May 16

The Psychopathology of Normal

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Articles | 5 Comments

Alexi Berry

Painting by Alexi Berry

  “What we call normal in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily.” This is a quote by Abraham Maslow, the theorist who gave us the idea of the hierarchy of needs (once your basic needs are met you begin to seek higher needs) and the idea of self-actualization.

Maslow’s point is that being normal, being average, although normally perceived as okay, is pathology. Pathology can be simply defined as disease or sickness. The free online dictionary’s definition of psychopathology is “The study of the origin, development, and manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders,” or “the manifestation of a mental or behavioral disorder.” It should also be clarified what is meant by being average. Most people would be offended if someone were to say that they were average. Yet, by definition, most are. Average in psychological terms is where most people are. Average is a huge category, encompassing the majority of the population. Those that are not average are outliers. Outliers are the small percentage at either end of the curve. They are either well below average, or well above. Average in this sense doesn’t have much to do with not being an individual. You can be an individual yet fall well within the average.

So now that we are all feeling insulted, lets discuss what Maslow was getting at, and why it is so important. Maslow’s contention was that one goal of humans to self-actualize, to become all they can in a lifelong process of self-improvement. He also contended that all humans have this potential to self-actualize. But before that can happen, other needs which are positioned below self actualization must be met. These include physiological needs, needs for safety, needs for love and belonging, and the need for esteem. Once these needs are met, the individual can look toward self actualization. What he is saying is that not striving toward being all you can be is your pathology. And he is using this bold statement to get your attention and to encourage you to take action.

It can be assumed most people in this country (particularly if you are reading this article online) have these lower needs met. Most have enough food, water, and shelter. Likely we do not feel constant threats to our safety. And, hopefully, we feel loved and a sense of belonging. So with these needs met, we can move toward feeling esteemed. This need encompasses self confidence, feeling competent, and believing at least some others hold you in high esteem. Again, it seems reasonable that many readers are having these needs met as well. This is not to say you feel this way all of the time. There may always be flare-ups of self doubt. But it is understood that generally, most of the time, you feel confident in yourself and your abilities, and that others believe you to be as well. So, with all of these important needs met, why aren’t more people becoming self actualized?

The answer is simple: we become satisfied (or perhaps more accurately stated: we don’t realize the actual reason we aren’t satisfied) with these lower, but important needs. Then, instead of working toward self-actualization we become consumers: keeping up with the Joneses, being the first on our block to have the newest gadget, over-indulging in “entertainment needs” (movies, television, trips) and otherwise trying to fill the yearning for a higher purpose with purchases, rather than self-work.

It stands to reason then, that the solution is simple as well. Perhaps what is keeping the majority of people from self actualizing is that they are misinterpreting their yearning for self-actualization as a need for more of something else: More love, more things, more fun. So the solution is to cease filling this void with things, and instead, focus on you, and what you can be. What are you doing that is creative? What are you doing to exercise your mind? What are you doing to make the planet (and your brothers and sisters on it) better? What are you doing to be happier with you, rather than your possessions? Answer these questions and begin your movement toward self-actualization.

If you still have trouble getting started or maintaining progress, it is possible that there are unconscious forces that lie within you that are keeping you stagnated. One suggestion is to enter therapy so you can discover these blocks, remove them, and get back on track. In my opinion, making the unconscious more conscious is one of the most beneficial aspects of therapy. So often today we view therapy simply as a place to vent or get some direction with other life problems. But at its best, therapy is geared toward insight, toward understanding yourself, and to becoming self-actualized. Good luck on your journey.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 16th, 2009 at 9:39 PM and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “The Psychopathology of Normal”

  1. Escaping or Embracing Life - Blog - William Berry, MS, CAP on January 18th, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    [...] lot of this relates to what I wrote in “The Psychopathology of Normal” which came from a quote by Maslow. And the purpose of writing about it again is similar, the [...]

  2. Jalmar Vega on March 12th, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    I found your post to be quite inspirational and enlightening. That defines exactly what my perception of being “normal” is. Great work.

  3. William Berry on March 12th, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    Thank you for your comment Jalmar.
    It truly is my goal to help everyone motivate themselves toward self-actualization and embracing their life. Glad you found it so.

  4. Steve Hauptman, LCSW on June 26th, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    I remember in grad school feeling startled by my supervisor’s view of normal pathology: “The healthiest any of us will ever get,” he said, “is neurotic.” It’s a long time since I found that idea startling. My own view is that “normality” is everyone’s primary defense against the anxiety that arises from being different and risking rejection or conflict — i.e., our way of controlling how others react to us. Which is why I see all normal pathology as rooted in the addiction to control (which is what I blog about at

  5. Wonda Ape on December 4th, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    Maybe for you, but not for him. He’s the genius.

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