In our NAMI support group and Family-to-Family Education Program, we use two interesting words that I never gave much thought to before: normative and normalize. As I was preparing to co-teach Class 1, these two words sounded like jargon to me. Why not just use the word normal instead? I wondered what these words meant, so I looked them up in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, and here’s what I found:
- to make conform to or reduce to a norm or standard
- of, relating to, or determining norms or standards
I was not enlightened.
I did some online research to find out more about the definitions of these two words in the context of psychiatry and psychology, and here’s what I came up with:
- pertaining to a standard, model, or pattern. In NAMI, the commonly used Stages of Emotional Response chart presents the normative stages of coming through the trauma of mental illness. In other words, we all tend to follow a predictable pattern in moving from crisis and chaos to coping and then to advocacy.
- to present feelings and behaviors that might seem extreme as common – little or no different from feelings and behaviors of most people.
Normalizing can be counterproductive or productive:
- In a counterproductive way: When we’re in denial, we normalize what we’re experiencing, feeling, and observing by thinking and saying things such as, “everyone has ups and downs,” “he just has a higher tolerance for risk than most people,” and “I get much more energetic in the spring, too!” We don’t want to admit that we or a loved one has a mental illness, so we try to explain behaviors as something other than symptoms of an illness.
- In a productive way: We normalize feelings and behaviors to reduce or eliminate stigma. For example, if I recognize that nobody really likes to take medication, it helps me see my ill relative who refuses to take her medication as not very different from the majority of people in the world. We also normalize behaviors to develop a sense of empathy.
Please let us know what you think. If you have other definitions or understandings of these two terms, please share. Also, if you have examples of any normative responses to mental illness or ways in which you have normalized feelings or behaviors (productively or counterproductively), please share your thoughts.
Bell curve image available from Shutterstock.