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How to be human: what it means to feel ‘normal’

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I guess you get a lot of questions around New Year but I'll try my luck anyway. I'm 26, living in Europe, and my problem is, to put it short: I don't know whether I'm just overly sensitive / melancholic or have some sort of a mood disorder.

I'm pretty sure I'm not clinically depressed or something because I function fairly well in my daily life. Most of my friends would probably even describe me as happy (which I often am!) and funny. I'm quite proud of my ability to make other people laugh. Still, I experience recurrent periods of intense self-hate, loneliness and anxiety. I also don't think I can find a life partner because of my dark thoughts and generally being too complicated. I do not want to be a burden to someone.

I think I might have been properly depressed when I was 13 years old, but I didn't receive treatment then. Fortunately I got better the older I became, but still I was quite an unhappy teenager. I often cried on my own but most of the time didn't tell my family. When I started university, I talked to a university counselor a few times, but I guess I didn't appear a very serious case. Frankly, most of the time, I felt quite well at the time of the appointments so I even questioned the purpose of it myself. However, those feelings kept coming back the last years.

The thing is: I don't know if what I'm experiencing is "normal," because those feelings have been around such a long time. I guess lots of people get anxious about a lot of things or don't like themselves. Also my problems were never visible, I never self-harmed or stopped eating, it was / is mainly in my head. In fact, my biggest fear was / is not appearing normal. So I never told anybody about my visits at the counseling service. I would probably benefit from therapy but it is not something a lot of people do in my country. It is very stigmatized and only people with a severe condition go to therapy. So I somehow suffer from my thoughts but also feel like I don't "deserve" therapy. I already waited for it to get better by aging (it didn't quite) or talking to friends (it helped a bit but I don't want to be too negative).

Thank you so much for your advice!

Best,
G.

Hey G,

Sometimes I think about the concept of “normal.” What it is, why it matters, who gets to define it. Lately I think about it a lot more than I ever have, for so many reasons.

In order for something to be “normal” it needs to conform to some kind of standard, right? We say it’s normal because it’s what we expect, what we’re used to, whatever is typical or average. When you say you want to know if what you experience is normal, my guess is you want to know two separate but related things. First, if it’s normal compared to a measurable, scientific standard — on average do most people feel this way, am I an outlier, am I close to the norm but still a bit outside it, etc. Second, if it’s normal in the social sense — am I a total weirdo, is there something wrong with me, is something about me socially unacceptable, other people are probably like this but what if they’re not, and so on.

I’m not going to answer your question from a statistical or medical perspective, but I feel like that’s not what you were looking for anyway. I will say that, estimated guess-wise, there are a lot of people who feel anxious or depressed or both, and who feel very negatively about themselves. There are also people who don’t suffer from most or any of these problems, or if they do they experience them at a much lower intensity. Their brain and gut chemistries may be different, as well as the way they were raised, the interactions they had with their peers as children and teens, and the environments, societies, and contexts in which they grew up and developed into adults.

A lot of factors affect who and how we are! Including, as you have learned, the place we live and how our society views mental health. When I was in Copenhagen last year, a young woman told me she was in treatment for anxiety, which was very unusual for a Dane — they may suffer from depression, in part thanks to dark winters, but not anxiety. And you know what? I could feel it when I was there! Even I felt significantly less anxious, maybe because I was thousands of miles from my actual life but maybe because being in a place with different and much less intense environmental, ambient anxieties allowed me to chill the eff out for a minute.

Anyway, some people just seem to have an easier time of it, and not because they’re hiding their depression or pretending to be happy — although that happens, too. I’m talking about people who don’t dwell on negative experiences or dumb things they said, who don’t seem to get anxious over every little thing, and who seem to be relatively comfortable with and confident in themselves. These are the people I always think of as “normal,” and maybe you do too. I’ve envied these people for most of my life. Sometimes I would like to be so much... easier, not just for others to deal with but for myself.

But you know what? I don’t know if they are as typical as I like think they are. In fact, I get the sense that most people have some hangup or another. If they’re not a little anxious, they get a little depressed. If they’re not a little obsessive-compulsive, they’re a little socially awkward. And so on.

My point is that the kind of normal you’re asking about is a combination of “the average human experience” and “socially expected behaviors and norms.” No one wants to be called average, but based on your letter, I don’t think you are wildly outside the range of normal human experience. A lot of us have melancholy streaks. We’re lonely and very sensitive, probably more sensitive than everyone else who seem so... normal. In fact, based on the letters I get from people around the world, and the responses of people who read this column, you sound to me like you are squarely in the normal range of human experience.

That doesn’t mean you are totally fine, that it’s “all in your head,” or you don’t need help and someone to talk to. “All in your head” is another way of saying you’re imagining things or making them up. Your loneliness, anxiety, and self-hate are real, even if no one else can see them. And just because these problems aren’t disrupting your life doesn’t mean you don’t need to talk about them with someone other than your friends, someone you can be truthfully negative to. Anyway, your problems are disrupting your life — they’re making you think you’ll never find someone because you’ll be a burden. That’s a terrible way to feel, and it’s made worse by the fact that you don’t know whether other people have problems, too, or whether they’d be able to make space in their lives for someone who isn’t totally “normal.”

But how do you deal with this without feeling like everyone’s going to judge or ostracize you? You live in a country that is, I hate to say it, not atypical. The social norm deems therapy as something you only need if you have “real” problems, like a serious mental illness. Wow is that bad for everyone! It means either you’re “crazy” or you’re “normal.” And we all know what it means to be thought of as crazy, right? But it’s also bad for the so-called normals, too. When mental health concerns, no matter how big or small, are considered to be outside the norm, people feel hesitant to ask for help, even if they really need it. And if they do ask for help, like you did, they won’t know entirely how to ask or what to ask for because their spectrum of existence has two points: quote-unquote-normal and totally fucked up.

Luckily, we’ve established that you are normal to feel what you feel. And in case it’s not clear, I want to also emphasize that the social idea of normal, the one that makes you think you don’t deserve help and should feel like everyone else does, is faulty and bad. This is the kind of normal that comes with judgment and moral positioning. It’s the kind of normal that doesn’t take into account a wide range of experiences and behaviors, because it’s based on class, culture, religion, tradition. The idea that “normal” people don’t need help causes unnecessary suffering. People end up believing depression is all in their minds (figuratively and literally), and they should be able to resolve their problems without help since only people with “real” issues need therapy.

Of course I want to encourage you to do things like volunteer and meditate. It’s good to get outside your own head sometimes by helping others, and it’s also good to get inside your own head and learn to let go a little. But I want you to consider trying to find a therapist or counselor again. I realize this puts you in a tough position. Being someone who acts in defiance of social norms is not easy. The stigma you mention is real. It takes courage and strength to do something that flies in the face of what everyone thinks is normal, even if what you do isn’t a big public act of resistance. I think it will help you to sort through how you feel and not downplay it. The darkness you describe does not have to be constant to be troubling.

Maybe over time you’ll begin to feel comfortable talking to your friends more openly, or maybe as they see you go to therapy they’ll ask you questions about it, questions that reveal they’ve been struggling with some darkness themselves. Sometimes it takes a brave person to say, “Just because all these people act like this is okay doesn’t mean it is.” That person opens the door for others to start questioning and redefining what society says is normal. It might be tough, and you might encounter some resistance — especially from yourself, when you wonder if you deserve to get help. You do! You deserve to feel better. All of us do.

Lx