When distinguishing abnormal behavior from normal behavior. Society’s main standard of abnormality is whether the behavior fails to conform to prevailing ideas about what is socially expected of people. In contrast, when individuals assess the abnormality of their own behavior, their main criterion is whether that behavior fosters a sense of unhappiness and lack of well-being. Mental health professionals take still another perspective. They assess abnormality chiefly by looking for maladaptive personality traits, psychological dis- comfort regarding a particular behavior, and evidence that the behavior is preventing the person from functioning well in life.
These three approaches to identifying abnormal behavior are not always in agree- ment. For example, of the three people previously described, only Claudia considers her own behavior to be a genuine problem that is undermining her happiness and sense of well-being. In contrast to Claudia, Jack is not really bothered by his compulsive behavior (in fact, he sees it as a way of relieving anxiety); and Jonathan is not only content with being a loner, but he also experiences great comfort from the illusion of his dead mother’s presence. But now suppose we shift our focus and adopt society’s perspective. In this case, we must include Jonathan on our list of those whose behavior is abnormal. His self-imposed isolation and talk of sensing his mother’s ghost violate social expecta- tions of how people should think and act. Society would not consider Jonathan normal. Neither would a mental health professional. In fact, from the perspective of a mental health professional, all three of these cases show evidence of a psychological disorder. The people involved may not always be distressed by their own behavior, but that behav- ior is impairing their ability to function well in everyday settings or in social relation- ships. The point is that there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes abnormal behavior. Distinguishing between normal and abnormal behavior always depends on the perspective taken.
Identifying behavior as abnormal is also a matter of degree. To understand why, imag- ine that each of our three cases is slightly less extreme. Jack is still prone to double-checking, but he doesn’t check over and over again. Claudia still spends much time on her hair, but she doesn’t do so constantly and not with such chronic dissatisfaction. As for Jonathan, he only occasionally withdraws from social contact; and he has had the sense of his dead mother’s presence just twice over the last 3 years. In these less severe situations, a mental health pro- fessional would not be so ready to diagnose a mental disorder. Clearly, great care must be taken when separating mental health and mental illness into two qualitatively different cate- gories. It is often more accurate to think of mental illness as simply being quantitatively dif- ferent from normal behavior—that is, different in degree. The line between one and the other is often somewhat arbitrary. Cases are always much easier to judge when they fall at the extreme end of a dimension than when they fall near the “dividing line.”