Last week's blog was on Validation. This time, we're going to look at Normalization.
Let's refer back to the Instagram post differentiating betwixt the two -
Validation is affirming the existence of a feeling and the inherent worth of it. But Normalization is making sense of a feeling based on its context. The historical context could be something as far back as childhood or as recent as the present moment.
We often have great difficulty with our present-day feelings, thoughts and somatic experiences. We tend to judge ourselves, shame ourselves and basically perpetuate the state that underlies these. We think that our feelings are some sort of defect, we're cut off from the somatic and we experience our thoughts as an invasion. It all gets very out of control.
Having some normalization can help. It's a way to make sense of how we feel now in relation to the past or the precipitating event(s). It helps to make the experience less chaotic and can bring a sense of "oh, that makes sense now."
Normalization doesn't really fix the issue. But it does help to make sense of it. Often times, this might be enough to self-regulate or make a different choice. Normalization can be instrumental in the process of ladder climbing. It can help someone to come out of their shutdown and into some righteous anger. It can help someone to come from a sympathetic flight/fight state into a calmer and connected state.
I find myself being extremely unsurprised by what my clients report about their current problems and the context of where these problems came from. I sort of expect my clients - any of us, really - to live in defensive states after living through something that would get them stuck there. Or not having certain needs met and not experiencing healthy co-regulation. The presenting problems they come to therapy with are normal reactions to abnormal situations. They make sense. I'd be more surprised if someone didn't have some sort of presenting problem when considering the larger context of their lives.
Let's do some practice with normalizing. Read what Person 1 is saying below and do the best you can to make sense of what they're saying within the context of their life.
Person 1: "I just feel completely disconnected and alone. My parents didn't pay much attention to me and I was left to sort of just take care of myself. Never really felt much love from them."
Pretty simple, right? What about this can be normalized? I would hone in on the feeling of being disconnected and alone. And it makes sense why they would feel this way - they never had a terribly strong, loving connection with their parents. And having that is pretty essential to being able to feel connection later on in life. The feelings of disconnected and alone make sense within this small context of their life.
Let's do the exercise again -
Person 2: "I'm pissed! My f***ing boss is changing my schedule duties and leaving me with the worst people on my shift!"
What can be normalized here? It makes sense to me that someone could be angry by a sudden change in their work schedule that is less than ideal. So as a listener, I can make a normalizing statement along those lines, like "Yeah, I can see why you'd feel that way. I'd be pissed off too if my boss did that to me!" It tells Person 2 they're not only being listened to, but their feelings are okay and make sense and are relatable.
Would you potentially feel the same way with similar contexts? That might be helpful for you as a listener. To ask yourself - If I were in a similar situation, would I feel something similar? Or at least, does it make sense the other person feels that way? This is potentially problem territory, since we so easily tell others that they are overreacting and minimize their feelings or the problem. But someone who is in their safe/social state will be able to answer that question and offer some normalization.
For the self
Now let's turn the lens toward yourself. It's not easy to normalize our own stuff. You might look back at your childhood and idealize it, even if it wasn't ideal. You might minimize and invalidate your feelings and the context of those feelings.
So maybe it's most helpful to start with a simple agreement. And here it is - your feelings are probably not random. Can we agree on that? You might not be able to make sense of your inner world and give yourself the normalization that you need. But maybe you can at least normalize the fact that your feelings are probably not random.
Feelings are there for a reason. They serve a purpose. I've never met with someone in therapy or otherwise that I thought had truly random feelings. The feelings are consistently tied to a polyvagal state on the ladder. And that polyvagal state is consistently tied to some sort of context. Even if you don't know the context, can you normalize that your feelings, your thoughts, your somatics are there for a reason?
I hope that's helpful. If you thought this was, you might be interested in my Patreon. It's an entirely separate podcast for members that are paying $5/mo. Every week, I release at least one mini episode of around 10 minutes. Usually I release more than one short episode as well as my Open Letters and Instagram audio. Trust me - it's a lot!