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How To Tell If Your Neuroses Are Normal

Wondering if your neuroses, phobias and eccentricities are normal? Never fear; you’re in good company, according to our panel of experts.

Is It Just Me?

Am I the only one who thinks landlocked boats are ominous? Anyone else out there who loves the smell of wet paint and dirty socks? Surely others share my suspicions that Brad Pitt and Danny DeVito are brothers. No? Well, I know one thing: a lot of you have odd peccadilloes too. So we’ve shared a list of our readers’ obsessions and anxieties with therapists, doctors, professors and gossip columnists (OK, not them) in hopes that they could answer the question … Is it just us?

I hate getting presents. Every time I get one, all I can think is, Oh, great – now I have to get her a present. Am I a grinch?
Technically, the Grinch did not hate getting presents at all. He liked them so much, in fact, he stole them. So for what it’s worth, you are not a grinch. Perhaps more reassuringly, you are also not alone.

There’s actually something called gift-giving anxiety, a condition described by University of Michigan professor D.B. Wooten as anxiety based on “the need for approval and fear of being seen or judged in a negative way.” When getting a gift means giving one – and giving one means worrying whether the gift is thoughtful, reciprocal or expensive enough – naturally it’s not fun to get a gift. It feels like you’ve been given a test.

“There are a lot of sitcoms based on this,” chuckles Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center. He recalls a sitcom-worthy situation with friends who travelled a lot and always brought him back a gift. “I’m not saying it was expensive. They’d go to Colombia and bring me back a bag of coffee. But that meant then I’d have to remember to pick up a present for them.”

This was so pointless – annoying, really – that eventually the doctor called them on it. “I said, ‘You don’t have to bring me something, because I really don’t like to look around for something for you.’?” Except he put it more diplomatically: “Please! Spend the money on yourself.”

Poof! The problem (and gifts) disappeared. So it may be worth exploring – delicately – the possibility that both you and your gift-givers want out.

My friends say I am obsessed with “conspiracy theories”. I say I am obsessed with the truth. Honestly, can’t everyone else see the plots, machinations and treachery that I see?
No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean that they are blind or that you are a fruitcake. “For society to work, we need the people who are ultra-relaxed, but we also need the worrywarts,” says Howard Forman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The worriers are the conspiracy theorists – folks who won’t rest till they put the pieces together.

Such folks can go off the deep end, of course, and you don’t necessarily want to sit next to one of them on a plane. But they can also go off and discover that the US National Security Agency has been listening to phone calls – an idea that would have sounded completely paranoid before whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that it’s true.

Our world is complex. It is filled with things we’ll never understand. Looking for a conspiracy is a way to gain a little sense of power, says psychiatrist David Reiss: It feels like you understand what’s happening, even if others don’t. An explanation, even one that sounds bizarre or frightening, feels more satisfying than no explanation at all.

Smells that everyone else seems to find awful, I love! Wet paint! Petrol! Even (can I admit it here?) the smell of dirty socks – they sometimes smell like roasted nuts. Am I wired wrong?
There’s a bell curve to all experiences, including how things smell to us, says Reiss. That means some people are always going to be more sensitive to certain odours, loving or hating them.

But beyond that, smells are like songs: intensely evocative. The olfactory nerves go directly from the nose to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that stores memories and processes emotions. So if you fondly remember your mother taking care of you when you were sick, Vicks VapoRub may smell like heaven to you, as will dirty socks if you and your brother used to play in the woods and come home happy but stinky. The smell brings back the feelings, without you necessarily making the conscious connection between then and now.

By the same token, if you threw up at your pizza party when you were six, one whiff of pepperoni could send you running from the room, even to this day … leaving more pizza for the rest of us.

I always forget the dreams in which I came up with clever ideas. My question is: Were those ideas really brilliant? Or did I just think so at the time?
When you’re asleep, your mind is relaxed, so thoughts float freely without worrying about your inner editor or the boundaries of logic, says healthcare consultant Dr Archelle Georgiou. As a result, you can come up with ideas you’d never have in your waking life, and some of these can be brilliant.

In 1953, James Watson dreamed of two intertwined snakes (or, some say, a double-sided spiral staircase) that made him picture a double helix. This was pretty key, since he – along with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin – went on to prove that DNA is in fact a double helix.

But lest you feel terrible about all the Nobel Prizes you’ve missed out on because you were too lazy to grab a pen, remember the Seinfeld episode on just this issue. Jerry came up with a great joke in his dream, so he scribbled it down. The next morning, he couldn’t read his writing. No-one else could either. Was it a Nobel-worthy joke? No. When he finally remembered it, he realised it wasn’t funny at all. Which struck us all as funny.

The older I get, the harder I find it is to edit myself. If someone in front of me is walking slowly, I have heard someone mutter, “Move, already!” and it turns out to be me! Same thing in the supermarket line: “Wow, this is taking forever!” Is it normal to become more irritable with the years?
“It’s in the range of normal, but it won’t make you any friends,” says psychotherapist Tina Tessina, author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “We all have these same thoughts, but you need to practise putting a lock on your lips so they don’t tumble out.”

That lock is called social inhibition. Little kids have to develop it – that’s why they’ll tell a stranger in the lift, “Wow, you’re fat!” – and in older people, it can begin to neurologically ebb away. That’s why they may tell a stranger in the lift, “Wow, you’re fat!”

But another reason older folks may sound impatient is simply that they are. They see time is slipping away. When we have only so many years left on this mortal coil, “we don’t necessarily want to spend them behind someone taking forever to choose a head of lettuce,” says Hilfer. “So shouting, ‘That one’s good!’ is not unusual.”

I love squirrels so much, it scares me. I carry nuts in my pocket, and feeding them is often the high point of my day. It’s not like the rest of my life is so boring or pathetic.
“I know lots of people who carry around treats for dogs,” says Hilfer. “Feeding squirrels is less common, but people have exceptionally strong bonds with animals. There’s a woman who used to go to the park across the street every morning to throw bread crumbs to the pigeons. We all hated her. We’d say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She’d say, ‘They need to eat.’ It gave her a purpose.”

Animals are lovable, and they don’t talk back. This gladdens any heart, especially one that’s lonely. So don’t feel bad about being a squirrel lady – or gent. You just may also want to find some more humans to interact with. Upside: they respond kindly to being fed too.

I feel terrible if I’m running late for a meeting, but if someone is late meeting up with me, I understand that delays happen. Why am I harder on myself than on everyone else?
You are a “people pleaser”, says Dr Friedemann Schaub, author of The Fear & Anxiety Solution. “You hate to be rejected, you hate to be judged, and you hate to upset others,” he says. So you have come up with a “survival pattern” to make sure you don’t have to suffer any of those situations. That survival pattern includes making sure you are on time so that people don’t get angry at you. It soothes your anxiety.

The reason it doesn’t bother you when other people are a little late is that their unpunctuality doesn’t trigger that same worry and fear. In fact, if they’re late, you get to be gracious and kind, which gives you a little self-congratulatory lift. Feels good!

And remember: while the phrase people pleaser carries slightly doormat-ish connotations, being reliable and forgiving is hardly a bad quality. In fact, says Forman, it’s generally evidence of “a very well-adjusted individual who will probably experience a lot more pleasure from the world than your average person who is not as forgiving”. So forgive yourself for being forgiving – and also a bit compulsively early.

I rented The Fault in Our Stars and didn’t cry. That’s right: I’m the earthling who did not cry at that movie. I told a friend who told everyone else, and now they’re actually cross with me.
Somehow (How? How?) you weren’t moved to tears by the plucky, funny, cute, courageous, cancer-doomed kids in that movie? Well, don’t feel too bad. There must’ve been someone else, somewhere, who sat through it stone-faced. Maybe.

Actually, there are a bunch of reasons a person might not cry at a particular tearjerker, says Tessina. Maybe the movie reminded you of something so close to home that you’re holding it in. “You may be too overwhelmed to cry,” she says.

It’s possible that something happened in your past that was so traumatic – losing your mother when you were little, say – that you never completely processed it. When you see something similar and you have kept yourself from crying about the original event for so long, you might still be unable to cry.

Or maybe you see how you’re being manipulated and refuse to give in to a sob story. If so, you might consider a career in traffic enforcement.

I’m Mr Malaprop. I’m not an idiot, and I’m not shy. But no matter what, words tumble out of my mouth differently than how I thought of them. Why?
“You’re right, you’re not an idiot, Mr Malaprop, but you are likely a ‘clutterer,’?” says Georgiou. Clutterers may keep interrupting themselves or revising what they’re saying as they go along. One sufferer described it as “feeling like 20 thoughts are exploding in my mind all at once, and I need to express them all.”

Cluttering usually starts around age seven or eight, and no-one knows what triggers it. But if this feels like it applies to you, Georgiou suggests seeing a speech therapist, who will try to slow down your rate of speech.

This can be done by having the patient listen to a sentence spoken at a normal rate on a tape and then repeat the same sentence. An electronic graph of the patient’s words is then “traced” over another graph of the sentence spoken at the normal rate, to make the difference visual and obvious. With practice slowing down and hyper-articulating every syllable, clutterers can declutter.

Speech is a complex and rapid process. We produce up to 150 words a minute, and multiple parts of the brain are involved, tasked with 1) the intention of what to say, 2) the planning of what to say, and 3) the articulation of the sounds – all within milliseconds. This explains why speech blunders often occur among those who speak a lot. So next time, try being a bit more understanding of that gaffe-prone politician.

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