in our lives is quite normal.
Breaking the Pattern
So many of us would rather keep our dysfunctional habits and our ways of seeing things than put ourselves in circumstances that would require us to change and learn new ways of being. For many of us, our lives are like being caught in a bramble patch. If we hold still and keep things the way they are, maybe the suffering will stop – don’t move and the thorns won’t stick you. The problem is, eventually we will have to move or die there. The question is, how do we get out of the bramble patch and what can we learn so we don’t get caught in it again?
The quickest way to end suffering is to learn and do what we must do to recover, rather than endlessly repeating the same behaviors that keep us stuck in the same situations. The quickest way out of the bramble patch is straight through, which means facing the thorns.
So, the act of seeking positive change in ourselves, in terms of facing what’s not working and what we must do to heal, recover and grow – for the sake of others, as well as ourselves – is not all that normal. Probably the most common inside joke in my line of work is that it’s the healthiest people who seek counseling. (I am not talking about folks who are sent by edict and court order; I am talking about those who make the choice themselves.) It is a sad irony that many earlier psychology studies erroneously identified women as being more prone to a number of types of mental illness, when what we now know is that women all along have been the most courageous in being willing to seek help! Besides, unless you use your insurance or HMO to finance psychotherapy, a formal mental illness diagnosis is not required to receive help and confidentiality can be assured.
Now that we have covered the importance of sacrificing the attributes of false pride and fear as a cost of overcoming “normal,” let’s discuss the sacrifice of ignorance, impatience and finances for the sake of our healing, recovery and growth.
Relationships - The 4th "R"
We should never be shamed, nor blamed, for our ignorance – though we must acknowledge that it has to go, and take responsibility for what we need to learn. We live in a materialistic culture, where the non-tangible things of emotions, thought and spirit take a lower priority, except in terms of how they serve the material interests of society. Consequently, we are typically not well-educated in the more refined aspects of life that give it its true quality. We say that we go to school “to study the three R’s.” What our culture does not tell us is that there is a “fourth R” that is really more important than the first three R’s put together. That “R” is Relationships. Even though the subject has been refined to the level of a science, it is not taught to us in school at any level – unless we undertake graduate-level study in psychology, counseling, social work, or to some degree in areas like human relations, law and marketing. Everybody else has to approach relationships taking their “best guess” based upon how their parents did it – and we know how well that works!
What an irony! Generation by generation, we grow in our technologies – including that of warfare – yet we essentially stay stuck because we don’t teach our children the science of relationships and the nonviolent negotiation of conflict.
Life Beyond Blame
What I am trying to say is that, contrary to the blame-and-quick-fix approaches of Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura, real therapy doesn’t work that way. Getting real help requires a non-blame atmosphere. Not only must folks be honored for their courage to seek help and change. Compassion is especially required where dysfunctional behaviors are expressed with good intentions, because they weren’t taught a better way. Willingness to sacrifice our ignorance is not especially normal, but it is necessary. The only shame in ignorance is the willfulness to keep a closed mind.
Because we are an impatient society, where time is equated with money rather than quality of life, we tend to want quick fixes. We have all heard the expression, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Even though some of the new brief therapy approaches can work some wonders in some cases, it is no small challenge to turn around a lifetime of learning and conditioning in a few sessions. While psychoactive medication, where indicated, can enhance the counseling process, the HMO-driven trend of emphasizing solely medication-based treatment of mental health problems is deplorable. Masking the suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The former is quick; the latter requires an investment of time and care involving the sacrifice of impatience as an approach to life. This is not just about courage to go beyond normal in seeking professional help. It’s about seeking lifestyle changes that go against the dysfunctional grain of our culture. It may mean sacrificing a job for the sake of maintaining quality relationships in the family. Today, that’s just not normal. Who agrees that relationships are more important than finances? Who has the courage to act on their realization?
Life Beyond Normal
When it comes to spending, we in our culture prefer to acquire the things we desire. While more and more of us can pay little more than the monthly bills, we need only look around to see our collective material wealth. We want what we perceive we need and we want what’s fun. Personal growth – learning the things we need to learn about life and relationships – is not necessarily fun. We spend our money on what we value. There are folks who will readily spend the money to fix their car’s transmission, yet not be willing to spend the same amount for counseling to save their marriage. (Ironically, they pay more in the long run to the divorce lawyers.) Sacrifice of having more material things for the sake of paying for intangibles like life skills, finding meaning and direction in life, and saving relationships, is also not particularly normal.
It all comes down to the button-slogan on one of my hats: “Why be normal?” We have established the fact that those who come for counseling because they “want to be normal” have already exceeded their goal. They are beyond normal. They are taking steps toward authenticity and healthy functioning well beyond the suffering required to end the suffering. They are willing to make sacrifices of what they are for what they can become, including offering resources of their precious time, finances, and their emotional, mental and spiritual stamina to meet their goals. Regardless of the degree of their suffering, they are well beyond normal and I feel most honored to be in their company.
Granville Angell (copyright 01/2006)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-735-1554 or 704-276-1164.
To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164