It is probably one of the most common questions in the counselling room “Am I normal” or it’s close variation “Is what I do normal?” Perhaps it is no surprise when sex is thrown into the mix that many feel unable to even ask the question, instead inhabiting a toxic combination of shame, stigma and taboo.
I am always reminded of the milk jug story when people ask about normality. Imagine Sue, she is 9 and excited to be going over to her best friends for tea for the first time. As they sit down in the kitchen for the post school snack she notices that her friend’s mum instead of getting a milk bottle out of the fridge gets a small jug out. In a moment Sue not only discovers the existence of milk jugs, but, the more important truth, that every family does things differently. Her next thought is, which family is doing things right?
Normal is not a universal rule, or even set of rules, it is simply the values and behaviours we are familiar with. It can be a disconcerting moment when we discover other families do things differently, have their own normal. As we grow and encounter new people this can extend to things a lot more personal than milk jugs. How much sex is normal? Is it normal to fantasise about X or Y? Does wanting to do Z make me abnormal? These are all the types of questions which might come up in counselling, often being voiced for the first time.
A scene from the film The Matrix comes to mind. For those who have not seen it, the plot concerns the nature of reality, and how what we think is “normal” might in fact be far from the case. In one scene a young boy is apparently bending a spoon solely with the power of the mind. The hero comes to realise that it is not that the spoon bends, but that the spoon does not in fact exist.
As it is with spoons, so it is with normal. Trying to even find it can cause so much pain, damage self esteem and leave people wondering if they are wrong or broken. There are norms, and sometimes the process of being ourselves might involve working out how we accommodate societies norms to our desires. Nudism is a good example of this. Many people find a genuine spiritual, and psychological benefit from going naked. However our societal norms mean they have to find a way of doing so safely, and often in specific spaces. I am sure you can think of many other examples. Accommodation to norms is not about who is “more normal” but about those social conventions which we are expected to follow.
The answer to the question “Am I normal” is not, yes, or no, but what do you believe normal looks like, and does normal actually exist? Or to misquote The Matrix; The truth is there is no normal. That can be hard if people are looking for cures, or external validation of how they feel. However to be truly content with who, and how we are, we have to let go of the idea we can bend ourselves to be normal.