Are You Normal or Nuts?

Find out what human behavior crosses the line from wacky to worrisome, and what you really shouldn't worry about.

By Jancee Dunn | May 2010

We all like to think we’re regular folk, but even the most straitlaced among us has a boatload of habits that are downright peculiar. Which is as it should be. We’re only human, which means we’re all a little weird. As Whoopi Goldberg put it, "’Normal’ is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine." So it’s a sure bet that your nutty quirk-the one you think is so freakishly unusual-is shared by plenty of other people, whether it’s an addiction to lip balm (yes, there’s a Lip Balm Anonymous) or peladophobia (fear of bald people).

But there’s a difference between wacky and worrisome. For this year’s installment of Normal or Nuts? we received a torrent of questions from readers who courageously described their various phobias, foibles, and out-there habits. And because we are here not to judge but to help, we ran the letters by a panel of experts to discern which of these behaviors are charmingly eccentric and which may require professional attention. Here’s what they said.

I’m scared of flying. Let me correct that: I don’t mind flying, but I can’t stand being cooped up on a plane. If the doors don’t open immediately after we land, I get sweaty, my heart starts pounding, and I feel like I’m going to start screaming. Traveling just isn’t worth the anguish to me, but my wife is getting mad. Can anything help?

Yes–and we don’t mean hefty penalties for airlines that keep planes sitting on the tarmac for hours. Your fear stems from the fact that you’re not in the driver’s seat, says Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist and founder of SOAR, a fear-of-flying program. "Backup systems in a plane make flying safer than driving," he says. "But these systems are in the cockpit, where they seem theoretical. They’re not as real to a passenger as a steering wheel."

Your panic at your lack of control is followed by an urge to escape and run screaming toward the door. That option is blocked, too, "and that causes the feeling of claustrophobia," says Bunn.

What works better than popping meds, says psychologist Sally A. Theran, PhD, of Wellesley College, are cognitive behavioral methods, like building up your tolerance to anxiety using a flight simulator (mimicking a passenger’s experience) or practicing sitting in small spaces, both best done with the help of a therapist. "Your fears are interfering with your ability to travel and your relationship with your wife," says Theran. Are you going to deny the poor woman her dream of standing at the foot of the Acropolis? After all she’s done for you!

I hate to have my feet touch the ground. I’m fine when I’m walking, but when I have to stand still, I get this weird tense feeling in my stomach. It’s worse when I’m standing near a chair-I can’t think of anything but my urge to get my feet off the floor.

If you’re calm only when you’re walking, then for the majority of your day, you’re feeling anxious–even if you’re a mailman or a waiter. "Your description suggests that this is an obsession," says Michael J. Peterson, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin. He says people are usually able to describe an obsession as irrational or excessive ("It doesn’t make sense, but …"), yet they’re unable to put it out of their mind or convince themselves not to act on it. Does this sound like you?

Pulling your feet off the floor, on the other hand, sounds like a compulsion, an action you take to manage your obsessive thoughts. Compulsions often revolve around safety concerns; worry about germ contamination is a common motivator, says New York City psychologist Nando Pelusi, PhD. For you, walking is a soothing form of self-stimulation and a way to focus your fretfulness: "Doing something that causes more brain stimulation is at least less anxiety provoking than doing nothing."

If he were treating you (and treatment is not a bad idea), Pelusi says, "one assignment I might give you is to practice keeping your feet on the floor until the tense feeling goes away." Facing your anxiety will ultimately help you reverse what’s become a habitual response.

I talk to myself, about myself, in the third person, as if there’s a part of me observing myself, like, She is going to the store. I don’t do it all the time and never out loud, just in my head. It’s not a new problem, but lately I’ve been noticing it more. Am I nuts?

You join some esteemed company: Charles de Gaulle, Bob Dole, and rapper Flavor Flav have frequently referred to themselves in the third person (and they’ve done it aloud). Why? New York psychologist Pelusi says that one way people learn things is by rehearsing a scenario in their heads. Most of us do this in a visual way: picturing ourselves at a new job or having a conversation with someone we need to impress. You just happen to do it verbally, as do many novelists and poets. "If you can vicariously experience what it would be like to do something and the effects it might have," says Pelusi, "it’s a way of learning without actual trial and error."

All that muttering makes you crazy like a fox, in other words. So feel free to tell yourself, She wrote in to the experts at Reader’s Digest, and they told her she was perfectly fine.

I’m the mother of two children. To my chagrin, I have always preferred my son over my daughter. I try to hide it, but I can’t help it. This has been the case since they were small, but now they are teens, and I am sure they know. Is this normal?

It’s not unheard-of for a parent to prefer one child, says Susan Bartell, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Port Washington, New York. More often, a parent is partial to one child for a bit, then rotates to another, in an ongoing cycle. "It’s not quite as common where they’ll consistently prefer one, but sometimes it happens, especially if you have a very challenging child," she says. "Or your son may be easier because he’s not coming at you with all the ‘I hate you’ stuff that a daughter may."

Bartell, who specializes in relationships between mothers and daughters, adds, "Above and beyond any relationship, including marriage, I think the mother-daughter connection is the most complicated. Moms instill all their wishes for themselves in their daughters, and all the complications they had in their own relationships with their mothers, they dump into their relationships with their daughters."

Whatever the situation with your daughter, here’s the thing: Both of your kids have probably known for a long time that you prefer your son. And down the line, says Bartell, this will damage your relationship with them and their relationship with each other. "Get professional help," she says, "or this will get worse and worse."