When “Normal” is Healthy … and When It’s Dangerous

Susana Rinderle
11 min readSep 12, 2023
Image source: http://www.worlddreambank.org/B/BELLCURV.HTM

“I can’t sleep,” said Sarah*. “I keep seeing his hands in gloves, grabbing the merchandise!” Her voice trembled through her Syrian accent. “I can’t even be with my children. I start to sweat when I hear a noise. I think I’m going crazy. I just want to hide in my bed!” She began to cry.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” said Jamal. He began wringing his hands, eyes darting about. “I can’t take it anymore! When Hans speaks, everyone pays attention and responds. But when I talk, no one says anything.” His voice got louder, hands more agitated. “Everyone else seems to get along and be confident in their work. I just don’t think I’m leadership material!”

As a trauma-informed life and leadership coach, I hear stories like these nearly every day. I spend half my time telling my clients one simple truth: this is normal. You are normal. You are having a normal reaction to a traumatic experience like a robbery. Your body is responding normally to racism and microaggressions. You are responding normally to overwhelm and inhumane expectations. Your body is having a normal reaction to constant chaos, uncertainty, and threat.

“This is normal. You’re normal.” Often, hearing that is all it takes for my client to settle. They believe me, they see themselves more clearly, and they relax.

I’m effective in this coaching role because I, too, once thought I was crazy. I thought I wasn’t normal — that I was wrong and bad. I couldn’t figure out why life was so hard, especially since other people seemed not to struggle as much.

People who knew me as a child or young person might be surprised to hear I struggled. On the surface it looked like I had it all. I was identified as gifted when I was six, with an IQ higher than 98% of the population. I showed advanced aptitude for music, language, and writing. I always got straight A’s and was extremely well-behaved — always the teacher’s pet. I was a white girl in a mostly BIPOC public school. I was a good-looking kid: slender with long auburn hair and long fingers. My parents were married, my father had a stable government job, and my mother stayed home and prepared home-cooked meals from scratch. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood in a house my parents owned that had two green yards and trees. We attended church every Sunday, played sports and took music lessons, and read lots of books.

I was also desperately lonely and anxious most of the time. I didn’t realize this until many years later, because, like most kids, I assumed my reality was “normal.” Other kids respected and admired me, but I had few true friends. I tended to gravitate towards the marginalized and the suffering, like the bullied and the just-arrived Cambodian refugees, probably as a reflection of my own pain. My first mental illness manifested at age 10, but it was met with exasperation and cruel punishment by my parents, and practiced blindness or teasing by other kids.

Through it all, I just wanted to be “normal”. Even though many of my abnormalities were advantages or superpowers, being abnormal is desperately lonely. Have you ever met a well-adjusted superheroine?

Even though many of my abnormalities were advantages or superpowers, being abnormal is desperately lonely. Have you ever met a well-adjusted superheroine?

I just wanted what most kids want. I wanted to have friends over. I wanted to wear clothes that weren’t from a thrift shop and were reasonably similar to other kids’ outfits. I wanted to wear pants instead of dresses and shave my legs when they got hairy. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be less painfully conspicuous. I wanted to belong.

But being “normal” went against my family’s religion of defiant abnormality. To be like other people was to be an unthinking conformist, a pawn, a drone. It was to be inferior and stupid. I now realize this was just a coping strategy probably driven by their own shame, marginalization, and sense of powerlessness, but both my parents and both siblings seemed to revel in their weirdness. They enhanced it, even flaunted it, and all but said out loud that my desire to be “like everyone else” made me not a Rinderle. Not one of them. I was a sellout and traitor to our family’s culture.

I wanted to be normal so I could belong. And in doing so, was ostracized from my own family.

It was well into adulthood before I learned that my desires were normal and natural, not pathological. I was in my 30s when I learned the unique challenges that high IQ and gifted people face — particularly our uneven development. It’s normal for us to struggle to develop socially even while our intellectual capacity surpasses that of most adults. It’s normal for us to be highly emotionally sensitive and perceptive.

But no one told me this was normal. They probably didn’t even know. So I thought I was bad and wrong, not my circumstances.

It wasn’t until middle age that I learned my mental illnesses were also normal responses — to trauma. The trauma of growing up in a dysfunctional family with parents who did the best they could but was still woefully inadequate. The trauma of being dramatically different from others and having to constantly downplay or hide it. The trauma of not ever feeling safe or accepted, even at home. The trauma of not having enough skills or support to calm, soothe, or ground myself when I was upset.

It took half a century, but I finally learned I already was what I always wanted to be: normal. I was normal. My body was normal. It had just been trying to keep me safe and alive. It was using the narrow strategies available to it given my inherited DNA, my inherited generational trauma, and the limited skillset of the adults around me. My body was a genius. It was a badass freedom fighter.

My body was normal. It had just been trying to keep me safe and alive. My body was a genius. It was a badass freedom fighter.

Through training as a somatic resilience practitioner, I also learned these responses weren’t just normal, they were healthy. They were healthy reactions to harm, neglect, and bullshit. They were signs of a functioning nervous system. I wasn’t crazy. I’d been sane, smart, and perceptive my entire life. I’d just been taught to be dumb — to ignore the signs of danger, the truth, and my own knowing.

I learned normal and healthy aren’t the same thing. Normal can be healthy — like my body’s responses to harm and danger. Normal can also be unhealthy — like the culture of my family. “Normal” is simply “the norm.”

Unhealthy normals are sneaky and dangerous. As a highly social mammalian species, humans automatically gravitate towards “normal” to belong and be safe, as I did. But there is much we consider “normal” today that’s not only harmful, but new to our species.

Today, it’s considered normal to live in large cities with millions of other humans. In western cultures it’s considered normal to live in nuclear families where one or two adults are tasked with raising their children on their own. In the USA, it’s considered normal to strive to own a single-family house in a suburb separated from other people and essential services. It’s normal to work Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 5:00 (or 7:00 am to 9:00 pm). It’s normal to be able to access fats, sweets, and any fruit or vegetable any day year-round. It’s normal for each person to own at least one car, one stove, one refrigerator, one toilet, and three screens. It’s normal to expect children and sexually mature teenagers to be irresponsible and incompetent.

None of this is healthy. It’s also not normal. Our amnesia regarding our own history tricks us into thinking not only that today’s status quo is the best we’ve ever invented, but sometimes that it’s always been this way. But it’s only been 30 years since we all had computers and cell phones. It’s only been 100 years since we had electricity and indoor plumbing. It’s only been 5,000 years old since we invented writing and “civilization”. And it’s only been 10,000 years since we invented agriculture.

But we are a 300,000-year-old species who thrived for millennia without any of those things. We are only the latest of nine different human species who first emerged 2.5 million years ago. We’re children of eons of history we know little-to-nothing about. But what we do know is that their way of life sustained them for hundreds of thousands of years.

Our historical amnesia tricks us into thinking not only that today’s “normal” is the best we’ve ever invented, but that it’s always been this way.

Meanwhile, the clock is quickly running out on the “normal” we created mere seconds ago. Not only are most of us in “modern” societies emotionally and spiritually sicker than we’ve ever been, we’ve created systems, beliefs, habits, and expectations that threaten to annihilate us entirely, along with numerous other sentient species on this planet. Our “normal” may kill us all.

Unhealthy notions of “normal” trick us into thinking what “is” is the best there is. They raise expectations that should be lower, and lower expectations that should be higher. While we have impossibly high and inappropriate standards for work, romantic relationships, moms, and our physical appearance, we have inappropriately low standards for many other key areas of life. I’m only 53, but I remember when fresh produce from any commercial grocery store tasted better than what you get at organic stores and farmers’ markets today. I remember when political leaders disagreed but respected each other’s humanity and followed the rules. I remember when most people in authority acted when a problem was brought to their attention. I remember when most work was rigorous yet doable in 40 hours per week, decently paid, and not a source of constant fear and frustration.

Today, we think McDonald’s is food. We think constant anxiety and chaos is life, and we think jobs are mostly stress and bullshit. We think basic competence is excellence, and basic courtesy is exceptional. When people do what they say, keep their promises, follow up, show up, speak honestly yet kindly, and pay attention, we’re surprised.

It’s no wonder we’re starving even though we have more access to more food than ever before in human history. We’re undernourished even as we overeat and pack on pounds. It’s no wonder we’re lonely even though we can contact almost any human being anywhere in the world at any time of day. We’re deprived of human connection even though we’re bombarded by human stimuli every waking hour.

If people today could taste how normal food used to taste, feel how normal human connection used to feel, and experience how normal workplaces used to function, there would be widespread revolt.

Unhealthy notions of “normal” can therefore keep us down, make us small, and drain our individual and collective life force. They can be oppressive in other ways. It’s not a big leap to jump from “normal” to “better or desirable”. My family thought their brand of “abnormal” was “superior.” Ideas about what’s “normal” for family, sexuality, gender, race, industrialization, democracy, and “progress” are all infused with a hierarchy of what’s “best” that are neither superior nor even always “normal” from a historical perspective.

If people today could taste how normal food used to taste, feel how normal human connection used to feel, and experience how normal workplaces used to function, there would be widespread revolt.

Oppressive notions of “normal” as “better or desirable” assign value and create dehumanizing expectations. They also reduce the diversity that’s necessary for any species to thrive. People come in a vast range of bodies, perspectives, and experiences that are becoming less directly visible. When I attended public school in Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s, I took the bus to and from school with kids from different neighborhoods and grade levels. I attended class and played on the playground with kids from multiple social classes, races, ethnicities, nationalities, and languages. Every day I interacted with kids of diverse intelligences and abilities, including the developmentally and physically disabled.

Today, we’re more segregated than ever IRL. Middle class kids travel to and from school in the bubble of their parents’ SUV. They’re more segregated by race and class than before Brown v. Board of Education. Gifted, neurodivergent, Limited English Proficient, and developmentally disabled kids are separated and educated in different spaces than the “normal” kids. Benchmarks about kids’ height, weight, speech, and development have morphed into an exaggerated source of anxiety for many parents. All day every day, the internet, social media, and “mainstream” porn beam images of what “normal” and desirable human bodies look like into our brains, erasing the reality of our incredibly diverse human bodies.

“Normal” is just the middle of the bell curve. It’s not the reality for every single human being, nor should it be the goal. The bell curve is a curve — not one tall spike.

If people today could taste how normal food used to taste, feel how normal human connection used to feel, and experience how normal workplaces used to function, there would be widespread revolt.

Unhealthy notions of “normal” can also be dangerous by tricking us into thinking what “is” (normal) isn’t just the best, but all there is. It was once normal to think the earth was flat, and the center of the universe. It was once normal in Europe to think women who lived alone and knew plant medicine were evil. It was once normal to think black people weren’t human, and that disease was caused by forces called “humors”. We have limited ourselves and caused tremendous harm because we confused “normal” with “all there is”.

We still do. It’s normal to think there’s no reality beyond what we can detect with our five senses. It’s normal to think people who see ghosts, speak with the dead, or have contact with supernatural or extraterrestrial creatures are unhinged attention-seekers. It’s normal to think a person with cancer should “fight” their disease with poisonous, mutilating procedures. It’s normal to think earning money from investing in the stock market is humane, fair, and necessary. What are we missing, and who are we harming with our current notions of “normal” being “all there is”?

What are we missing, and who are we harming with our current notions of “normal”?

Normal can be unhealthy, oppressive, and dangerous. It can also be healthy, like my body’s responses to harm and deprivation. Like the responses of Sarah and Jamal to trauma, invisibility, and disrespect. Like any human’s desire to belong. Like our healthy, sacred need to have a “relational home” — a safe place with safe people where we can fully relax and be accepted.

We need a sense of “normal” to provide necessary stability. We need norms that define our values and establish rules for communal behavior. But we should also cultivate curiosity about when “normal” becomes unhealthy. We should live in the wise tension between the two and remain clear that they are not the same thing.

And we should actively protect adequate space for abnormality — not only because diversity is a strength that allows any species to adapt and survive, but because sometimes the abnormal is healthy. It’s always the weirdos that have the next best answer, and we murder and silence them at our own peril.

  • Names, nationalities, and details have all been changed to protect client confidentiality.

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Susana Rinderle

I write about civilization, personal healing, dating, politics, and the workplace. You know, light topics! I'm a trauma-informed coach. wordswisdomwellness.com