What Concept of Normal?
Posted on 29th November 2020 at 21:26
The term 'the new normal' has become a pandemic cliche. I have come to consider the term ‘normal’ as a most unfortunate one. It’s use and application almost infers an absolute state - you are normal or you are not. Yet the bell shape of the normal distribution curve shows us that this is not actually the case and even allows for ‘outliers.’ I also feel we are prone to equate normal with perfect. We tick boxes in every day modern life on application forms, surveys, bucket lists and so on. It is when we are ticking boxes that deem us to have ‘made it’ in life that we run into tricky territory, if we live in a post-industrial, capitalist, democratic economy that is. Broadly speaking, the ‘made it’ tick list comprises of having a university education, a well-paid job and be married with two children. Home is at a ‘good’ address which allows the children access to the ‘better’ schools. There are two cars in the driveway and the family enjoy a ski holiday in winter with a sun holiday later in the year. If you tick all these boxes then by societal standards, you are successful. The pre occupation with success and wealth are social narratives that consume us. They become what behavioural scientist, Paul Dolan, refers to as “narrative traps” which combined, form “the myth of the perfect life.”
An ESRI report in 2016 confirmed that stress, anxiety and depression are one of the two largest categories of work related illness reported by workers . This is reflected in the 2020 WHO statistics that show depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide . Medics in general practice report that people are simply ‘not coping’ with the juggling act of work, home and life events. Prescription rates label us an ‘antidepressant generation.’ For the younger generation, depression is the third leading cause of illness among adolescents and suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents . Here we are, having ticked all these boxes that society promises us will make us happy and fulfilled, yet we and our children feel anything but! Life -as a capitalist, consumerist society would have us live it - is making people ill. It was before the pandemic and will do so after, if we continue to subscribe to the myth of the perfect life. As the Jiddu Krishnamurti quote goes “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Journalist, Sarah Carey wrote that “the compulsion to be happy is enshrined in our modern culture”. Happiness has become a duty – another box to tick on our list of duties in life. If you are happy, you are ‘normal.’ If you are unhappy you must ‘pull yourself together’ by whatever means. On speaking of the Myth of “Normal” in Psychological Disorders, physician, Gabor Maté, maintains that mental distress is largely a result of a materialistic culture that does not value who people are, but what they produce or consume .
So what does psychoanalysis have to say? In his book, ‘The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known,’ Chris Bollas uses the term 'normotic illness' to describe what he believes to be a pathology of postmodernism. He defines normotic as being ‘abnormally normal’ – too stable, too secure, socially extroverted and disinterested in the concepts of imagination, creativity and relating to others. The capacity to be inward looking, is missing. The normotic focuses on the ‘thingness’ of objects and their material reality. They collect material objects for the sake of collection rather than interest. Parts of the normotic are projected onto material things but never re-introjected back. In essence, parts of the normotic are ‘lost’ in materialism and consumerism. They become cogs in the machinery of production. They rely on the presence of familiar objects and can be quite distressed if they can’t find a familiar object when in a strange environment. With the creative capacity abolished, the normotic embodies an extreme case of D.W. Winnicott’s concept of a false self, lacking what Bollas terms the human idiom – ‘the unique personality potential of each individual.’ Normotics can function effectively in society, especially where rules and rituals are substituted for human relations. Feelings are replaced with knowledge, opinions are composed of cliché, photos are more important than the place visited. Bollas reassures us however that a one hundred percent normotic is hard to find, maintaining that complete erasure of imagination, creativity and relating to others is impossible. Good news, a potential for reversal exists.
In his work, Civilisation and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud asserts that the purpose of life is to seek and attain pleasure (the pleasure principle) This is difficult, if not impossible to achieve because of basic human suffering, in particular because of the restrictions placed on our instinctual impulses - sexuality (Eros) and aggression - by the demands of civilisation. Mankind retains the instinct of aggression. We come across it in everyday human relations from lover’s quarrels to group conflicts to global wars. Civilisation depends on how successful we are at sublimating or converting our instincts through intellectual work and artistic production, with a view to serving the greater good. The harmony that this strives to achieve remains under constant threat from human selfishness, undermining our motivation at a conscious or unconscious level. The control we have exerted over the forces of nature, also tell us how vulnerable our existence is at the hands of fellow man. It is this knowledge that pervades our anxiety at a social level .
Interwoven with all that has been said so far, is the Kleinian definition of envy, that sadistic impulse present from the beginning of life, when the other possesses something that is desirable. An impulse that exacerbates persecution and guilt, an impulse that must surely be exacerbated by the adversity of a competitive, materialistic culture .
Turning to the mid-twentieth century Frankfurt school of thinkers, Erich Fromm’s theory of ‘social character’ is that society uses human energy like any resource, suggesting in fact that it is the most pliable resource meaning that man can be made to do anything. Humans strive to achieve their full potential and consciously, they may feel happy with their lot. But creative restriction makes them unconsciously ill . If society capitalises on our own need to achieve our full potential, then we can see how we can buy in to feeling consciously happy if we tick all the boxes. Fromm believed that through creative renewal, it is possible to restore the vision of the individual, with a life centred on 'being' rather than 'having.' In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse contended that advanced capitalism creates a false sense of need that can only be met through increased levels of consumption. He proposed that man’s materialistic thinking becomes so one dimensional, it takes over the inner life of the individual and suppresses their imagination. It generates a perpetual anxiety of want for their children, then their children’s children, such that there is no relief to be had. In Freudian terms, any relationship to the instincts becomes repressed by the demands of civilisation. Freedom from this vicious circle may be achieved by reconnecting to the instincts and substituting creative work for materialistic slavery. The imagination is freed from one dimensional thinking and replaced instead with a healthier and less restricted, aesthetic dimension. 
Donald Winnicott described the childhood relationship with a transitional object (such as a favourite teddy bear) that prepares us to deal with the strain of relating our inner and the outer world, a strain which continues throughout life. He described a creative life as a healthy life, from the simple act of breathing to the ritual of play. The opposite of creativity is compliance. Compliance has the potential to repress creativity. 
But here’s the thing – do we really want freedom? Adam Phillips, uses the term ‘the terror of uncertainty’ to describe the human fear of freedom . The terror of the unknown. It echoes Sartre’s description of 'the vertigo of possibility,' where the promise of freedom is too overwhelming to contemplate, therefore we cling to the devil we know. The client that comes to therapy, consciously wanting to get better but at the same time, unconsciously resisting. So as we contemplate the possibilities of a post pandemic normal, will we really seek to make changes or will we, anxiety strung from relentless restrictions, re embrace the devil we know?
8. Bollas, Christopher (1987) Normotic Illness in The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. Free Association Books: London.pp135-156
9. Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and its Discontents. Standard Edition 21. London: Hogarth Press
10. Klein, M. (1957) Envy and Gratitude In: Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: Vintage 1997.
11. Fromm, E (1981) The Application of Humanistic Psychoanalysis to Marxist Theory. London
12. Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man. London Routledge 2002
13. Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications,
14. Phillips, A. (1997) Terrors and Experts. Harvard University Press
Tagged as: happiness, normal, psychosocial, social illness, success
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