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Category: Relationships / Topics: Character, Integrity Diversity & Pluralism Relationships Values

Defining Normal

by Ken Potts

Posted: August 18, 2019

It's harder than it looks…

"When I was 20, I wanted to meet somebody who was perfect. Now that I'm past 40, I just wonder if anyone is normal." (Anonymous)

We probably all know the feeling. Whether we're 30, or 40, or 50, or 60, or 70, or whatever, sooner or later most of us realize the adult world we anticipated when we were 20 doesn't exist.

That's especially true of people. The more people we get to know, the more we are confronted with how different we all are, and especially how different we are from whatever "norm" we used to believe existed.

Adult personalities and behaviors come in an almost unimaginable variety. And though some personality types seem to be healthier and some behaviors seem to work better, there does not seem to be one particular way to be an adult that is "normal."

Even when we add in considerations of right and wrong, there is a great deal of latitude in acceptable adult living. We can agree that adults need to be responsible for themselves and accountable for their decisions. We can even reach a consensus on such principles as respecting rules and laws, contributing to the community in which we live, minding our own business, etc.

But all that still doesn't tell us what "normal" is.

Is the stock broker more normal than the fry cook or the person on welfare?

Is the married woman whose primary job is raising three children more normal than the single mother who works full-time as a secretary and has her young child in day care, or the woman who has never married or had children and devoted herself completely to her career?

Is someone who lives in a $500,000 home in Naperville more normal than another person who rents a $300 a month flat in Gage Park?

Is a Roman Catholic more normal than a Baptist or a Buddhist?

Is a Dutch-American more normal than an African-American or a Mexican-American?

The more we experience the world around us, the harder it is to answer such questions. We wind up meeting all sorts of people who are different from us, yet whose lives seem to be just as difficult or easy, empty or full, normal or abnormal (?) as ours.

And we usually even find some way to get along with most of these radically different people we encounter in our adult lives.

As a therapist, I haven't found the idea of "normal" to be of much help. I prefer to talk more about what works, or what makes life worth living. That often means radically different conclusions for different people, but at least it seems to fit the world as I've experienced it in my own 40-plus years. And it seems to fit for the people I work with as well.


Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of SamaraCare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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Posted: August 18, 2019

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