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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling – and the art of being normal

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Hands up those who want to be regarded as normal!  On one level it is a comforting description.  We stand alongside others who are just like us. It is a reassuring place to be. Safe and unobtrusive. We belong and there is nothing to cause concern.

But there can also be a downside to this normality.  If we want to stand out we need to be different. If we want to be noticed then perhaps this concern to be normal (whatever that may mean) is a challenge to our ambitions.

It is not easy being a member of homo sapiens. We did not choose this state but it is what we are.  We are complicated and rather contradictory beings. Those contradictions can take different forms at various times in our lives and maybe this is reflected in the conundrum about whether to be normal or different, the same or outstanding.

Let’s consider for example the various stages of life. Childhood is signalled out particularly by therapists and counsellors as an important time when key aspects of our emotional personality start to take shape. That can include those first contradictions.  One puzzling issue which starts to emerge at an early stage is centred on this confusing concept of normality.

As far as our developing sense of self is concerned do we seek normality or do we seek to avoid it.   Anyone who has stood in a room full of clamouring children knows that kids will want to be recognised as individuals. Yet there is also a very real fear of being singled out, of being seen to be different.

Young people want to display a distinctiveness which sets each apart as an individual and differentiates them from the mass. Yet each will usually be desperate to be accepted by their friends as one of the group and early ostracism can be incredibly painful. When used as a form of bullying, enforced separateness can sometimes have long term harmful impacts on emotional development.

Fast forward a decade or two and the same young people emerged from the fun, frolics and frustrations of the world of education and start to squeeze into the increasingly narrow channel of the job search. The challenge is to stand out from the crowd and yet also meet that set criteria of the employer as closely as possible. Clones we are not but ideal candidates we wish to be.  The applicant wants to be sufficiently different to be noticed but to be suitably similar to snugly fit into the mould.

It is rather tricky stuff.

But has this got anything to do with counselling and therapy?  From my experience the answer to that question is a resounding yes.  One of the common phrases often heard in the counselling room is when a client wonders out loud whether   “…. Is it normal to….?”  And we can all fill in the blanks to fit our personal concerns from day dreams to fantasies, and from occasional habits to OCD.

Normalising is a common piece of work in the therapy room but perhaps we are too quick to try to find normality by comparing ourselves externally to others – when perhaps the most revealing approach is to look inward at ourselves.

There is something about the contradictory nature of human existence which can be potentially disturbing. What some existentialists would see as the absurdity of life is captured rather well in the dilemma around whether it is better to stand out or to blend in; and whether one should follow the crowd or to be true to oneself.

The universal answer as to how we should function is of course that there is no universal answer.

We will each have our own take on how things should be for us and that will reflect the totality of our experiences.  But sometimes it is difficult to make sense of this conundrum.   It is perhaps that particular internal conversation which can sometimes be best voiced in the non-judgemental surroundings of the therapy room.

Our thoughts on where to stand in this internal debate may often be time bound and can vary dependent upon where we are in life’s journey. The desire to be normal may be craved or despised. Our position can reflect our current state of being and whether we are uber confident and ready to take on the world; or if we are beset by doubts and looking for a place of safety.

And it is surely acceptable to have a varied internal response to issues around our own normality. Shakespeare talks of those different ages of man and Freud analyses the developing stages in the psyche.  We do not stand still. We are the person we once were and we are also completely different.  

Perhaps what is important is to understand why, to think about how we want to be and to then look at achieving some sense of congruency between those different states of being.

That can be a difficult thing to do on our own particularly when our emotional world may be in flux. It is in these circumstances that work with a therapist can help.  And that is whatever the technical designation of the therapist, whether as a CBT therapist, a psychodynamic counsellor or a gestalt practitioner. There may be an existential element to this internal discussion but the views of a personal centred counsellor can be as valid as the existentialist.

What is normal for you is your choice to make. It is up to you to decide how to fit with the world and how you wish to be.

And if your normality is appears to be someone else’s eccentricity then so be it.  You are as you are. A counsellor and psychotherapist can help you to interpret, understand and change but ultimately it is only you who can decide what is normal for you.

And that is exactly how it should be.



Geoff Boutle

added on 1st February 2014

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