Have the following thoughts ever occurred to you?
How come everyone around me seems to be functioning well—if not perfectly—and I’m the only one who isn’t?
Everyone else seems to be doing okay in school, having normal relationships with their families, their friends, breezing through life. Why am I not?
Am I normal? Am I weird?
If you’ve felt this way before, then rest assured you’re not alone. Millions of people search variations of “Am I normal?” in Google every single day. (Fun fact: some of the most common queries are “Is it normal to hear voices” and “is it normal to talk to yourself.”) So it seems that being unsure about whether or not you’re normal is, in fact, quite normal.
What is Normal, Anyway?
Let’s attempt to answer your question by first defining the word “normal.” According to Oxford Dictionary, “normal” means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.”
That doesn’t really help us much—do you always behave in a way that’s “typical”?
Chances are that the majority of your daily interactions and behaviors may be quite typical—ones you would define as quite “normal.” But you may face certain issues and struggles that differentiate you among your peers…and not, you think, in a good way.
For example, you might be a popular guy or girl who gets along fabulously with most people you meet and is always the life of the party. But then when it comes to sitting through a 50-min class, you’re antsy as soon as your bottom hits the chair. You’re glancing at the clock every few minutes, and you can never manage to take coherent notes. Reading is difficult, and homework is a nightmare. Teachers are always trying to discipline you. You wonder how everyone else seems to sit still.
Now consider your friend. He not only manages to stay focused in class, every single class, but actually doesn’t mind lectures on equilateral triangles. He likes Shakespeare and Huck Finn, and he often lends his notes out to classmates before tests (including you). After school, though, he comes to you for advice on friends, and how he can ever make any girl acknowledge his existence. At parties, he has trouble with social cues. He wonders how anyone can casually pick up the phone and call a friend to chat.
Who’s More Normal?
So who, in this example, is more “normal”—you or your friend? In the classroom, your friend’s attention span makes you look like a goldfish. A mental health professional might diagnose you with ADHD. But outside, your charisma shines. You’re on top of your game, and everyone gravitates towards you. Meanwhile, your friend is struggling just to say hi to a classmate. A psychologist might call it social anxiety.
Get where we’re going here? The example above is an oversimplified illustration, but it leads to an important point, and that is: There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to normality. No one meets hypothetical societal standards in every aspect of their life or behavior.
Research Proves Nobody is Normal
In fact, two Yale researchers published a study that punctures the “myth”, as they call it, of there being a certain normalcy in the world. In “The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience”, Dr. Avram Holmes and Dr. Lauren Patrick argue that nothing in the world—animals, people, our brains, nature—follows a certain path of uniformity. It’s not like you can “cleanly separate” people into categories of normal and abnormal. Instead, everything has a positive and negative side to it. This includes traits like anxiety, sensation-seeking, negative affect, and social inhibition—and also random things in nature, like the mating preferences of Atlantic salmon.
So are you normal? No, says the Yale study. But practically no one else is either. Because there is no universal “normal.”
As they wrote in the study: “We…argu[e] that there is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors.”
What about Mental Health Disorders?
However, you may now be a little confused. If everyone’s behavior exists on a continuum, how does this all fit in with the idea of mental health disorders? The DSM is all about determining whether you do or you don’t have a mental health, behavioral or substance abuse issue. But if nothing is black and white, as these researchers are stating, how is it that some adolescents are professionally diagnosed with certain disorders, and some aren’t?
The Yale researchers addressed this issue in their study. They wrote:
“Clear evidence supports a dimensional view of psychiatric illness. Within this framework the expression of disorder-relevant phenotypes is often interpreted as a breakdown or departure from normal brain function. Conversely, health is reified, conceptualized as possessing a single ideal state. We challenge this concept here…”
Basically, what they’re saying is that barring extreme dysfunction, everyone has certain behaviors and thoughts that can be considered either advantageous or disadvantageous depending on the situation.
Let’s take anxiety. Although anxiety is seen as a negative trait, there could be certain benefits to it, in certain situations. For example, moderate anxiety is predictive of reduced accidents and accidental death later on, the researchers write.
Or, let’s consider attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Dr. Holmes shared in an exclusive Quartz interview that instead of placing so much focus on ADHD as a negative diagnosis, “a psychiatrist might…examine the settings in which the tendency to distraction is healthy instead of harmful.”
This could mean brainstorming situations with the teen on ways that his distractibility could get him far in life. For example, did you know that Olympic medalist Michael Phelps has ADHD? So does business investor Richard Branson, hotel magnate Paris Hilton, and millionaire entrepreneur Cameron Herold. In his famous TED Talk, Herold said that his ADHD was responsible for his success. (Herold also talks about bipolar disorder being nicknamed the CEO disease. Reportedly, Steve Jobs had it.)
Dysfunction Needs Treatment
However, Herold was sure to mention a disclaimer (and we’re glad he did). The Yale study also wrote about this. We need to emphasize that here:
Extreme dysfunction needs treatment.
If you are suffering, or feel like you’re suffering, and your life isn’t functioning as well as you think it should, get help. Depression causing you to stay home all day? Get treated. If your anxiety is giving you panic attacks—visit a mental health professional. If your PTSD isn’t letting you sleep—get treatment. And so on.
“Significantly disordered behaviors…warrant treatment,” Holmes and Patrick wrote.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you cannot get help if your mental health issues are not severe. By all means, go ahead. Any teen (or parent of a teen!) who feels they can benefit from mental health, behavioral, or substance abuse treatment should be receiving professional help.
But all we’re saying is: don’t think of yourself as “abnormal.”