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“The Paradox of Normal”:  Power or Oppression?

“Normal” may be defined in any number of ways:

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To define normal in statistical terms, we first define a population, then determine the frequency of a particular variable of interest (e.g., height), draw an arbitrary line, and those who fall on one side of that line are deemed “normal”, and those who fall on the other side of that line are something other than normal (e.g., not normal, abnormal, below average, above average, etc.).  Statistics are presented numerically, and, therefore, create an illusion of objectivity, but we must not forget that the line which defines normal has always been arbitrarily defined in the first place. 

We may choose to define normal based on societal norms.  For example, being over 6-feet tall may be said to be statistically-defined as “abnormal” (because less than half of people are over 6-feet), but when a society acknowledges that being tall is not of much interest or importance, then being over 6-feet tall, by a societal definition, becomes normal. 

Then there is the definition of normal as subjective discomfort.  If a person experiences significant distress, then this is deemed “abnormal,” but if there is no discomfort, then there is no “abnormality.”  For example, a person who is well-over 6-feet tall (let’s say 7-feet), may be considered “abnormal” by a statistical definition, and “abnormal” by a societal definition, however, if he is happy or simply not bothered by his “excessive” height, he would be considered “normal” if our definition of “normal” is based on subjective discomfort.

In evolutionary terms, a paradox surrounds “normal.”  Specifically, there is a great tendency to “fit in” and “be normal” so as to enjoy all the benefits of being part of the group.  But there is also a great pressure to be “abnormal” in some ways (e.g., the fastest and strongest to be successful hunting for food, the best looking to be successful at attracting a mate, the smartest and most creative to be successful in solving a new problem).  Thus we see that the “paradox of normal” is that it can both empower and oppress. 


Do you encourage your child to “sit there and do as you’re told,” or do you encourage your child to, “think outside of the box”?  The trick is, of course, to strike a balance between the two.  “Playing the game” by the rules is a necessary part of the process, but so too is questioning the validity of the norm, helping your child accept the lessons of his challenges, and helping him to see the strength of his individuality.