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The problem with being normal: Misconceptions about Mental Health and the Stigma of Labels

As people go through life they tend to experience a cascade of positive and negative emotions such as happiness, excitement, joy, stress, anxiety, agitation, anger, and sadness. All of these emotional states of being are a natural and normal part of life and the human condition. For some it might be interesting, and even shocking, to think that it’s normal, and even healthy, to openly experience all of the naturally occurring, positive and negative, emotional states. On their own, emotions are organic biological, chemical, behavioral, and cognitive responses to the outside world. Problems arise when these emotions become overwhelming and spiral out of control to the point that they cause impairment and distress in one’s life. One doesn’t simply wake up one day to find his or her emotions in a state of turmoil, rather it is a slow and steady process that often occurs because certain emotions are seen as good, positive, and healthy while others are viewed as resentful, harmful, and inappropriate. Unfortunately, there is a great social bias towards positive emotions as they are seen as uplifting, desirable, and required while negative emotions are stigmatized against and relegated to being labeled as problematic. It is this bias that often creates an unconscious need for some to hold on to their negative emotions and repress them.

Being seen as positive, optimistic, and outgoing is often the preferred status quo as society at large occasionally looks down on the hopeless, pessimistic, and downtrodden. This sort of emotional sorting leads some to suffocate and stifle their own naturally occurring feelings in an effort to appear normal, sociable, and liked, which leads some to create avoidant, fear based, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns that ultimately lead to mental health issues and stress. Those who choose to ignore, detach, disengage, and repress a part of their emotional spectrum tend to fall into problematic feedforward patterns. Within these patterns naturally occurring feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety are held back in favor of silence, or a false sense of positivity, that leads to further sadness, anger, and anxiety, which eventually come to a head when they can no longer be contained by the individual. Individuals who carry around their sadness, frustration, anxiety, and anger, often feel stuck, hopeless, and isolated because they imprison themselves to their own thought influenced behavioral patterns that manifest themselves as silence due to false perceptions of social stigma. Rather than explore, process, and embrace their full emotional spectrum some individuals choose to exclusively avoid negative feelings as they believe them to be inherently problematic or abnormal.

The truth is that normality is relative and is more of a percentage-based gradient then an all or nothing event. Normality is a social construct that is influenced by culture, socio-political climate, and one’s own upbringing. There isn’t a benchmark or gold standard for normality where only society’s most elite members stand. What was once considered normal is currently seen as offensive and disrespectful. Societal standards change and with it so does the definition of normality and the labels attached to it. If the whole world was one day normal everyone would suddenly find themselves to be exactly the same and their lives would mirror characters depicted in dystopian science fiction literature and film. Normality is a subjective definition that is dynamic and comes in many shades and hues.

Our personalities, feelings, and emotional ranges can’t be defined and controlled by labels. Do not allow societal pressures and stigma to turn you into a personal mental prison warden of your own design. Remember that by fully embracing all of your emotions you free yourself of the chains that bind you. Seeking help isn’t shameful it’s empowering. Rather than choosing to relinquish control to the chaos of your mind as influenced by stigma you take matters into your own hands by exploring yourself. Personal and emotional growth is a never-ending process that is only possible by allowing yourself to stay with your emotions and finding out that even your worst perceived feelings can be tolerable. Knowledge is power and being informed emotionally and intellectually gives you the tools to be your own mental health counselor and complete individual.

What can you do:

Learn to stay with your own feelings: Explore yourself and your emotional states. If something is uncomfortable it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. New experiences often feel different, strange, and uncomfortable. Try and be your own scientist by staying with, and analyzing, your own emotional states. Think about where they come from and what’s eliciting them in you.

Practice being a mindful observer of your own thoughts: Thinking patterns can be a great source of insight into behavioral tendencies and emotional expression. Mindfully let your thoughts pass without ruminating on them. Imagine watching a train passing through a station with you being an observer. Just watching it pass without peering in to make out the passengers.

Do not be afraid to seek emotional help when feeling overwhelmed: Knowing when your emotions get the better of you isn’t a weakness but a strength. Learn your emotional limits and don’t let societal stigma push you away. Being alone with your feelings can feel emotionally claustrophobic.

Practice mindfulness and train your senses: Learn to be more mindful of your body and mind. Engage all of your senses by taking the time to focus on what you are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Allow yourself the mental space to focus on your own senses and your body’s response to them.

Embrace being comfortable with all of your emotions: Learn to normalized your emotional experiences even if they feel out of the usual range for you. Do not allow yourself to be distraught by feelings or thoughts that occur in the heat of the moment. Think about what caused such emotional responses and how your feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety, could be indicators for a necessary change and tools for self-improvement and empowerment.

"It is never too late to be what you might have been." ~ George Eliot