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What's Normal? Part II

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 54 - July 2000

The problem of normality in the field of psychology is a complicated one, diffused as it is with theories of health. The difficulty is that each practitioner has his own notion of what 'human nature' is, and what a healthy individual should look like. And these fundamental theories of what is normal may be explicit or, as is more often the case, implicit and unstated.

There are deep-ranging currents that each psychologist may or may not admit, but nevertheless expects his patients to approach some hidden definition of normality, for example, that everyone ought to be heterosexual. Thus, anyone entering his treatment room who does not share this conception is expected to undergo a major transformation in order to please the therapist (or if wise, seek another, more enlightened therapist). And often, therapists may not even be aware of their own underlying assumptions.

Some people accept a purely arithmetic definition of normality, what fits most people. But the word 'normal' also has a broader connotation. In one sense, the 'norm' is the statistical average; this sense of it is too often confused with the notion of normality as health.

But it is obviously possible for a person to fit the norm, and yet be unhealthy, For example, in a society where most people have malaria, it is statistically speaking 'normal' to have this infection, but no one would call this pathological condition healthy. It is useful to keep this in mind when discussing what is 'normal.'

Thus, we see that statistical approaches err in omitting the human dimension. A humanization of psychology is necessary here.

A certain amount of eccentricity and nay-saying to the social code is probably a positive thing, despite those psychologists who stress adaptation to society. In thinking about this question of mental health vs. mental illness, mere conformity is not such a positive trait.

Of course, the traditional psychologist follows Freud in labelling abnormal any behaviour that deviates from society's norms. Freud's seminal book, Civilization and its Discontents (1930) states clearly that man must give up his instinctual desires and give in to the demands of a restrictive civilized society. Thus, the normal person adapts himself to his social environment.

However, there are other dissenting views. Otto Rank, for example, offers an enlightening theory of mental health and illness, viewing it in pyramid fashion (see Fig. 1). Rank was one of Freud's earlier followers who was later ejected from the psychoanalytic movement because of his many unorthodox ideas, which didn't fit the strict mould of mainstream psychoanalysis. (For an in-depth picture of Rank the man, see the diaries of Anais Nin, where he is depicted as an insightful and sensitive soul.)


At the base of the pyramid, Rank places the bulk of humanity 'the dull normals'. These people conform to society, accepting its framework without question, and duly adjust to a routine existence largely devoid of creativity. At the top of the cone, containing only a few individuals, Rank places the 'artist,' whom he considers to be the healthiest personality. For Rank, an 'artist' is any creative person, someone who is using his creative powers in a productive way. This is because Rank considers the creative impulse as a basic criterion for mental health. A man who sees profoundly into life and who can express this vision to others, whether he is a painter or scientist, teacher or other creative type, is healthy. (Those who cannot creatively express themselves are, in this theory, the unhealthy... no matter how well-adjusted or 'successful' in society's terms.)

The key is creative expression vs. stagnation. As Rank admits, the artist is usually not adjusted to the everyday world of the dull normals — that explains his often bizarre behaviour; therefore he appears alien and is prone to be rejected and condemned by others who cannot understand him... as was Copernicus, Bruno, Semmelweiss, Cantor, and many other great thinkers. Nevertheless, despite rejection by society, the artist is still, in Rank's formulation, the healthiest person because he is expressing his fullest creative abilities, using the vital force of creative energy.

In between these two extremities, Rank places the remainder of us, whom he labels 'neurotic.' The neurotic is someone who has rejected the world 'as is,' the complacent, mundane world of the dull-normal, but who has not yet attained the creative capacity of the artist. So the neurotic is placed in between on the pyramid scale. In this sense, Rank defines the neurotic as an 'unsuccessful artist.' He is striving to express his creativity, but because of his neurotic hang-ups, blocks, limitations, etc., he cannot do so. Still, Rank considers him nobler than the 'normal,' in that the neurotic has rejected the rigid, traditional fabric; he is at least struggling, he doesn't merely accept the status quo. But he hasn't yet constructed his own vision which he can communicate. In summary, the 'artist' who has formulated his own vision and can express his potentiality, is a healthy person; the 'neurotic' strives upward in this direction, but fails to achieve its expression; the 'normals' – which includes most people, placed at the base of the pyramid, are least healthy in that they passively accept things as they are, and do not search for anything.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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