It is often overlooked. How do clinicians diagnose mental illness without knowing what it is to be normal? This is not a trivial question. Defining normalcy is a central issue in the training of psychologists. Researchers focus on symptoms that reliably differentiates normal from abnormal functioning. It is the path of least resistance to dwell on symptoms, since through the use of informants, the researcher may obtain some degree of objectivity. What is overlooked, for the sake of objectivity, is what normality actually feels like to those who experience this state. Unfortunately, the feeling of being in a normal state of mind is hopelessly subjective.
People who are labeled as mentally ill often comment that they just want to be “normal like everyone else.” Like looking over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, people imagine the thoughts and emotions of others. Implicit assumptions are made with a minimum of data. It is often assumed that a labile (roller-coaster) mood is a sure sign of mental illness. Patients often assert that they are more tense and anxious than normal people. Everyone knows that seeing bugs that aren’t there definitely means one is crazy. This could be termed a trinity of assumptions regarding normal people; that they are less moody, less tense, and never experience hallucinations.
There is some truth to the trinity, but more often than not, it serves as an ideal that is always out of reach. Most people seriously under appreciate the degree to which normal people suffer with low moods, anxiety and transient hallucinations. A large distinction is that for normal people, these symptoms ebb and flow, whereas for the mentally ill, these states of mind merely continue to flow. Stated another way, normal people suffer low moods and anxiety states. It surprises many people to learn that most normals experience transient hallucinations. Large well-controlled studies of average people reveal how often they experience bizarre sensory phenomenon. Almost on a weekly basis, the average person is prone to experience a bug crawling on their skin or up a wall, only to have it disappear when they look again. If the bug disappears when they again look, psychologists call this normal, if they multiply when the person takes another peek, then we label these unfortunates as psychotic.
Do not be deceived as to what normal people experience. Normalcy is not an ideal state of being, often imagined as being in a good mood and free of tension. If this were the average state of the individual, most would never be motivated to leave their homes. Tension drives behavior. Tension is interwoven with life and abandons us at our death. It is a river that needs to be channeled, not dammed into a confined space. Similarly, bad moods are inescapable, yet they also may be a vector for change. Research into the sensory experiences of normal people should convince us that we are all a little crazy. Psychotherapy is typically more effective and rapid when the patient entertains realistic goals. The ideal of the normal person is often a fantasy, and it may drive people towards emotional goals that are impossible to obtain.