6 Weird Compulsions That Are Totally Normal—and 4 You Should Worry About
For example, is it weird to avoid hugs at all costs?
ELEANOR SHAKESPEARE for Reader's Digest
Am I normal or nuts?
You live a pretty 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—God, no! No! Anything but that!—actually asking a clerk for help. Trust us, that behavior 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 an array of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other health professionals to weigh in on a variety of odd behaviors burdening our readers and staff. You might recognize one of them in yourself and wonder, Am I normal or nuts? The answer is always yes and yes.
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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 Los Angeles 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, Mommy.” “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 no-neck monsters. But there’s a solution, says Howard Forman, MD, a psychiatrist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City: Grab a book and read to the kid. That puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you something to say.
N or N Rating (from 1 to 10, with 10 being certifiably bonkers): 2 You’re no Mr. Rogers, but you’re not all that nutty.
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I cannot make a decision to save my life. Choosing between reading and taking a walk can take all afternoon. Heck, 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 David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist in Rancho Santa Fe, California. 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, author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “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 harsh, controlling parents that the sufferer never got any practice with making decisions—these were always forced on him or her, says Ruan. But it can also come from plain old anxiety. In that case, the person obsesses over the impact of a decision and becomes so worried about it that he or she just decides not to decide. In either case, the sufferer could greatly benefit from therapy. “Long-term therapy is best,” says Ruan, “because the person needs to experience somebody who is supportive of him or her making decisions.” If the root cause is anxiety, an antidepressant may be called for.
N or N Rating: 7 This behavior is driving you nuts, but therapy can help.
I’d sooner spend 20 minutes searching the store shelves for the thing I need than ask the clerk for assistance.
Two phobias are probably at work here: the fear of appearing stupid and the fear of imposing on someone, says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution. 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 a jerk for not reciprocating. “There’s the embarrassment of leaving the store without buying something if you used their time,” Dr. Schaub says. If you don’t ask for assistance, you can leave empty-handed without guilt. The truth is that most clerks are bored out of their aprons and would love the distraction—and momentary fulfillment—of helping you. “People want to be needed,” says Alan Hilfer, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “Sometimes I watch a tourist asking someone 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—and even find what you need.
N or N Rating: 3 A little nutty but highly curable.
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ELEANOR SHAKESPEARE for Reader's Digest
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.”
What is happening, according to Ruan, is that 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 the anxious energy has to do something, so the answer is to chew—madly. Ruan suggests seeing a psychiatrist for an antidepressant, “which will dial back the anxiety.” At the same time, that doctor can work with you on some behavior-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.
N or N Rating: 8 This is serious. You should seek help before things get worse.
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 of Albert Einstein College. “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.”
Our country 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. Zero 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.
N or N Rating: 1 You’re not a nut; you’re just stuck in an increasingly hug-happy culture.
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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?
“Are you from the South?” asks psychologist Ruan. She lived for a while in Atlanta, where people were very friendly and chatty, even from the next stall in the restroom. “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 are: super friendly.”
If your goal is to tone down your greeting, try acknowledging others with a friendly smile without slowing down. On the other hand, “not everything has to be analyzed,” says Aaron Pinkhasov, MD, chairman of behavioral health at New York University Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. The problem is really not how you greet passersby; 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. And in fact, says Dr. Forman, “if this is the one thing wrong with you, you’re doing pretty well.”
N or N Rating: 1 All you need is a good greeting strategy.
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I am addicted to chalk. Not writing with it—eating it. Why can’t I just crave burgers and fries?
The desire to eat nonfood 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,” perhaps triggered by a metabolic disorder, says psychiatrist Dr. Reiss.
But, he adds, if the items eaten are really bizarre (more bizarre than mothballs?), 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.” The key is to visit your doctor pronto to find out whether you are craving a nutrient, and if so, why. If that’s not the case, call a psychiatrist.
N or N Rating: 9 It’s a real issue if it’s more than a nutritional imbalance.
These bizarre eating habits of the royal family are a bit more normal, though.
ELEANOR SHAKESPEARE for Reader's Digest
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 fantasize about running someone over in the crosswalk? Maybe it’s because we recognize 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.
N or N 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.
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?
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 involves “an old person who never had any hallucinations in their life, and they keep 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.
N or N Rating: 8 Doctor-prescribed medicine might make hallucinations less vivid.
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 long enough 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.
N or N Rating: 3 Not too nuts, just easily … Hey, what’s that link under here?
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