How do we define what is normal? What we accept as normality and what we don’t? From what perspective and for which culture / society? How we end up feeling “abnormal”? Do we talk about “only special”, or “abnormal”, “progress”, “genius”, “severely ill”, “tolerance”, “destructive”? When we ask or not for help because we feel “abnormal”, “different”? What sexual preference is normal?
Which personal characteristics are abnormal? Or which ones we should cultivate, learn?
Faith Jegede says in “What I’ve learned from my autistic brothers” that “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress and for change dies the moment we try to be like someone else”.
The concepts “normality / abnormality” are difficult to define from only one perspective. Also, defining one of them does not mean the other one is clarified. In 1958, Marie Jahoda said in her book (you can find it online here: “Current concepts of positive mental health“) that “the absence of mental illness is not a sufficient indicator of mental health”. In other words, if you are not diagnosed with a mental illness, does not mean you are psychologically healthy.
I will talk shortly about a few of the perspectives we can have to analyze the dichotomy of “normality / abnormality”.
- Medical diagnosis: there is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It offers a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. The editions are revised periodically (DSM-I was published in 1958 and DSM-V in 2013) in order to update the definitions according to the evolving society (medical and psychological discoveries). It is widely used (by clinicians, medical and juridical system, medical insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies), specially to determine the legal definition of normality, according to the legislation.
DSM generated many critics and controversies and some definitions were changed during the years. Example: older version of DSM viewed homosexuality as abnormal. DSM-III (1980) declared that homosexuality is only abnormal if the individual has negative feelings about his or her sexual orientation.
- Defining normality as a statistic value: how often / rare is a characteristic or behaviour in a group. The ones that are most often met are considered normal. In 1986, Clifford Thomas Morgan and Richard Austin King defined abnormality as the significant deviation from commonly accepted patterns of behavior, emotion or thought.
The approach does not help us in defining if the most often behaviors are also the desirable or healthy ones. Example: the obesity is statistically normal in USA but not necessarily also healthy or desirable.
- Ideal mental health theory – developed by Marie Jahoda in 1958. The model defines 5 essential aspects of well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort or purpose, social identity or status, and regular activity. Jahoda build a list of 6 characteristics of the majority of people who are regarded as normal (known as the ideal mental health):
• Efficient self-perception
• Realistic self-esteem and acceptance
• Voluntary control of behavior
• True perception of the world
• Sustaining relationships and giving affection
• Self-direction and productivity (Environmental mastery – able to meet the varying demands of day-to-day situations)
The model remains ideal, as it is almost impossible for a person to achieve all of the ideal characteristics all of the time.
- Defining abnormal functioning. In 1989, Rosenhan and Seligman suggest the following characteristics that define failure to function adequately:
• Mal-adaptiveness (danger to self)
• Vividness & unconventionality (stands out)
• Unpredictably & loss of control
• Causes observer discomfort
• Violates moral/social standards
This model also have limitations. A behavior considered, according to this list, as abnormal, can be actually adaptive for a person. Example: a person who has the obsessive-compulsive disorder of hand-washing may find that the behavior makes him better able to cope with a stressful situation.
- Cognitive approach says that thought processes affect the way in which we behave. The main assumptions of the cognitive approach are:
• Maladaptive behavior is caused by faulty and irrational cognitions.
• It is the way you think about a problem, rather than the problem itself that causes mental disorders.
• Individuals can overcome mental disorders by learning to use more appropriate cognitions.
This approach, as others do also (behaviorism or psychodynamic approach), offers more solutions on how to treat behaviors considered already unhealthy. It states less by which criteria they should be considered normal or abnormal.
Leaving aside the debates on various normalities / abnormalities around the globe, each of us builds his own vision on these concepts. The vision is based on the education we receive, on the rules of the society we live in, on the lessons and experiences we have during our life, on what we choose.