Leave it to Beaver vs. Shameless:

What is normal and how do I get there?

what is normal

Guest post by Dr. Jennifer Paweleck-Bellingrodt

One of the most common questions I'm asked as a psychologist is if this or that experience, thought, feeling, or situation is "normal." The bottom line is this:

​Normal is what you know.

My normal and your normal will differ, just as each of us is different and so are our upbringings and life experiences. Normal is very subjective, so there are about as many different definitions as there are people to state them.

I’ve heard countless stories of adults who grew up in horrifying situations that they thought were normal until they hung out at a friend’s house. True, they were just seeing a friend’s “normal,” but they knew it was different, better and somehow seemed more typical.

I’ll use examples to clarify my point. So, my sister and I like to trade Netflix shows, and she currently has me binge watching Shameless, a train wreck of a show. (You see what’s coming, but you can’t NOT watch. Another term for this is “morbid curiosity,” of which I have plenty. Call it an occupational hazard.)

Compare this to the idyllic show Leave it to Beaver.

If you were brought up in a house a la Leave it to Beaver, you have a wise father who works in a suit and tie and a near-flawless mother who is a domestic engineer in heels and pearls.

If you were brought up in a house a la Shameless, you have a drug-abusing, bisexual mother with severe, untreated bipolar disorder who is in and out of your life and an incredibly narcissistic, alcoholic father who has stolen thousands of dollars from you and your siblings and is into all measure of lying, cheating and stealing, including telling your younger sibling that he’s dying of cancer in an attempt to make a buck.

Those are extremes, of course, and most upbringings fall somewhere in the middle. Yet there are those who see “normal” as something reminiscent of one of these extremes.

For years now, I’ve tried to refrain from using the word “normal” (or at least ensure that I use air quotes with it) because of its subjectivity.

Instead, I invite people to look at behaviors as healthy vs. unhealthy, regardless of how “normal” it may seem to them. I also use words like “typical” or “atypical.” I’ve even been known to use “understandable,” “expected” or “predictable,” even “abnormal” on occasion.

For instance, it may seem entirely abnormal for someone to have an abusive childhood and continue to find herself in abusive, tumultuous or dramatic relationships as an adult. Why would she want to perpetuate the drama, right?

The answers warrant a discussion of their own, but suffice it to say this: Because that’s her “normal,” that’s what she knows. It’s her comfort zone—or discomfort zone, as the case may be. In fact, I would say that such a pattern is “not atypical,” which means not infrequent but not the rule either.

That is, I wouldn’t say it’s “normal” because there are plenty of women with this history who are not in abusive relationships and some who, in fact, absolutely refuse to be and look for the polar opposite (which isn’t necessarily healthy either, by the way). Yet there are plenty who find themselves in these repetitive patterns, so I wouldn’t classify it as “abnormal” either.

Another example is chronic pain. For those with this ailment, a certain level of pain is part of their daily life. It’s often insidious, and they’ve become accustomed to a far greater level of pain than even they may realize.

If those of us without chronic pain took that level of pain and put it all on ourselves at once, it would bring us to our knees at a minimum. A “5” on the pain scale for them could be a “10” for us. Thus, intense pain is “normal” for them but completely “abnormal” for us. You get the picture. Maybe it’s nuance, maybe it’s syntax. I don’t know, but I know they’re different.

So, how do we move from a chronically unhealthy state to a healthy one? The short answer is this: Therapy. These longstanding patterns are often difficult to break, and it’s helpful to have a guide in the process.

What can you do to discern whether you should seek some sort of help or at least start making changes in your life? Ask yourself one question:

“If I were on the outside looking in on my life, what would I see?”

Another way to put this: “If a stranger was looking in on my life, what would he or she see?” A third way: “If a friend of mine lived life the way I do, is there any advice I would give him or her?”

Do an honest assessment to see which of your behaviors are healthy, life-generating ones, and which are unhealthy, soul-damaging ones. Stepping outside of yourself—outside of your “normal”—is challenging, but it’s the first step to finding your healthier, happier “new normal.” Godspeed.

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Dr. Paweleck-Bellingrodt is a licensed clinical psychologist in Arizona. She's been practicing in the field of psychology for the past two decades, working with the elementary school population, juvenile delinquents, veterans, the elderly, and military service members and their families.

To learn more about Dr. Paweleck-Bellingrodt and her services, visit: ​http://www.doctorbellingrodt.com/

​DISCLAIMER: Material in this post is for informational purposes only. The content of this post is not intended to be a substitute for evaluation or treatment by a licensed professional. Information contained in this post should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health issue without consulting a qualified provider. All material in this post is the intellectual property of Jennifer Bellingrodt, Psy.D. The material is copyrighted and may only be reproduced with the express written permission of Dr. Bellingrodt.


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