Is There Any Way I Can Learn to Be Normal?

Reader’s Question

My problem is that I have never been normal. I’ve always been an outsider with very few exceptions. I do have issues with bipolar, but even before I had a diagnosis I have never really known how to fit in with others. I’ve never been able to hold down a job for very long — the longest job I had lasted about nine months. I completed my college education late, and until recently I never really cared if I fit in or not.

I ended up marrying, but now I’m divorcing him because he lied to me about some serious issues on his side. We have a child and she is now being treated by her classmates the same way I was. I want to help her to feel less of an outsider, but to do that I need to know how to fit in myself. I just can’t, that’s all. I don’t abuse drugs or alcohol in any way, and neither does she want to do this. But it hurts her the same way it hurt me to be considered as a pariah.

Is there any way I can learn to be normal so I can teach my daughter how to be normal as well? I never learned it from my own family, though my older sister has pretty much been able to fit in with society by doing as she is expected to do. I am sick of being a freak, and I don’t want my daughter to have to live with this burden either. How can I learn to change my behavior so I won’t seem like such a mutant?

Psychologist’s Reply

If we think about the meaning of “normal” — it’s a label applied to thinking, behavior, attitude, interests, and beliefs found in the majority of individuals in our specific culture. Psychologists are fond of discussing the “normal range” with the assumption that everything falls on a scale — some below normal and some above normal. For example, the average or “normal” number of televisions per household in the United States is 2.73 (3 for the UK). In this example, people who have no televisions are far below normal and those who have 6 televisions are far above normal/average. It is very common to be outside of the normal range in our talent, interests, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs — yet have no psychiatric concerns. Individuals who are exceptionally artistic, spiritual, or talented in any area are often viewed as eccentric by the “normal” population. Your description — college graduate, feelings of being unable to fit in, and not being worried about it for years — sounds like you have always been more individualized and/or eccentric in your behaviors or interests.

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As you described your sister, she has always been able to “fit in” and do what is expected in the society. The major theme in this situation is how can we learn to “fit in” and operate in the normal range, perhaps when we are outside that range due to our interests, activities, beliefs, etc. In short — how can we learn to be normal? Some guidelines:

  • Learning to operate in the “normal range” like everyone else is not the same as becoming normal. We can retain our own individuality yet still fit in. If we’re in the ocean, we don’t have to be a fish, but it’s helpful to learn to swim. Once we learn to swim, we can “fit in” with the fish.
  • Improve your “normal range” social skills by participating in community activities. The more we socialize in the community, the better our social skills become.
  • Identify people you know who have good social skills and fit in just about everywhere. What are their techniques? Do they have a certain style in clothing, interaction with others, etc.? You can model and practice their behaviors to improve your own skills.
  • Do a self-analysis of your social skills. People who have poor social skills or who don’t “fit in” often have several attitudes, styles, or behaviors that create their social difficulties. How good are your communication skills? Do you maintain eye contact? Can you keep a conversation going? Can you chit-chat or talk casually? Individuals who are shy, for example, often avoid eye contact, which keeps people at a distance.
  • Do you have odd or inappropriate behaviors that push people away? If you are rude, arrogant, insensitive, or simply don’t talk enough — these can keep you away from people. If you are unable to pay attention to others — you’ll not fit in.
  • Do you advertise yourself as eccentric or unusual in some manner? Does your appearance fit within the range of attire, hygiene, grooming, etc. of those around you?
  • Obtain an objective evaluation though a mental health professional. Counseling may help you articulate and identify issues. Counseling would also be helpful for your daughter.

Improving our ability to live in the “normal range” takes practice and frequent exposure to those people and activities in our environment. You and your daughter can both learn to “fit in” with others yet remain as unique as you desire in your own home.

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