Counselling and the challenge of normality

One of the most commonly heard phrases in the counselling room is when a concerned client wonders "Am I normal?" Or "is it really normal to…?" With that comment then followed by references to thoughts, actions, appearance or a myriad of other personal issues.

In posing the question, the client will often be looking for an affirmative, reassuring response from their counsellor. A common counselling approach, is probably to wonder what normality means for that client. Another more provocative response, could be for the therapist to check out with the client why the question is actually asked in the first place. The query seems to presuppose that for the client, normality is a condition to be sought out. That may often be the case for some individuals, but an alternative first step could be to consider whether normality (whatever that is) really describes what the client is seeking.

One definition of being normal is to be just like everybody else. That can be a condition some wish for, but for others such normality may represent a dispiriting place. It can certainly encourage downbeat reflections. "If I am just like everybody else, then what is special about me? And if I am no different to all the other people why would anyone want to be with me."

Normality in personality raises a conundrum. We want to be special but we want to be emotionally safe. We want to stand out but we want to be secure. And is there anywhere safer and more secure than being in the midst of a protective multitude? And is there anywhere more alarmingly anonymous than being lost in a crowd?

It is an intriguing dilemma and perhaps for some clients, a potentially troublesome one.

We know from seminal works, ranging from Freud and Klein to Bowlby and Winnicott, that the childhood years can establish lifelong patterns. This inherent contradiction around the impact of normality is certainly evident in those early years. Children in a class room will stand up to be noticed, but will bury themselves in the social group. It is an unusual child who will set her or himself out to be different from the neighbourhood kids. The one who is different will be the one to be pointed at.

And from primary school into adolescence and beyond, the predicament continues. From goths to flowerpower, to mods and rockers, the uniform is different but each group is homogeneous. And when the teens are replaced by the twenties, the challenge can still remain. University to employment raises the same question. There is a need to differentiate one’s job application from those of the masses, but the CV needs to be sufficiently conformist to meet the person specification. The applicant needs to be both normal and extraordinary.

It can be rather confusing, but then life was never intended to be straightforward. Picking one’s way through this maze is confusing, but perhaps some clients can begin to find a degree of support within the counselling room. A willingness to look inward at our essential self may be a healthy way to face this existential challenge. The therapist can encourage reflection and suggest that the answer may lie within each individual client, and not by comparison to an external grouping.

There is no uniform answer to this issue around normality. What works, and what is appropriate, must be for each client to discover for themselves. Every client has their own individual narrative. And where they are positioned in that story when they walk into the counselling room, will have an impact on where along that spectrum of individuality to conformity, they eventually wish to be located.

There may indeed be seven ages of man and woman, but even Shakespeare seems to accept that we can only play one role at a time. Some roles and personalities may find comfort in conformity, but a comfort which becomes less necessary as the next role emerges. Others may seek meaning in a multiplication of emotional states, and shun the prospect of being just like everybody else. The counselling room is one place where that continuum can be considered, and the multiplicity reviewed and the outcome considered.

It is not for the counsellor to tell the client how to be, but to assist the client as they conduct their own enquiry. Irrespective of the counselling modality, I would hope that clients are always provided by the therapist with sufficient space to explore their sense of self. That way may invite a lasting benefit to the counselling work, rather than the quick fix of conformity.

And perhaps on reflection that initial enquiry from the client as to whether "it is normal to…?" Can then be seen as a remarkably helpful question in forming a doorway through which therapists can walk with their clients. By inviting clients to consider their own thoughts and ideas around normality, we can encourage those coming into the therapy room to look beyond what others expect and start to discover their own reality.

If I may paraphrase Marx, psychotherapists and counsellors may assist clients to understand their world but it is then up to the client to decide whether or not to change it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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