Average vs. Normal

I was talking with my therapist the other day about the difference between "average" and "normal." On a mathematical level, the two words are intimiately linked.  On an etymological level--or at least the way many people with EDs think of or use the words--they have slightly different implications.  I want to become more "normal" with respect to eating and exercise habits,* but I was also afraid that lessening my perfectionism would make me merely "average."

I'll be honest: I don't like being called "average." It makes me squirm a bit. Much of it is my own rather demanding personality--if I'm average at something that means people are doing better than me. I took plenty of statistics classes in grad school. I know that the very way "average" is defined mathematically means that most of us are average at most things. In some areas, it doesn't bother me to think of myself as average.  I know I'm an average driver. I would be flattered to be thought of as average as drawing (I have a problem with depth perception that makes things look wonky) or, for that matter, most sports.

I don't hate to be called average because of some deep-seated need to be special. It's that my deepest fear is that I will be a failure.  I'm also a perfectionist.  That means I have always equated average with failure.  To be average means I have failed.  If I don't have a large piece of who I am staked on that factor, like driving or drawing, I can dismiss it without much of a twinge.  But in those areas in which I've invested a lot of time, effort, and money, it becomes a lot harder to just accept average.

It's a perfectionism and self-esteem thing, I think.  I need outside feedback because it's hard for me to judge if I've done a good job or if I'm good enough unless someone specifically tells me.  It's never happened internally.  If I'm average, I don't really get meaningful feedback, so I seek to excel.  It does away with the anxiety of not being able to judge myself and my performance.

For some reason, normal doesn't have the same connotation. It means (to me, anyway) sort of a shortcut for as expected.  My bloodwork is normal.  My weight is normal.  That sort of thing. It has more of a positive spin than average, which in the US is code for "meh" at best.

The moral of the story really isn't to delve into my strange, dark fears (though I'm aware that fear of failure is very common. Shall we say "normal"?) and admittedly rather messed up way of thinking, just that switching words around can make a daunting task (ie, recovery) seem a little easier to tolerate.

*Yes, most people in our culture are pretty messed up around food. I guess I mean normalized eating rather than "normal" in the sense of that's-what-everyone-else-is-doing normal.

**I know, I know. Normal is just a setting on a washing machine. There is no one "normal" weight or way of eating or whatever.  I guess normal is another way of saying "within reason" or "in a way that isn't harmful to your health."

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hm said...

Too true, too true. And no one wants to be "abnormal"- but people do want to be exceptional- or, not average. Also, normal pretty much just implies "healthy"- but average usually implies a bit of both extremes, good and bad.

Cathy (UK) said...

I am a little confused by this post. You write:

"In some areas, it doesn't bother me to think of myself as average. I know I'm an average driver. I would be flattered to be thought of as average as drawing (I have a problem with depth perception that makes things look wonky) or, for that matter, most sports."

So what do you NOT want to be average at, or to excel at: eating and exercise habits (as you mention at the start of the post)?

If so, how does a person 'excel' in their eating and exercise habits?

Anonymous said...

"So what do you NOT want to be average at...?" Great question, Cathy, one that really resonates with my own struggles, because like Carrie, some things are important to me while others, not so much. But Carrie does answer that question: Those areas in which she has invested a lot of time, effort, and money. I would suggest that it's those areas that particularly define who we are, in our minds. So, I'm a teacher; I want to be a better than average teacher. That's not a problem in itself, except that my sense of being better than average is so unstable and, like Carrie, overly dependent on feedback from others. Also, better than average has also come to mean among the best, at least relative to my small sphere of comparison. Of course this relates to eating disorders and how we define ourselves by them, often to the exclusion of everything else.

hm said...

...and dare I say... if I was in a class on how to have an eating disorder, I'd get an 'A.' But at recovery I'm getting a 'C' at best. I was just discussing this on another blog. That sure makes it difficult to stay motivated!

Anonymous said...

A familiar feeling for me too... "Average" feels too much like an edge, like if I ever lose ground from there, I'm going to find myself among the "worse than average". I need to be better than average, as a buffer for potential failures. "Normal", on the other hand, seems to describe a whole comfortable zone. Once you're in there, you can freely move about within it, but why would you leave it?

Cathy: Excelling in one's eating habits makes a lot of sense to me (perhaps a sign that I'm a little disordered). It means having a balanced diet when it comes to types of food, amounts, times. Like Carrie said, many people don't eat right in our culture, so it's not that hard to be "average" (speaking for myself, my ED's virtually gone), but I keep feeling that it's not enough.

I feel like I shouldn't snack at any time of the day, I should eat more veggies and less sugar, etc. Then again, mostly I'm just so happy that I'm not binging and purging anymore. In that sense, I am in fact "average", just not exemplary.

Cathy (UK) said...

By the way, I will add that I think your science articles are excellent Carrie. So I conclude that you do indeed succeed in an important area!

Anonymous said...

one way of flipping it around is to continue to work on excelling at your recovery, case in point, this blog and all that you do to support others and their recovery. You've mastered the eating disorder, unfortunately, so give yourself permission to invest your time, energy and resources into your recovery!

Jessie said...

Good to know I'm not the only one. I have this paralyzing fear of failing at anything, and a neck-and-under paralyzing fear of being 'average.' No one likes being average. But normal... well that's a way I can think of myself. One day I will be able to eat 'normally', which in my book, means not obsessive about the calories and burning it off, but, dare I say, enjoy it, but also not overeat, which I doubt will ever be a problem for me.
You make a really good point. I know you can do this Carrie, stay strong!

Incredible Eating Anorexics said...

i relate to this so much. what do you want to be average at and when is average not enough....either of the two extremes at the other side are all that is good enough...

HungryMac said...

This whole post makes total sense to me. I love this: "It's a perfectionism and self-esteem thing, I think. I need outside feedback because it's hard for me to judge if I've done a good job or if I'm good enough unless someone specifically tells me." Totally dead on for me and a skill I'm working towards adding. The ED voice yells louder than the positive feedback sometimes and certainly has yelled louder than my OWN positive feedback forever. So I'm sorting through and trying to listen for the positive voices instead of the ED ones. (ANd by voices I guess I mean "thoughts" - I don't need to add another thing to my list of ways my brain is goofy! LOL)

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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