THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BEING NORMAL
By Sharan Ramkorun
Normal. It’s a noun we all use in our everyday lives, and yet when we are asked to define it we are more-often-than-not, resoundingly stupefied (I’m sure even Professor Dumbledore would have a difficult time describing the term). Even those of us who aptly point out the esteemed source, the Oxford Dictionary, are left wanting for more. This is because there are, in fact, two definitions provided by the Oxford dictionary, one of ‘conforming to a standard; usual, typical or expected’ and the other ‘(of a person) free from physical or mental disorders’. However, what do these really mean? And of course, from a psychological perspective, the greatest authority here goes to the definition provided by the DSM-5.
The DSM-5 itself, however, acknowledges the struggle in defining the term ‘normal’, and instead very reasonably establishes what they deem as ‘abnormal’ which ‘is generally defined as behaviour that violates a norm in society, is maladaptive, is rare given the context of the culture and environment and is causing the person distress in their daily life’. This clinical definition of essentially what is the opposite of ‘normal’, as well as the Oxford definitions, shed some much-needed light in the quest to define a normal psyche but also raises questions. What is certainly common in the definitions is the emphasis on conformity, and indeed this is noted probably most importantly in the DSM-5 which comments on the ‘maladaptive’. In essence, what is implied is that ‘normal’ is ‘good’, and ‘abnormal’ or ‘the lack of conforming’ is ‘bad’.
This is why I think reconsidering what we deem to be ‘normal’, is imperative in our modern society. The celebration of World Mental Health Day this month reminded us all that whether or not we have a clinically diagnosed disorder, and have had so for many years or whether we have never experienced things such as panic attacks, that we all have a ‘mental health’. Thus, the idea that is implied that conformity is 'good' almost seems nonsensical considering the way that our world today has been shaped but those who defied the grain in society; Steve Jobs is an excellent example. And so surely a tendency to conform towards society cannot be the main indicator of a 'normal' or 'typical' (as the Oxford Dictionary implies) psyche? Or indeed is it?
In that case, Steve Jobs must be 'abnormal'. He himself was suspected of having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This would fulfil the criterion of the DSM-5 and simultaneously render him 'atypical' dissatisfying the 'normal' definitions from the Oxford dictionary. Yet again the theme of conformity pops up. The disorder has often been associated with similar individuals to Jobs who have bullied their way through for the sake of the end result. In fact, numerous articles and sources mention of Jobs' 'abandonment' in his childhood as a possible reason for his later behaviour and indeed psychologists have proven the ‘internalisation’ that can occur from traumatic events or social stereotypes; a notable example is the Clark 'dolls' Experiment in the 1940’s on African American children and racism, using plastic dolls to represent this.
The debate on what is truly defined by 'normal' in psychology at least will continue to be debated for probably eons to come however the theme of conformity is a central, common idea that seems to define a human psyche as typical or average. The greatest debate, therefore, surrounds the idea that in society perhaps subconsciously, normal is 'good' and abnormal 'bad'. Frankly, the notion that we all incline towards conforming in some manner may personally repulse me in my striving to be unique, however, this definition extends to even the greatest of innovators like Jobs, who found his bullish behaviour typical of his position. Thus, in all the ambiguity that still remains perhaps we are searching for a definition that the birth of each new individual defies.