I got thinking about this recently because my best friend is a normalizer, and it really doesn’t feel very good sometimes. But there are other times when normalizing aspects of mental illness can be helpful. So what’s the difference?
The invalidating way
A little while back, I told my best friend that I was heading out do some shopping despite being smelly from not having showered for several days. He said it was no big deal, and added “I don’t shower every day. Sometimes the effort isn’t worth it.”
With good intentions, he was trying to convey that it’s okay to not be okay. However, the message that came through to me from his words was that the effects of my illness were so minor that they were just part of normal experience. That, with undertones of “you’re not actually ill right now. This is just normal you.”
Because I know him very well and know that normalization is an automatic, default response for him, I can talk myself out of that message that I perceive that he’s sending without too much effort. It still annoys the hell out of me, though.
The problem with minimizing or normalizing the effect(s) someone has due to their illness is that it invalidates that it is an illness experience. Even if something like not showering could be within the realm of normal experience, if I’m only experiencing it because of my illness, then that’s not “normal”; it’s an illness symptom. No matter how well-intentioned, this kind of invalidation can be really damaging. Rather than alleviating distress, which is probably what was intended, it sends the message to the person that what they’re experiencing is them, not their illness. For me, at least, that separation of what’s me and what’s illness is a very important coping mechanism.
The helpful way
Mental illness can produce some weird effects. It can be easy to start feeling like a freaktastic weirdo with whatever strange symptom it might be that you’re experiencing. But if you hear from your healthcare provider or from someone else with a similar diagnosis that what you’re experiencing is normal for people who have your illness, all of a sudden you’re a lot less freaktastic.
This is different from the other kind of normalizing in that it acknowledges the distress and frames it within the context of illness. That then opens up the potential to connect with other people with the same illness to talk freely about that same freaktastic symptom that they may also be experiencing.
This kind of normalization is hard, if not impossible, to do for people who neither have mental illness nor are health professionals. Someone saying that their cousin’s dog’s best friend experienced the same kind of thing when he was ill is probably not going to be that helpful.
When in doubt, validate
It’s not always clear what approach someone is going to respond best to. My take on it is that validation will always be a good option. That conveys acceptance of the distress that the person is in without evaluating it. Validation makes people feel heard.
As for my best friend, he’s working on the validation. And I’m trying to keep a lid on my reactions when normalization slips out. It’s a work in progress.
Have you had experiences with people normalizing mental illness, either in a positive or negative way?
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