The Relativity Of Normality And Abnormality

Posted on January 27, 2011 in Specials

By Divya Gupta:

I am “abnormal” because to others around me I don’t look normal which they infer from the way I dress abnormally, in an out of fashion manner, don’t conduct myself normally, speak in a language that only I understand and not others, think abnormally not fitting others’ expectations. However what if I do feel normal from within because I am living up to the standards I have set for myself and the world I have created for myself in which other’s expectations don’t matter, basically living in my own reality which I truly believe in? Then how is it that others are determining standards of normality for me and in return make me change my beliefs about whether I am actually normal or not?

I first came across the definition of normality of behavior in my 12th standard text book which defined it as a state of mind, exhibited in behavior that is culturally accepted in accordance with social norms and that does not cause a hindrance in a person’s adaptability to the environment. Some people define normality in terms of being in touch with reality, but what if for a person his/her current state is his/her reality. Abnormality on the other hand was defined in terms of the 4 D’s- deviance, distress, debilitating, and dysfunction, something away from the normal. The definition of abnormality however is not limited to only the causes created by the person but also the effects that a person receives from the environment in the form of labels of being mad and deviant accompanied with ostracizing behavior, further adding to the stigma of the person and causing further “abnormality” in the person.

This is where the definitions and the distinctions between normality and abnormality become extremely problematic, leading to students of psychology like us to discuss it as a topic. It is important not only for our understanding but also to be able to understand how we all become a part of this process of labeling and ostracizing people without understanding its consequences for others, without understanding that an absolute does not really exist.

Actually there is nothing in the field of psychology that can be defined as a universal truth, as long as it concerns human beings, nothing can be defined in absolute terms and be generalized to all: having a positive attitude towards everything in life may be true for me but not to a lot of people sitting in this room. Hence, when we use words to describe terms like normality or abnormality which are terms largely to do with human conduct behavior and thought, we realize that the words chosen limit our experience of the term. So many times you must have felt that you are experiencing sadness but cannot define the dynamic nature of the experience and its complexity in terms of words and hence cannot possibly make others understand what the reality of our experience actually is. This is what definitions do to human experience; they limit the description of the whole experience and may end up portraying the wrong idea by focus on an irrelevant aspect of an experience. This is how texts such as the DSM IV describe “abnormal human experiences”, the moment they define it, they leave no room for further considerations and lead to labeling of people. I used to think that my obsessive and compulsive habit of straightening my bed at night before I slept was normal, till I became a psychology student and came to know about obsessive compulsive disorder which is an abnormality.

Secondly I would like to say that for years psychologists have tried to understand the working of the mind, although it is intangible, it has been studied for years through various processes which also means that the mind is a part of the human being just like any other organ of the body. A person suffering from tuberculosis in the conventionally “defined” sense is abnormal because the disease is serious and debilitating, causing distress to oneself and others because the disease could spread, makes the person dysfunctional and deviant in the sense “bodily different” from others. If a physical, organic disease has the same consequences for the society as well as the individual within the society, just as a disease of the mind, then why are the two things treated differently? It is not that the mental diseases are more serious than physical one, in which case the person should be provided with more compassion than the one with a physical disorder, which we all know is not what actually happens. The answer to this lies only in the lack of awareness of lay people about diseases of the mind, which are considered bizarre because they are not well known among people, make people behave in ways that are not understood by others, and engage in activities that no one else would. So does this mean that a person with a disease of the mind is considered abnormal only because his/her condition is not well accepted and understood by all as compared to a physical disease? Does this also mean that then normality of behavior is matter of acceptance of an individual’s behavior by everyone present around, which is also not constant because it is context dependent- for example, wearing shorts in cold weather would gather more stares than wearing “normal” winter clothes. Since the concept of normality is not constant and absolutely true, all a person does in one’s life is try to fit in; isn’t that what adaptation means? This means that it is actually the concept of normality that even brings about a need to adapt to the changing environmental demands and needs.

And lastly normality comes close to the notion of trust as a protective mechanism that prevents chaos and disorder by providing feelings of safety, certainty and familiarity, and for endowing social order. Thus the concept can be considered a sort of a garbage can where all the concepts which are not understood, not defined and not explained by a mass of people are dumped so as to create a feeling of security of giving meaning to everything and labeling something as deviant when unable to define. Thus it creates a kind of a majority imposed phenomena in the society to which everyone is expected to mould and adapt into. And since we are born and brought up in this mould, it becomes imbedded in us, and becomes easy for us to call someone MAD if he is riding a non existent motorcycle in air in public.

The terms normality and abnormality create a reality in terms of black and white without any shades of grey, all of us however are always endowed with some form of abnormality, and extend on a continuum with this respect. When something is defined as normal, the behavior completely contrasting to it becomes abnormal and thus the two cannot exist without each other, it is actually our choice, which side of the coin to accept as reality. The two words are themselves endowed with heavy positive and negative connotations and hence need to be used with care because it does have an impact on others. Thus these terms are a way to provide only a glimpse of a human experience and hence should be treated with concern.