One of the most poignant and powerful interventions as a therapist is normalizing-- assuring the client that their particular experience is more common than they have known.
The client is human, and their situation is human! The therapeutic act of normalizing shows and teaches empathy, validation, and compassion to the client. It brings relief from isolation and self-rejection. I do it when I feel compelled, when it hurts to see the client think of themselves falsely as deviant from humanity.
Before we go further, please note the two kinds of meanings attached to “normal.” It can be descriptive-- what’s normal is what’s typical, common, shared by many. It can also be, well… normative-- what’s normal is what should be, what’s seen as fine or acceptable. Therapeutic normalizing works on both levels. The therapist can say “Yep, that’s common,” as well as “Yep, that’s fine.”
Now the problem is: Since when am I the authority on normal?? As someone who is kinda weird but also has high self-esteem, I often believe, incorrectly, that what I think/say/do is common, and if not common, at least fine. I used to teach back in my days as a sex ed teacher: “There’s a wide range of normal!” It’s a beautiful and true sentiment, but doesn’t fully settle the question of whether one’s idiosyncratic sense of normal is helpful to the client.
Some examples: Is it normal/ok to talk to yourself aloud? I’ve been saying yes. Is it normal/ok to be annoyed when your friend at a party lets the conversation be interrupted by someone else taking their attention? I said yes; my friends said no. But whatever is normal to me is a non-issue, non-pathological. My exuberant nature can make me oblivious to a client’s manic tendencies. My belief that some nihilism is healthy can lead me to miss a client’s depression. It’s wonderful to (affirmatively) reality-check the client, but problematic if I need a (critical) reality-check for myself.
What’s the wise approach then, when I’m not sure if I’m normal enough to normalize others?
1. Who cares? If there really is a broad range of normal, and the client and I seem to be in affinity with one another, perhaps that’s normal enough? There’s a helpful distinction here-- between “cool” and “cool with.” “Cool” is an objective term, delineating between the mass of people who are cool, and the rest of us. “Cool with” is intersubjective; it just requires that you and I see eye-to-eye.
2. I need to stay transparent about my uncertainty regarding normal. To the client: “I want to normalize what you’re describing, because it sounds fine to me. The only issue is that I may not be normal myself-- so either I’m right about what’s normal, or you and I are just weird in the same way.” I like this intervention because I’m not claiming any authority but still helping the client feel less alone in their weirdness.
3. Once I’ve renounced my authority on what’s normal, I encourage them to talk to other people they trust and respect on the matter-- while still holding doubt about whether anyone gets to be the final authority on what’s normal.
My contradictions are showing! I love normalizing things for clients, and yet I don’t seem to care that much about normal, and seem to be skeptical about authoritative assertions of normal. To me, if you’re respecting yourself and others, then it’s fine! If it pleases you-- if it works for you-- if it’s not harming anyone-- hey, go for it!
What’s normal? To be a human who gets confused and figures it all out and gets confused again, who tries and fails and succeeds and gets stuck and gets turned around, who assumes that they’re normal, who embraces and/or fears being weird.