As submitted for publication in the Recorder Community Newspapers, June 8, 2006

What color is normal? You know, the color that all the others should be like?  Silly question, right? Well, it’s no sillier than a deeply personal question many of us struggle with.

The question is, “Am I normal?” Although I don’t hear it asked so bluntly in my everyday life, it is a frequent refrain in my office.  The barely masked strain in people’s faces as they ask the question belies their distress. They want to be reassured that they are not fundamentally flawed.

For most, they are really asking the question to find out if they are enough like other people. They think that being like others shows that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are healthy. The real problem is not that they are flawed, but, rather that the question is flawed.

While there might be some psychological safety in numbers (all those people can’t be crazy), being part of the crowd does nothing to guarantee that you are comfortable with yourself.  You would do better to learn to live in a way that resonates positively within you. Doing this develops psychological strength in a way that following the crowd can never do. But, when I explain this to patients, they often respond with a noncommittal, I’m-listening-to-you-but-don’t-really-believe-you nod.   Some of the more determined ones will respond with something like, “I know, but are most other people like this?”

This truly is like asking which colors are normal. Of course, there are no normal colors because each color is beautiful in its own way. The particular colors that appeal to us are a matter of personal taste, which we express in how we dress and decorate our homes. However, our judgment about colors is clearly influenced by context and function. For example, most of us would say that bright yellow is not an appropriate color for a soldier’s uniform. However, it does fit our image of a summer shirt.

Like colors, all people are different. If a color or personality trait feels right for you, then enjoy it– even if it is not “in” this season. If you are more introverted than most people around you, think about whether it feels right. Decide whether you feel comfortably at home with your quietness, or whether you are, in a sense, hiding in your home. If the latter is true, then you need to change—not because you are abnormal, but because you are not happy. The same kind of considerations apply to all traits.

In addition, just because certain traits are common (and, thus, perceived as normal), they are not necessarily better or even desirable. I have met a lot of people, especially in this area of the country, who worry excessively about work and finances. I think we can all agree that this is not desirable. On the other hand, I have met fewer people here who have reached and maintained a sense of peace and contentment in their lives. These people possess something that is not common and, yet, is desirable.

If there is something you don’t like about yourself, then focus on how to improve it rather than on how it is not normal. For example, if you are so introverted that you feel lonely from a lack of friends, keep your focus on how to reach out more, carefully avoiding thoughts about how abnormal you feel. Think of it this way: “Am I normal?” asks if I am like everyone else—it is critical, gives you no guidance for change, and says nothing about the value of your qualities. “Am I living in a healthy way?” forces you to understand yourself, your circumstances, and what you want to accomplish. It also provides an opening for you to learn from your experiences and make some changes.

When all is said and done, it’s most important that you are happy with you. Do you like and appreciate you? Are you creating the life you want? With this kind of thinking, the question of being normal loses significance. You are as normal, and as beautiful, as any color in the world.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ