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."
There have been lots of layoffs at my company, which has increased my workload (and stress load). All I want to do when I get home is turn on the TV. My wife thinks I should talk to a therapist, but I tell her I just need to recharge. Who’s right?
We have to side with your wife here. Because men are more likely to ignore it (and resist getting help), depression can take the form of irritability, workaholism, risk-taking behavior (such as drinking too much or driving too fast), or withdrawal, which can manifest itself as spending all your time with your best friend, the television.
On the other hand, you really could just be stressed-out, in which case–well, you’re still wrong. Sorry, but studies suggest that watching too much TV can worsen mood and increase stress levels. Enjoy a favorite show, even two. After that, says Beverly E. Thorn, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, it’s time to step away from the tube and rejoin your wife. "A 30-minute walk together in the evening would be good for your stress level, your physical health, and your relationship," she says.
Everyone says they can’t remember names, but I really can’t, and I forget faces too! Once, I didn’t recognize a (fairly new) neighbor at the market. I’m not self-absorbed or uncaring–what’s wrong with me?
Odds are, nothing, says Joel Kramer, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in San Francisco. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, he says, and some people are just bad at recalling names and faces.
Of course, it’s also possible you have a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, in which people suddenly have trouble recognizing family members, friends, or even themselves. Folks with this condition can have problems following the plot of movies because they can’t keep track of the characters’ identities. Prosopagnosia can be caused by brain damage from a stroke or head trauma, or degenerative diseases.
So if it’s a new symptom that’s getting worse, Kramer suggests a doctor’s visit, just in case. Otherwise, this may simply be a charming quirk (maybe not so charming to your neighbor).
Some people’s voices drive me crazy. It could be their whininess or their intonation or the annoying habit of saying everything as a question? It gets so disturbing for me that I completely lose track of what they’re actually saying. Am I alone?
You’re normal–it’s those other people who have a problem, our experts say. "A lot of people actually have annoying voices," says psychologist Bartell. "Especially now that people talk on their cell phones so loudly all the time, you hear their obnoxious voices, whining, and complaining! And they don’t have the self-reflection to know it, and no one is going to tell them."
You’re also not the only one to be driven bonkers by people who say everything as a question, also known as uptalk. A New York University professor coined the term in 1993, no doubt to describe the linguistic habits of California teens in the 1980s. Now it’s everywhere. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently got fricasseed in the press for talking like a Valley Girl. Some experts think it conveys an informal friendliness; others think it telegraphs meekness.
What do whiners and questioners have in common? The fact that you can’t just put them on mute. It may help to focus on the content of the conversation rather than the incredibly irritating delivery.
I have a satisfying life and am generally happy, but not a day goes by without an uncomfortable scene in which I screwed up flashing through my mind. Sometimes I replay painful conversations I’ve had with two friends who are now estranged. Why am I plagued by regrets?
You’re "generally happy," yet you spend your life dwelling on the past–that doesn’t really sync up, does it? Most of us cringe when we’re ambushed by memories of that regrettable weekend in Cleveland or the bout of crying in the bathroom at the office party, but … every day? Regrets, we’ve had a few, but we suspect that when you reflect on the movie of your life, you’re fast-forwarding through all the slapstick scenes and romantic banter to pause only on the distressing moments, which blows them completely out of proportion.
You can change the way you think about your past, says Wellesley professor Theran. Paradoxically, one way to do it is to stay with your feelings of discomfort as they arise. "Expose yourself mentally to the feelings of shame or embarrassment long enough to allow them to increase and then decrease normally," she says. "Of course you’re inclined to avoid your shameful memories, but that’s the way they maintain their power. Try to tell yourself that you don’t have to be perfect and that we all do silly or embarrassing things."
And here’s another reason to give yourself a break: Chances are good that what haunts you has already been forgotten on the other end. "We all tend to have a stronger memory for these kinds of things than other people do," says Theran.
I constantly find myself pulling out the stray hairs on my arms so that all the hair is closer to being uniform in length. I’ll do it while I’m watching TV or reading a book, but friends have pointed it out to me while we’re in the middle of a conversation. Is this a sign of boredom or something else?
There’s a name for this behavior: trichotillomania. "Usually, people who do this pull out the hair on their head, resulting in bald patches," says Christopher Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan. Some absently pull out a few hairs, while others go at it meticulously with tweezers. They may do it to relieve tension or just automatically–"much as you might be unaware of biting your fingernails," says David H. Barlow, PhD, an anxiety expert at Boston University. People who pull out their eyebrows or give themselves bald spots might be relieved to know that the condition is treatable. See a cognitive behavioral therapist and ask about newer antidepressants, which also treat anxiety.
Of course, whether you need treatment is up to you. Says Peterson, "If having hair-free arms is not a source of worry to you, then don’t worry." That said, be mindful when you’re out with friends, who may not appreciate a garnish in their guacamole.
I work in sales and recently had to give a talk in front of about a hundred people. For weeks, I dreaded it. By the time I had to speak, I was nauseated and almost fainting from fear. There were times when I thought I was going to drop right onto the podium. What’s wrong with me?
The famously silver-tongued Warren Buffett was once so petrified of public speaking that he made himself take a Dale Carnegie course (the certificate still hangs in his office). These days, Buffett tells his followers that it’s crucial to get trained in public speaking.
But for most of us, doing so means facing down terror. Nancy Cetlin, EdD, a Boston psychologist, says that fear of public speaking is a common social phobia. "And the majority of those who have it fear speaking more than death!" As Jerry Seinfeld put it, "This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
Here are a few things to remember if you’re dying up there on the podium. Although you may imagine that everyone knows how anxious you are, most often no one can tell. A good trick, Sally Theran says, is to focus on one or two friendly faces in the crowd. Deep-breathing techniques can also help, as can watching a video-tape of yourself (to see for yourself that you didn’t screw up). Cetlin has an arsenal of additional remedies, from neurofeedback to live coaching. Or you could always float the idea of videoconferences–you know, as a cost-cutting measure.
Our Panel of Experts
David H. Barlow, PhD, founder and
director, Center for Anxiety and Related
Disorders at Boston University
Susan Bartell, PsyD, clinical psychologist
in private practice in Port Washington, New
York, and author of six books
Tom Bunn, LCSW, therapist, retired airline
captain, and founder of SOAR, a fear-offlying
program in Westport, Connecticut
Nancy Cetlin, EdD, psychologist and fear-of-public-speaking coach in Boston
Joel Kramer, PsyD, clinical professor
of neuropsychology and director of the
neuropsychology program at the Memory
and Aging Center at the University of
California, San Francisco
Nando Pelusi, PhD, psychologist in private
practice in New York City and member of the
board of advisers of the National Association
of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists
Christopher Peterson, PhD, professor of
psychology at the University of Michigan
Michael J. Peterson, MD, PhD, assistant
professor of psychiatry at the University
of Wisconsin School of Medicine and
Sally A. Theran, PhD, assistant professor of
psychology at Wellesley College
Beverly E. Thorn, PhD, professor and
chair of the psychology department at the
University of Alabama