Am I normal?

Many clients are preoccupied with that question when first starting psychotherapy. Unfortunately, seeing a psychotherapist is not as natural as going to the doctor when having a cold or consulting a physical therapist to fight joint pains. For many people seeing a psychotherapist is a sign that something is wrong with them, that they are not “normal”.

Stigma and prejudice can make it difficult to go to psychotherapy, even when the degree of suffering is high. Psychotherapy, psychology and psychiatry have a dark past. However, these professions have changed fundamentally since the 1960ies. Yet, the public opinion does not always reflect that change in the professional image. Realistic depictions of psychotherapy only started showing up in the media about 15 years ago.

Human beings are social creatures. It is important for us to see ourselves as part of a community. If we don`t have a social network (family, partners, friends, co-workers, etc.), we can develop physical and psychological illnesses.

Our society has had some difficulties in integrating people with mental illnesses. We might feel as if adaption is a social necessity. People who do not consider themselves “normal” are often afraid of exclusion. So many people feel the need to appear “normal”, especially when they do not truly feel that way.

What is “normal”? There is no easy answer for this question. Is it normal to wear a long-sleeved sweater in the summer heat? Is it normal to dye one’s hair green? Is a lip piercing normal? There is a wide spectrum of different opinions just concerning these superficial things. It is even more difficult to depict a person’s behaviour or personality traits as normal.

My psychotherapeutic method, systemic family therapy, is based on the philosophical theory of constructivism. Simply put, constructivism considers our reality o be a product of our perception. Accordingly, every person has their own perception of reality. For instance, I perceive a certain song as nothing more than just a song. For someone else that very song can remind them of their wedding and hence evoke positive memories and emotions. Therefore, the same song can relate to different realities.

Our realities are also defined through social context. Regarding the wedding song, another person and I can agree on the language of the lyrics, the instruments used in the recording and its pace. We can probably also agree on the name of the band who recorded the song, which genre it belongs to, and so on. But the song still has different meanings for us.

There is social consent about many concepts: We can possibly agree on the fact that an animal with certain features is called a cat. We may also agree that the capital of Austria is Vienna. Still, if we think about cats or Vienna, everyone has a different image in their mind that is shaped by their personal experiences.

Things get even more complicated when talking about more abstract concepts like happiness, love, joy or hope. If we try to define these concepts, our words often fail us. They are not precise enough to describe what we want to get across. Still, each and everyone of us has an idea of these concepts. The same is valid for the concept of normality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined symptoms for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. If certain symptoms appear in a certain combination, they form a so called mental or behavioural disorder. For the diagnosis of mental disorders the patient has to be suffering. This is the reason why the question: “Am I normal?” is not helpful. Instead, it would be better to ask: “Is there something holding me back from reaching my goals and living a fulfilled life?”, “Do I want to change something about my mental well-being?” If your answer to any of these questions is :“Yes”, it would be advisable to consult a psychotherapist to find out if psychotherapy can help you.

I cannot judge if a person is “normal”. I do not even dare to define the term “normal”, because my answer would be highly subjective. I know what should not be considered to be normal: That people are ashamed to seek professional help for mental illnesses, when they are suffering, because they are afraid to be excluded from society!