What if, in our conceptualization of emotional and mental health, we moved to a common-sense definition of the word “normal” as “usual” or “understandable” or “a logical consequence of an array of causes”? What if we stopped using “abnormal” as a weapon against ourselves and as a moneymaker for vested interests? What if we got real about what it means to be born into a lifetime of struggle?
When you fall from a tree and break your arm we say that you injured your arm. We do not call you abnormal. Can’t we be that simple, sensible and real with regard to sadness, psychological pain, overwhelm, anxiety, inner turmoil, and the other commonly occurring and understandable psychological events that members of our species face? Can’t we stop calling them “symptoms of disease” and calling ourselves “abnormal” for experiencing them?
Isn’t it time that we stopped being held sway by those mesmerizing forces that want us to avoid looking the reality of our human condition in the eye? If we could do that, if we could adopt a “new normal” that let quintessential human experiences into our definition of normal, we could begin to create a way of speaking and practical strategies, tactics and plans that returned the tasks of living to those embroiled in living.
“Normal” would now include pain, difficulty, and especially struggle. We would possess a “new normal” that caught up with our understanding of who we are and how we got here. If you believe that our species has evolved and was not created out of whole cloth, you should likewise realize that normal mental health aligns much more with the idea of struggle than with tranquility. We have evolved as a creature with roiling insides. To leave all that roiling, all that turmoil, all that sadness and pain out of our definition of normal mental health is to make a fundamental and egregious error.
For the past sixty years, since the arrival of the first psychiatric diagnostic manual, we have moved ever more steadily toward a completely false definition of “normal.” We are long past due for a new normal.
Why does a child sit as his desk as his teacher lectures? He sits there with his hands folded because he is coerced and socialized, not because he has any desire to be there. What is normal for him, what his being wants is to have him leap up and run off to play! What is just as normal for him as sitting there stiffly, more normal really, is his squirming, making faces, and expressing his outrage at being forced to learn a list of Roman Emperors or the Spanish Missions of California. He is struggling to sit there, not happy to sit there. If we do not honor that struggle as a feature of normal mental health we make a mockery out of the word normal.
A person may write one novel after another because she has ideas for novels, loves novels, and experiences writing novels as a place of meaning. At the same time, no one may publish her novels or, if she decides to publish them, buy them or read them. This is a completely normal outcome in the world of creativity and the world of competition, a typical struggle, and likely to produce great frustration, inner turmoil and sadness. In what universe can it be abnormal to experience frustration, inner turmoil and sadness at having none of your creations interest other people?
Only in a universe of artificial ought’s is one supposed to smile even as one is kicked in the stomach. In the real world of evolution, where struggle means genuine struggle, it is completely normal to be driven half-mad by such unhappy outcomes.
It is a bad joke to tell a person that it is abnormal to mourn the loss of her son since he died so long ago, abnormal to feel tremendously squeamish flying through a hurricane, abnormal to rage against her rapist to the point of hating the universe itself, abnormal to cry out in disgust after watching another episode of her favorite sitcom, abnormal to eat every brownie in civilization when her appetite rages inside her, abnormal to careen from one mood to another mood as life’s meaningfulness inexplicably comes and goes, or abnormal to feel the weight of her mortality and the terror of seconds ticking. None of this is abnormal!
What is “normal” supposed to mean with respect to mental health? Here are some common dictionary definitions of mental health. “A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.” Really? Does that speak to you? Or: “A person’s overall emotional and psychological condition.” What does that mean? Or: “Mental health describes a level of psychological well-being or an absence of a mental disorder.” Charming! Can you feel the empty circularity there? And do remember to keep smiling!
Here is the definition of mental health from the World Health Organization: “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Have you ever heard a less psychological and more social definition of mental health than that?
Now we come to the whopper, the definition of a mental disorder as promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association: “A mental disorder is a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.” Have you ever read a more calculatedly empty string of words in your life?
Our current normal is of great use to psychiatrists, priests and politicians. True normal, by contrast, is an hour of peace, a minute of rage, fifteen minutes of frustration, a week of meaninglessness, a day of love, a year of confusion, an hour of awe, a real-life of helpless awareness coupled with acute distress coupled with effective and ineffective efforts at distress relief. That is true normal!
If a new normal could take hold a person would suddenly be able to say, “It is completely normal that I am in great psychological pain because of my miserable marriage, my dull, stressful job, and my abiding feeling that life is a cheat. This emotional pain is normal, given my life and my belief system. But it is not okay with me! Here is what I am going to do to minimize or maybe even eliminate this pain. I am getting a divorce. I am getting into a new line of work. I am changing my mind about life. I am going to do a lot! Because the pain, while normal, is not acceptable to me.”
With this new normal you could construct your emotional health your way. You could say, “Life is a struggle, pain is coming, and here are my intentions.” You could say, “Forget about some crazy notion of tranquility! Forget about tranquilizers. Here is my plan for meeting this great struggle.” We would begin to self-define emotional health in terms not of happiness but of our relationship to struggle.
Taking this deep evolutionary view, we would include a whole new world of experiences, the terrible and the poignant together, in our definition of normal. Finally, we would spend some real-time, the most real and valuable time we could possibly spend, painting a picture for ourselves of what constitutes bearable living.
We could begin to focus on distress reduction, pain relief, tactics for coping with struggle, and (since this is normal too) ways to invite in occasional happiness. You don’t tell an antelope, with this drug you will be cured of tigers. You shouldn’t tell a person, with this drug you will be cured of struggle. Rather you should say, struggle is the feature of nature. Our new normal would include this reality. With it we could paint a beautiful picture, beautiful because of its honesty, of our exquisite acceptance of the realities of human pain and struggle and the creation of wise tactics for dealing with that pain and struggle.
Previously Published on Psychology Today