Normality from psychology to Lacan

The human sciences have provided a discourse of normal vs abnormal to discuss our inner worlds.

This discourse has created a pathological approach to subjectivity by influencing us towards a medicalised view of the human condition. It proclaims that at the root of human suffering are psychological problems that are treatable, either by therapy, medication or self-help techniques. The belief that there is an objective measure of “normal” that we should all be achieving fundamentally encapsulates what it means to be a human in the 21st century. There is very little space outside of this normal/abnormal dichotomy for a human trait or behaviour that isn’t ubiquitous.

We are able to discuss emotions and thoughts with an ease not afforded to older generations. Campaigns to reduce mental health stigma have had a significant impact on how we discuss subjectivity. Our new-found ability to talk about suffering is a positive change, unfortunately this change coincides with pathologising language. The influence of this medicalised discourse can be seen in our use of words like ‘crazy’,’unhinged’ and ‘mental health’, it seems to suppress the subtle nuances of trying to put into words what it is to be human and replaces it with the term “it’s a severe mental illness”.

We can talk about personal growth and empowerment, about being inspired and fulfilled. There is a belief that we could all undertake some sort of journey to achieve the ultimate goal of normality. A normality where worry and anxiety don’t really exist, a normality where we are able to work and enjoy, within a vacuum, fitting in and being self-reliant. We seek masters to tell us what to do and how to do it. Treatments and techniques to rid us of our problems.

What about an alternative?

One of the things that appeals about Lacanian diagnostics is the complete absence of a ‘normal’ clinical structure, there is no position of ‘mental health’. With Lacan you are either psychotic, neurotic or perverse. Any ideas of cohesive, sane, rational people are phantasms, as all subjects are split subjects. We lack. Contrary to most ego-centric ideas there is no solid self to be found underlying everything and ‘running the show’, if we just keep looking, we won’t find it. We are alienated by language, within inter-subjectivity we can have beliefs about ourselves, a conscious ego, but that is not a cohesive subject, it is not a Cartesian subject.

“When we choose thought we lose being” Tony Myers

Therapy culture can attempt to try to strengthen the ego, as if an ego free of lack is a normal and healthy one. We can seek masters that can empower us towards completeness and the ‘rational standard’. We can judge ourselves for our ‘psychological problems’ and weirdness. Or we can accept that we lack and that normality does not exist. There are very few places that can allow us to explore this and act as a vehicle towards that acceptance, but paradoxically certain types of therapy can be one of those places. Just don’t expect to find a master that does not lack

 

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18 thoughts on “Normality from psychology to Lacan

  1. Yes Lacan one of my favorites questions seriously the stability of the self. The self has to do a tight rope walking between the ID EGO and Super Ego. To deconstruct all of them like deify the ID transcend the EGO and subvert the Super Ego could be seen as a triumph of individuality. The language of the unconscious as Lacan said is that which we have no control of. Anand Bose from Kerala.

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  2. I studied this so many times in undergrad and grad school and it is funny how accurate it is, though sometimes I wonder if it sometimes we make it so sort of as a self-fulfilling prophecy? We base normal on society’s norm and then make theories and models on it and though this is based on fairly solid things such as murder being wrong but then to what degree when people say it’s self defense or to keep a person from harming their child further? Or when then a person hears a voice in their head and says it is their conscience telling them right from wrong and it is actually doing the job it is supposed to but then when that same person 20 years later begins saying that same voice told him to kill 30 people because it was right to cleanse them of their sins because their conscience said so. Where do you find the line of normal versus abnormal and whose version is correlates most accurate as society is ever changing?

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  3. Another great post! If you haven’t, I’d say it’s worth reading Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung. Humans use symbols and identifiers to understand everything – what we term ‘knowledge’ consists of these symbols and their relations (i.e. dogs have four legs). However, this way of thinking has serious downfalls, especially in light of mental illness. Jung says that symbols are imperfect representations – they only capture what is on the surface of the thing. The true essence of the thing is unnameable – once you give it a name or a symbol, you are effectively removing it from the truth. I believe this is true with mental illness, and I hadn’t heard of Lacan before so I am interested to look into it further. The idea of ‘normalcy’ is only problematic. If we continue to depend on labels, we will close off our ability to have a deeper understanding of the essence of things, and instead will only understand to the extent of our faulty systems of knowledge.

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  4. Very interesting. Thank you for adding to the conversation about human suffering and mental illness. However, in general, I do not think that the medical culture promises normalcy or a “cure” from mental suffering. In my experience, mental health has been viewed as a chronic condition that can be managed. Our culture values productivity and busyness at the expense of personal care and wellbeing. We tend to take a symptomatic approach rather than a preventative approach to our health. Therefore, I do agree that education regarding stress levels, mood, and self-care is warranted in order to determine whether or not medication is truly needed. However, I think that the mental illness movement / conversation has moved culture in this direction by diminishing the shame surrounding emotions, pain, and suffering. Thanks again for your post! I look forward to reading more. I am curious, what is your personal experience with mental illness? Also, where do you receive your information for posts (research, articles, books, etc.)?

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    • Education schools about looking after mental as well as physical health would be good. Even simply problem solving skills and validation of emotions wouldn’t go amiss.
      I get my information from Google mainly! I have access to academic papers and publications. My books I access online as well. In terms of personal experience of mental illness, I have experienced it myself, I suppose that is where my writing comes from to a certain extent, but as I work clinically within the NHS I don’t wish for this blog to be about that. I think we all suffer, even mental health professionals. One of my posts on my guest blog post covered that issue.

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  5. With Freud you get genital position which is your barometer for maturity and normality, which as long as one is on the right side of this demarcation, as long as you are free from fixations you are free from pathology. For Lacan this last stage is an ideality and genital sexual union is impossible, to exist is to be pathologised.

    If the difference between normal and abnormality is less a question of a possession of a quality and more of degree, so what becomes of normality? I think that you are correct where you suggest that in everyday discourse is still replete with a moralising medical discourse. Mental illness is to regresss to a childlike state of dependency which violates the norms of individuality. Here, those of us who assume this position, remind others of their own neurotic fears of inadedequcy. One hopes that our growing ability to talk more openly about mental illness will help flush out such discourse and also allow people to be kinder on themselves.

    Today’s medical discourse defines itself in the rejection of such moralising discourse, and if mental illness is a question of degree, the quantification this implies makes it a rich and fertile ground for measure. In terms of public provisioning of services to those suffering mental illness, the measure of how serious the illness is whether you can hold down a job, avoid committing violent crime and self harm. Ameliorative response to mental illness short of this criteria is modeled on individuals doing it for themselves (necessarily so given considerations of cost effectiveness) taking pills and learning skills, SSRI’s and CBT in order to self manage ones affliction. Other modes of treatment are not so easy to quantify.

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    • Really good comment, you’ve certainly added to the debate. Thank you.
      I hadn’t thought about people being reminded of their own fears of inadequacy, I’ve always thought of prejudice as fear of the unknown, but actually when we can see ourselves in others that can be a cause for malice. Makes me think of the gay veteran in American Beauty.

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    • Thank-You for your thoughtful comment. CBT is easier to quantify, but I’d argue partly because CBT places a high value on measures. In theory psychotherapists could get patients to fill out questionnaires every sessions. I’m sure there is one that attempts to quantify the therapeutic relationship!

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    • The avatar here is excellent, too.

      In regards to the perception of normal behavior, I wonder about processes that become externalized and mechanized, through computers, memory gives way to databases, buying and selling to algorithm, storytelling to film, etc., and their effect on perceived mental health. On the one hand, open platforms and popular use allows behavior to be liberated, expressed, recognized and legitimized. However, automation takes being out of process, and mechanization controls perspective, manufactures behavior, etc. It’s a curious balance between allowing expression and restricting it.

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