Experts weigh in on some surprisingly common odd behaviours.
By Lori Kolman
You live a normal life. You’ve got friends, you’ve got hobbies and you’re happy to spend 20 minutes hunting for the toothpaste at the pharmacy rather than – No! Anything but that! – asking a shop assistant for help. Trust us, that behaviour is normal, because all of us are a little, well, quirky. And in most cases, our idiosyncrasies are curable, or at least curbable.
We asked psychiatrists, psychologists and other experts to weigh in on some odd behaviours that are surprisingly common. You might recognise one of them in yourself and wonder, Am I normal or not?
The answer is always yes and yes.
Why am I awkward around kids?
Why am I awkward around kids? I have nothing to say to people under 12, and frankly, I don’t find them particularly cute. What’s wrong with me?
“I hear this all the time,” says Charlynn Ruan, a clinical psychologist who works, ironically enough, mostly with mothers. “A lot of them say, ‘The only children I like are my own’.”
At the root of this more-common-than-you’d-expect dread is the ever-potent fear of embarrassment.
One common concern is that ‘out of the mouths of babes’ will come a truth no one wants to hear. ‘That man smells funny, Mummy.’ ‘Wow, lady, you must eat a lot of food.’ ‘What are all those lines on your face?’
Then there’s the cringe factor of doting parents – and worse, grandparents! – hovering nearby, convinced that everything their child says should be etched in stone. No wonder you’re uncomfortable talking to the little scallywags.
But there’s a solution, says psychiatrist Dr Howard Forman: grab a book and read to the kid. That puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you something to say.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 2 (from 1 to 10, with 10 being certifiably bonkers)
You’re not all that nutty.
I cannot make a decision to save my life.
I cannot make a decision to save my life. Choosing between reading and taking a walk can take all afternoon. It took me forever to choose to write this note.
An inability to make even minor decisions – not just taking your time to weigh your options – is an actual disorder, says psychiatrist Dr David M. Reiss. It can result in functional paralysis: if you literally can’t decide what to do next, you don’t do anything.
The term for this is abulomania, says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina. “Abulomania sufferers are normal in practically every other way. They simply run into very serious problems whenever they’re faced with certain choices, to the extent that they struggle to regain normal function.”
It often comes from being raised by such controlling parents that the sufferer never learnt how to make decisions, says Ruan. But it can also come from anxiety. In that case, the person becomes so worried about the impact of a decision that he or she simply decides not to decide.
In either case, the sufferer could greatly benefit from therapy or medical treatment.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 7
This behaviour is driving you nuts, but therapy can help.
I can't ask for help.
I’d sooner spend 20 minutes searching the shop shelves for the thing I need than ask the shop assistant for help.
Two phobias are probably at work here: the fear of appearing stupid and the fear of imposing on someone, says author Dr Friedemann Schaub. In both cases, the person doesn’t want to be a burden to the employee, even though that’s what the employee is paid to do – serve you.
But lurking beneath the fear of asking for help is the secondary fear of being thought inconsiderate for not reciprocating. “You feel embarrassed to leave the store without buying something if you took up their time,” says Dr Schaub. But if you don’t ask for assistance, you can leave empty-handed without feeling guilty.
The truth is that most shop assistants are bored and would love the distraction – and momentary fulfilment – of helping you. “People want to be needed,” says clinical psychologist Alan Hilfer. “Sometimes I watch a tourist asking for directions and I can’t wait to get in there and say, ‘I can help you’.”
So if you don’t see what you’re looking for, ask. You just may make someone a little happier.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 3
A little nutty but highly curable.
I’ve taken to chewing on my cuticles.
I chew on my fingernails. OK, lots of people do that. But I’ve taken to chewing on my cuticles and even fingers to the point of drawing blood. That can’t be normal, right?
Right. It’s not normal. All of us have picked at a scab or bitten a nail or two, but when you start drawing blood, that’s extreme. Ruan has seen cases in which people poke and pick at themselves until they actually have holes in their skin. These patients look as if they’re on drugs, she says. “But it’s just anxiety-driven.”
According to Ruan, the fight-or-flight part of the brain is sort of broken. It is stuck in ‘I must do something’ mode. You are agitated, but you aren’t actually in a situation that calls for running or fighting. You may be alone in your living room, but all that anxious energy has to do something, and the answer is to chew – madly.
Ruan suggests seeing a your doctor for an antidepressant “which will dial back the anxiety”. At the same time, that doctor can work with you on some behaviour-modification techniques.
But remember: anxiety is self-perpetuating. It doesn’t stop until you begin to face whatever is causing it. So the sooner you get help, the sooner whatever’s eating you (that is, you) will get better.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 8
This is serious. You should seek help before things get worse.
My friends are all huggers, and I hate it!
My friends are all huggers, and I hate it! When they see me, they throw their arms around me and squeeze away. I’m not a germophobe, and I love my friends. I’d just prefer a handshake. Is that so wrong?
“It could have been me asking that question,” says Dr Forman. “I think hugs are super complex. How long is the hug supposed to last? How tight do you squeeze? Where do your hands go? Do you involve a second arm? Hugging leads to a lot more questions than it answers.”
Western culture seems to have grown huggier over the years, and Dr Forman blames TV, especially talk shows, on which guests are often greeted with hugs. Or perhaps it’s ‘bro’ culture writ large. You see your buddy and give him a big, beery hug like the ones in the Hangover movies.
Whatever the reason, it’s perfectly fine to head off a hug by sticking out your hand for a handshake. Want to make it warmer? Use your other arm to grasp the person’s forearm. Lots of contact and affirmation. No actual hugging.
And if even that feels weird, hop on a plane. In about half the world, it’s hugging that is rude, not not hugging.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 1
You’re not a nut; you’re just stuck in a hug-happy culture.
I say hello to everyone I pass.
I have this compulsion to say hello to everyone I pass in the office or on the street. This strikes me (and everyone else) as a little much, but I can’t seem to stop. How weird is this?
Maybe you come from a friendly place. Psychologist Ruan lived for a while in a city where people were very friendly and chatty, even from the next stall in the public toilet. “One woman started talking to me,” says Ruan, “and I was like, ‘We’re supposed to pretend we can’t see each other’s feet! You’re ruining the social norms here!’ But that’s the way they were – super friendly.”
If your goal is to tone down your greeting, try simply acknowledging others with a friendly smile as you pass each other. On the other hand, “not everything has to be analysed,” says Dr Aaron Pinkhasov, a specialist in behavioural health. The problem really is not how you greet passers-by; it’s whether you’re becoming so self-conscious about it that you are starting to avoid encounters entirely, by taking circuitous routes or staying at your desk, for example.
If that’s happening, remember that being friendly is no crime.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 1
All you need is a good greeting strategy.
Is this the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?
My elderly mother recently started saying things like “Oh, the children were just here.” But they weren’t. There are no children where she lives. Is this the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?
What you’re describing is fairly common and goes by the name of Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. Although less common than Alzheimer’s, it usually happens when “an old person, who never had any hallucinations in their life before, keeps saying that they see children, dead relatives or small animals around,” says Ruan.
The disease affects the part of the brain devoted to vision, so the elderly person is truly ‘seeing’ something the rest of us don’t. The sad news is that, as with all forms of dementia, there is no cure.
The slightly better news is that the hallucinations seem to keep the person company, at least for a while. If you ask what the kids (or small, friendly animals) are doing, they’ll say, “There they are, standing by the plant,” says Ruan.
In another era, they were called angels or spirits, which they sort of are.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 8
Prescribed medicine might make hallucinations less vivid.
I often imagine ways I could poison my family and friends.
This is super dark, but I often imagine ways I could poison my family and friends when I’m cooking dinner for them. I love them, so why do I think this way?
Sometimes things lurking in the darkest part of our subconscious – torture, death, doing really nasty things to our mother-in-law – just bubble up, says Hilfer. “It’s a fleeting thought, a dark part that a lot of us keep repressed, and every so often it kind of pokes through and we think, Gee, that’s weird.”
Why do we fantasise about running someone over on the pedestrian crossing? Maybe it’s because we recognise how fragile life is: one bad decision on our part and it’s curtains!
Or it could be a result of latent anger. “There may be some kind of aggression that hasn’t been addressed,” says Dr Schaub. Maybe the would-be poisoner is sick of cooking for people who never reciprocate.
“It doesn’t mean she really wants to kill them; the thought is just a metaphor,” he says. It’s simmering, like dinner – with some extra-special seasoning.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 3
You’re nuts – if you actually want to murder them. If it’s based on anger, address that. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
I am addicted to chalk.
I am addicted to chalk. Not writing with it – eating it. Why can’t I just crave burgers and chips?
The desire to eat non-food items, including sand, coffee grounds, matches and mothballs, is called pica, which webmd.com defines as “the persistent eating of substances … that have no nutritional value.” It’s most common in children and pregnant women. The cause is not clear, but “some of it is the body looking for nutrients,” says Dr Reiss.
But, he adds, if the items eaten are really bizarre, the cause may be psychological. “I’ve seen people who have Munchausen syndrome, which is intentionally making yourself ill to get medical care, swallowing everything from knives to blood,” says Dr Reiss. “There was also a patient who ate a fork. We don’t know how he swallowed it, but he did.”
Visit your doctor to find out whether you are craving a nutrient. If that’s not the case, ask for a referral to a psychiatrist.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 9
It’s a real issue if it’s more than a nutritional imbalance.
I find my mind wandering.
Whenever I ask someone a question – for directions, for instance – I find my mind wandering. Instead of listening to how to get to Hicksville, I’ll focus on the ugly buttons on her shirt. Why can’t I concentrate?
It could be that you are trying so hard to show you’re a good listener that instead of actually listening, you are already thinking ahead. “This happens a lot on first dates,” says Hilfer. “You ask a question and then don’t pay attention for long because you’re already thinking about the next question you’re going to ask to show you were paying attention.”
The solution is to train yourself to focus more. You can do this, says Tessina, by turning on the TV or radio for short periods of time and making a serious effort to pay attention. Then turn it off and try to remember what was said. Pretty soon you will develop a less distractible brain.
Normal or Nuts Rating: 3
Not too nuts, just easily … Hey, what do you call that colour? It’s not exactly red.