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What is normal anyway?


People who come to therapy often ask me if what they are doing or feeling is normal. I usually respond with a quintessential therapist response of "Do YOU think it is normal?"; inevitably raising anxiety, frustration, and the occasional eye roll.

Now, I don't mind these reactions (and, honestly, sometimes even welcome them) but, hear me out...I really don't know what is normal! Normal for ME may certainly not be normal for YOU. Furthermore, "normal" can depend on context, culture, and society. It is also based on our judgement, which is influenced by our identities, experiences and worldviews.

I recently browsed social media and came across an article that reported on the astronomical number of hypertension diagnoses in Black women. As a Black woman, I may be led to believe that it is "normal" for me to have high blood pressure, given my experiences of racial trauma, misogyny, and just the fact that it's hard out here for a Black woman (!!), but I cannot generalize my "normality" to others who differ in identity, genetics and health access. A 45min drive to DC is a normal commute for me...on a good day...but someone in another city or state may balk at that! Doing a winged eyeliner for a simple casual daytime eye look is totally normal for me, and I dare you to argue with that. Overall, I'm sure you get the point.

Rather than focusing on normality and it's subjective nature, I tend to acknowledge and emphasize the validity of a client's emotions and the longevity of their coping behaviors. Someone may feel they are too anxious (depressed, triggered, overwhelmed, scared, tired, etc.) to sit with their emotions and learn to manage the pain in new ways, and therefore, they decide to engage in risky behaviors as a way of coping. In my opinion, that makes total sense! We like to feel relief practically before we feel the pain! The downside is that these behaviors are not often ones that can be sustained over extended periods of time and, ultimately, it may be more beneficial to learn other ways of coping. What can be difficult about new coping strategies is that we have to learn and get used to them, and they may not elicit an instantaneous relief of pain. I tell clients that learning a new skill is like learning to write your signature with your non-dominant hand. It's going to feel weird, maybe even wrong, and uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But, the more you practice, the more natural it feels.

Anything can be "normal" if we say it is. I find it more appealing to examine my own behavior (and client behavior) and determine what is helpful and sustainable to my overall well-being. What do you think?

#normal #therapy #coping

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