Apr 16

What Is Normal? Am I Normal? Are You Normal?

When it comes to the field of mental health, what is normal? And should we care?

Albert Camus once said, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” Trying too hard to be normal can be exhausting, in other words.

Most of us, though, do routinely wonder—in a non-energy-draining kind of way—if something we did or said or embody is normal. Am I normal? Is this normal? Is that normal? It seems it’s actually normal to wonder what’s normal.

So, if you’re someone who prefers some semblance of “normal”…what is normal, anyway? Some proposed definitions:

“Normal” as a phrase is a subjective opinion – it might be “normal” for one person to put their socks on before putting on their pants, but another person might view that as completely strange behavior; ultimately, neither person is wrong in their method but rather just different (Sage Neuroscience Center).

In psychology and psychiatry, it really means average or typical, but we too easily think of it as a synonym for how everyone is supposed to think and feel (Jim Kozubek, Scientific American).

The term “normality” describes actions that are common or expected in a group of people. It is the condition of falling within the range of what is normal or expected. Being adaptable, practical, and socially acceptable are characteristics of normal behaviour. It is behaviour that enables people to successfully interact with their surroundings and meet their daily needs (Mind.Plus).

On the other hand, these selected quotes indicate possible problems with the concept:

It is past time that we rethink what we mean by the words “normal” and “abnormal”…Indeed, it is a real question as to whether those words can be sensibly used at all, given their tremendous baggage and built-in biases and the general confusion they create” (Eric R. Maisel, PhD, Psychology Today)

There’s no such thing as normal. There is no definition of normal. Normal is subjective. You can’t—and shouldn’t—force yourself to want something ‘normal’ and stop wanting what you truly want. It’s a sure way to make your life miserable Alessandra Hazard, Straight Boy).

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be (Maya Angelou).

Well, what about being normal in relationship to others? The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship (2013) uses the “normal” word twice in its title alone. I think it’s normal to speculate, therefore, that highly educated authors Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte represent those who care quite a bit about this concept. If you too are in this category, you might want to check out their book. (I haven’t.)

Is it obvious yet that I lean in the direction taken by Holly Parker, PhD, Psychology Today, who lists five reasons to be careful about assessing normality?

  1. It might not always be so healthy to be “normal” by the group’s standards.
  2. “Normal” can be a moving, biased target.
  3. What you might think of as abnormal is actually quite typical.
  4. Abnormal can be wonderful.
  5. Trying too hard to be “normal” can get in the way of living your life.

Me, I often prefer “common.” As in In my professional opinion, that thing you do or feel or think is pretty common.

Or the concept of “health.” Such and such behavior is healthy, such and such not so much.

And I think my point of view is pretty normal, actually. 😉

Apr 02

“Sociopath: A Memoir” by Psychologist Patric Gagne

Patric Gagne, PhD, author of the new Sociopath: A Memoir had her suspicions about herself confirmed when she was in college. From the publisher: “She was told there was no treatment, no hope for a normal life. She found herself haunted by sociopaths in pop culture, madmen and evil villains who are considered monsters. Her future looked grim.”

However, with the aid of various types of therapy, Gagne did adjust. The approximately five percent of the population who also have sociopathic traits may feel heartened to hear this.

The genre of Sociopath: A Memoir is similar to the also-female-written Confessions of a Sociopath, addressed in this previous post. But, unlike that book’s author, this one not only fully outs herself by name but also is a trained clinical psychologist.

According to David Marchese, New York Times, Gagne had demonstrated “remorselessness, criminality and lack of empathy” before dealing with her eventual diagnosis and treatment. “The desire to destigmatize her experience and also to help others who may share it (Gagne previously worked as a therapist to those with the disorder and has also written about sociopathy) put Gagne on a path that led to ‘Sociopath.’

Her bio states the following about her current mission: “Today I am working to expand the definition of sociopathy to include its status as a spectrum disorder. Sociopaths are not inherently evil people. We suffer from what I believe to be an emotional learning disorder, one which is both relatable and treatable.”

Selected quotes from her interview with Marchese:

Sociopathy is a perilous mental disorder; the traits associated with sociopathy aren’t great. But that only tells part of the story. The part that’s missing is you can be a sociopath and have a healthy relationship. You can be a sociopath and be educated. That’s a very uncomfortable reality for some people. People want to believe that all sociopaths are monsters and that all monsters are easy to spot…

The way I experience love seems to be very different from the so-called neurotypical experience. My experience of love seems less emotional. If I had to explain what love feels like to me, I would say symbiotic. So, a relationship that’s beneficial to both people involved. Not transactional, not possessive, not ego-driven. Mutual homeostasis. It’s not that I’m unable to access emotions or empathy. It’s that my experience of those emotions is different….

My gift to my therapy patients was that I was able to lend them sociopathy: Why do you care? What does it matter? What do you need from that? That, I felt, helped them achieve things that maybe a nonsociopathic therapist couldn’t have offered.

Listen, everyone has a front-facing persona. Most people use that persona as a preference: a desire to be liked, a fear of judgment, wanting somebody to be friends with them. But sociopaths use it out of necessity, and that’s a really important distinction….

I like that I don’t have guilt because I’m making my decisions based on logic, based on truth, as opposed to ought or should. Now, there is a flip side. I don’t have those natural emotional connections to other people, but I’ve never had those. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Just because I love differently doesn’t mean my love doesn’t count.

Mar 27

Stoicism: “Reasons Not to Worry” and Other Books

If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, or even depression, you might find some relief in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Wait: It’s probably not what you think, if you think of stoics as people who hide their emotions. Susan K. Perry, PhD, Psychology Today

In Reasons Not to Worry: How to be Stoic in Chaotic Times (2023), Australian author Brigid Delaney details the results of her attempts to live Stoically.

Sample quote: “The Stoics also articulated the mood that we should aspire to as our default setting—ataraxia (literally, ‘without disturbance’)—a carefully calibrated state of tranquillity that is not happiness, or joy, or any of the ecstatic states found in religious or mystical experiences, or in the more modern highs of falling in love or taking cocaine. Instead, ataraxia is a state of contentment or peace where the world can be falling in around your ears, but your equilibrium is undisturbed.”

Her article in The Guardian lists “10 tools of ancient philosophy that improved my life.” These are presented below with excerpts.

1. Work out what’s in your control–“Essentially, our field of control consists of our own actions and reactions, our desires, our character and how we treat others. The rest – including our bodies, the actions of others, our reputation and our fortunes (personal and financial) – are out of our control.”

2. You don’t need to judge everything–“If we treat most events in a neutral way we are less likely to get upset by things that happen.”

3. Money, health and reputation are out of your control–“…(I)t’s better to practise indifference to what you have in the first place.”

4. Practise the conditions that you fear–“Often it’s not as bad as we fear – and we are stronger than we think.”

5. Practise imagining death–“The Stoics believed you should grieve your loved ones while they are still living. In fact, they advised you to think of their death frequently while they are still alive in order to prepare…The same goes for our own death…”

6. Don’t worry about others’ reactions–“You can try to persuade or influence them, but ultimately their actions and reactions are up to them.”

7. Moderation is a virtue–“A Stoic would treat alcohol, particularly expensive wine, with indifference. She would be aware that addiction is dangerous because it impairs reason. She would also be aware that banging on about abstaining is boring.”

8. Give without expecting a return–“It’s better to give freely, without conditions or caveats, and without expecting anything in return. That way I won’t be disappointed if a favour is never repaid.”

9. Say no to Fomo–“Say you didn’t get tickets to a sold-out festival; think about what you have gained instead. Perhaps you will have another experience that weekend – certainly you’ll have an extra $200 to play with.”

10. Try to relax–“’Never let the future disturb you,’ wrote Aurelius. ‘You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present’.”

Several other relatively contemporary books advocate elements of Stoicism. For instance, in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2008), William B. Irvine states, “Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease.” He means such emotions as anxiety, grief, fear, and whatever else impedes your ability to enjoy life.

From Jules Evans‘s Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems (2013) is this Stoicism exercise, the View From Above: “…If you’re feeling stressed by some niggling annoyances, project your imagination into space and imagine the vastness of the universe. From that cosmic perspective, the annoyance doesn’t seem that important anymore—you’ve made a molehill out of a mountain.”

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016) by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman features insights and exercises for every day of the year and emphasizes three basic “spiritual exercises” used by the Stoics:

  1. Practice misfortune.
  2. Train perception to avoid good and bad.
  3. Remember—it’s all ephemeral.
Mar 20

Mark Twain Prize: Humorists and Mental Health

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has been awarded annually since 1998 to individuals who’ve made us laugh. First was Richard Pryor, followed in chronological order by Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin, Neil Simon, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Ellen DeGeneres, Carol Burnett, Jay Leno, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, David Letterman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart, and Adam Sandler. On March 24th Kevin Hart will be the proud recipient.

Now, please indulge me as I make the Mark Twain Prize pertinent to Minding Therapy….

EllenDeGeneres, David Letterman, and Neil Simon (1927-2018) have had depression. Jon Stewart has referenced depression, though I don’t know if this was a clinical or looser definition he had in mind.

Both Will Ferrell and Tina Fey have struggled with shyness. Really.

Steve Martin on his history of panic attacks: “(F)or those who have them or had them – I don’t get them anymore, thank God – but it’s a terrifying experience of disassociation from your own self, and it’s a morbid sense of doom and you feel like you’re dying.”

Whoopi Goldberg famously feared flying, apparently because of witnessing a mid-air collision many years ago. It’s been reported that she’s overcome this with the use of a technique called Thought Field Therapy, or TFT.

Jonathan Winters (1925-2013) admitted to having bipolar disorder.

Richard Pryor‘s (1940-2005) substance abuse issues were well known.

As forever-producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels has overseen the work of many comedians in trouble with alcohol, drugs, and various mental health issues.

Carol Burnett had alcoholic parents; at least two of her daughters battled serious substance abuse.

The decidedly unfunny real-life predation of Bill Cosby, sexual assaulter, was determined by a psychologist representing a Sexual Offenders Assessment Board to be linked to a personality disorder—but this does not excuse his behavior.

Several of the Mark Twain Prize humorists are known for their portrayals of shrinks or their potential or actual clients:

Bob Newhart not only played Dr. Bob Hartley on popular sitcom The Bob Newhart Show in the 70’s, but a MADtv skit featuring his character’s special brand of brief therapy is probably the most-watched video on this site.

Billy Crystal is the reluctant psychiatrist-to-the-Mob-boss in the movies Analyze This and Analyze That.

Lily Tomlin as Trudy the Bag Lady in Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.” On TV’s Web Therapy, Tomlin played the mom of shrink Fiona Wallice (Lisa Kudrow), who admits her to a mental hospital.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus played a therapist in an episode of Web Therapy.

In the film Reign Over Me (2007), Adam Sandler plays Charlie, who suffers from PTSD and severe grief following the deaths of his family members on 9/11.

Bill Murray was the unstable client in What About Bob?

On her sitcom Ellen, DeGeneres addressed her coming out process with the help of a therapist.

Tina Fey portrayed an alcoholic therapist in the series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

It’s very likely I’ve missed some things. Any readers have anything to add?

Mar 11

Rape Culture: Five Authors Clarify Its Nature

Despite being found to have sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll, ex-President Donald Trump alarmingly continues to have support from too large a group of prospective voters as well as many elected Republicans. What follows are several books that help clarify the nature of rape culture in this country and elsewhere.

I. Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do About It (2015) by Kate Harding

From the book: “Rape culture manifests in a myriad ways…but its most devilish trick is to make the average, noncriminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime. Rape culture encourages us to scrutinize victims’ stories for any evidence that they brought the violence onto themselves – and always to imagine ourselves in the terrifying role of Good Man, Falsely Accused, before we ‘rush to judgment’.”

II. On Being Raped (2016) by Raymond M. Douglas

From the author: “When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know.”

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) states that “1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.” In addition, 17% of sexual assault victims at our colleges are male undergraduates.

Douglas states, “I searched for something in print that would confirm to me that I wasn’t the only man to whom this had ever happened. I didn’t find it. To the contrary, the academic and clinical literature I found stated with great assurance that the rape of men was virtually unknown outside of prison or, if it occurred, was confined to people who hitchhiked or swam alone on remote beaches.”

III. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (2018) by Roxane Gay

“According to Roxane Gay, editor of the essay collection Not That Bad, the term refers to ‘a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence'” (Nina Power, The Guardian).

Seija Rankin, ew.com: “[Gay] noted that when she thought about what had caused her to minimize her own experiences with sexual violence, she realized that she — and many of the women she knows — had often been told: ‘It’s not that bad’.”

IV. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (2018) by Sohaila Abdulali

Publishers Weekly

A former coordinator of a rape crisis center, she uses her own brutal rape as a touchstone and springboard for this series of extended reflections on the discourse surrounding rape, with stories from Australia, Egypt, India, Italy, South Africa, and the U.S….She approaches debates about consent, responsibility, motive, honor, and prevention with deep compassion, humor, a healthy dose of irony, and anger. Though Abdulali doesn’t claim to have answers, the book’s assertions are clear: victims deserve belief, support, and a fair hearing; rapists, not their targets, are responsible for rape; and survivors can go on to live full and joyful lives. Her clear-eyed assessments, grace, and literary touches will make this book valuable reading for sociologists, therapists, feminists, and anyone who believes women should be able to move through the world free from fear.

V. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (2019) by Jeannie Vanasco

English professor Vanasco was sexually assaulted at the age of 19 by a friend whom she calls “Mark” in this memoir (an apt play on the word boundary).

Ilana Masad, NPR: “The title…doesn’t refer only to what Vanasco didn’t talk about with Mark, either before or after the rape; it refers also to all the ways in which girls are taught to be silent about experiences that make them uncomfortable, all the ways in which women find realms in which to unlearn those patterns of silence in order to bolster, comfort, and reassure one another.”