Normalizing Mental Illness Symptoms: The Good & Bad Ways

Normalizing mental illness symptoms: the validating and invalidating ways

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 to 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 you might be 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 non-MH professionals who don’t have a mental illness. It probably isn’t going to be helpful for someone saying that their cousin’s dog’s best friend went through the same thing when he was ill.

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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67 thoughts on “Normalizing Mental Illness Symptoms: The Good & Bad Ways”

  1. Happens all the time. You know the latest is that “Raina you are getting old, hence you WILL feel tired”. A doctor n a therapist said to me, when I said I told them I get tired. Wtf. I refuse to believe them. For the longest time I would not brush my teeth everyday and then as my healing began last year, I do now! You are right A, validation for whatever we are in the moment is the key! Hugs..

  2. Secretum Hortus

    Yes yes yes….I have experienced this all throughout my life. This is such a good post Ashley. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Normalising is almost another person’s way to make a person feel better about their perception of something either they are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable.

    People love to generalise too. Because if everyone does something then it is more accepted. If hardly anyone does it, it is not accepted so much. And we all prefer quick-fixes and solutions. But those with many long-term type illness whether physical, mental, emotional, they cannot be fixed and sometimes there is no solution. The person themselves are the solution usually.

    Example is:
    You say that you feel empty and sad today
    A person thinks, what can I say to help this person depending on their mood and how much they know you.
    They then come out with phrase such as:
    “It’s ok, we all get sad sometimes, it’s just a feeling, keep smiling.”

    Perhaps its said with all good intentions and the facts the person is saying may well be also correct. But its normalising and invalidating. It is limited sympathy at best.

    But here is the important point. People do not care about what you know. They care about how you feel about them.

    There is the difference also from sympathy and empathy.

    And sympathy is similar to the response above. However empathy is more like:
    “I’m really sorry you are feeling like that.” (Acknowledgement and validation) What has made you feel that way? (Interest in the person) I’m here if you need to talk.” (Giving that person some reassurance that you are there)
    Or something like that.

    People are often afraid to ask questions because they feel it’s being too private in their business, or they do not wish to know, do not have time, or they want to fix it straight away with a phrase.

    Others no matter how well intentioned cannot fix these types of of situations, feelings or even symptoms within a person, but what another person can do is acknowledge, validate, listen, show interest, empathise if you can and reassure.

    I hope that made some sense?!

      1. Secretum Hortus

        Thank you Ashley, sometimes I cannot explain things very well because of mind fog, and cannot think of the right words to use. It is the meds that do that, but I need them. 🙂

  3. This was a great read! I can totally relate to this. My family has a heard time understand what’s going on with me, and I have learned to accept it. I have therapy once a week and that helps me a lot. Thank you for posting this.

  4. Sorry, people (like me) can be ignorant. But what would YOU say to somebody letting themselves decompose for no apparent reason, somebody who can not or will not vocalize anything sensible? Is silence preferred to saccharine platitudes? We can’t all be psychotherapists, so how do we support depressed or psychotic or self-destructive loved ones? Everything we say, or even do, can easily be criticized for being insensitive or ignorant or worse, but not saying anything seems…cold-hearted and callously inhuman, and is harmful to our own psyches.

    1. One place to start is by asking questions about what’s going on for the person, and if there’s anything you can do to make things easier. If someone is ill enough that they’re unable to care for themselves, then more proactive attempts to get them connected with professional help are probably called for.

  5. I think there’s healthy vs non-healthy normalisation, and healthy normalisation includes validation, I feel.

    For me, it helped to hear “It’s normal to have these feelings” (anger bordering on rage, which I felt guilty about) from my therapist because she knows my history of abuse. Maybe tone and phrasing also matters, how it’s delivered. 🙂

  6. When I talk about my anxiety, panic attacks, OCD or depression, I get called crazy or made fun of. At times, I can take it and even laugh at the jokes. But some days, it takes me to a dark place of deep rage. I don’t know how to handle those types of situations. I try to be open about my mental health to the people I surround myself with on a regular basis in the event something happens. I didn’t expect them to use it against me for their punch line.

    1. That’s so uncalled for. People would never think of doing that for a serious physical illness, and there’s really no excuse for doing it with a mental illness.

  7. For those people that suffer disorders as depression, it’s not helpful the normalization of such aspects. They don’t understand or maybe they’re just trying to help, but it isn’t helpful. Anyways, I’m still trying by other ways and treatment to move on with my life and get better. One of these treatments is Transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy (TMS). It’s getting big results for me. I’ll keep you updated about my progress. Wish me good luck!

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