In his new book "Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional," psychiatrist Dale Archer argues that each of eight major psychiatric conditions -- attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, histrionic personality, narcissism, bipolar personality disorder, and schizophrenia -- are the extreme expressions of eight widely-shared personality traits: adventurousness, perfectionism, shyness, anxiety-proneness, theatricality, self-focus, high energy, and propensity for magical thinking. Each of us displays these 8 traits to some degree, he says, and one of the traits is usually dominant in our personalities.
Archer says his approach is an antidote to the over-medicalization mental health, the transformation of mild departures from "normal" into disorders that require medication. Archer uses himself as an example. He could possibly be classified as suffering from mild forms of several disorders, but, on the other hand, his adventurousness (ADHD) has bought him many rich life experiences; his affinity for drama (histrionic personality) won him many friends (and lovers) and made him a successful television personality; his self-focus (narcissism) has allowed him to pursue his goals and shake off failure; his high energy (bipolar) accounts in part for his being a successful psychiatrist, television personality, and author; and his magical thinking (schizophrenia) has made him a some-time professional poker player and excellent reader of people. All of these traits have a downside -- he admits that they made schooling difficult, undermined his first marriage, and cost him a pile of money -- but they are what make him, to quote his book's title, "exceptional".
Some critics will point out that Archer does not have a coherent theory of personality, he does not engage with other frameworks like the ever-popular Big Five Model of personality (traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and he does not appear to have done any independent research on personality. This is really a self-help book, however, not a scholarly work. As a self-help book, it has several things going for it: It's clearly written, easily understandable, well illustrated with personal anecdotes, and it reassures readers by reframing perceived weaknesses as strengths. Furthermore, Archer's novel 8-trait framework renders extreme personality disorders more understandable by relating them to ordinary dispositions and behaviors and, conversely, illuminates common personality problems by relating them to their extremes.
Archer supplies an 8-part questionnaire at the back of the book so that people can measure how strongly each trait is expressed in their personality. The questionnaire has not been rigorously validated but this should only bother the most quibble-prone research-savvy readers; it has face validity (that is, it looks like it should measure what it's supposed to) and it's not intended for diagnostic purposes. On the other hand, I think most readers will find much more value in the chapters on individual traits; the questionnaire didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.
Caveats: It's great that Archer uses individual case studies to illustrate traits and to show how people turned perceived weaknesses into strengths (often with his help). On the other hand, Archer relies too much on a small stable of characters. The character who gets the most exposure is Archer himself; in my opinion, his self-focus/narcissism comes through a bit too clearly. Some of the connections Archer makes in his 8-trait framework are a bit of a stretch; e.g., I doubt many psychologists would agree that magical thinking is a mild expression of the principle behind schizophrenia.
Bottom line: If this book's title caught your attention, you will probably find it interesting. If you're at all critical, you will not find it totally convincing, but you will probably find that it changes your perspectives on "normal", mental illness, and your own uniqueness ... at least a little bit. My 3-star rating (privately: 3.5) is based on the scientific weakness of the book, the thinness of Archer's advice, and Archer's mildly annoying self-regard. Count this as a soft recommendation.
"Normal People Scare Me" is a statement on a shirt I purchased years ago. Besides the obvious meaning, I think it makes some people who read it question "What is normal?" In his book "Better Than Normal," Dr. Dale Archer says "The box called normal is getting smaller and smaller and smaller every day" and I believe he couldn't be more right.
He describes in fluent detail how the attributes that make us different can actually make us exceptional. As a psychiatrist he is familiar with abnormality. He proved to me what I've known all along yet (until now) I was unable to find anyone who would admit to it--abnormality is definitely rare.
Our society is focused on labeling and medicating people. Dr. Archer reviews these lables as eight personality traits that are considered negative and abnormal disorders in our society and describes the core strengths of each trait and how each individual can embrace those core strengths to live an exceptional life. These traits are:
1. Adventurous (ADHD--Attention Deficit Disorder)
2. Perfectionist (OCD--Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
3. Shy (Social Anxiety Disorder)
4. Anxious (Generalized Anxiety Disorder)
5. Dramatic (Histrionic)
6. Self-Focused (Narcissism)
7. High Energy (Bipolar)
8. Magical (Schizophrenia)
In my opinion, Dr. Archer successfully demonstrated that some of the attributes associated with these personalities are actually assets and not liabilities. For instance, a person who is high on the ADHD continuum has an adventurous personality. It is personalities like this that allow the explorers of this world to succeed. Those who are narcissistic tend to be great performers, visionaries, strategic leaders, and CEOs. Throughout the book he provides examples of successful people who achieved great things because of their disorders. His intention is for the reader to get in touch with his or her own traits and strengths. He does admit that their are those who need medical help but also provides an example of someone who is bipolar and is able to live with the least intervention possible.
I took all eight personality tests at the end of the book and was surprised to find myself being highest in one trait that would have never crossed my mind had I not read this book.
So do "Normal People Scare Me"? Yes, they actually do. To me most people are not normal and those rare people who really are aren't very interesting to me.
This book is a keeper and one I'll refer to periodically just to check in to see how I (once referred to by a colleague as a space cadet) am doing on that scale of normal vs abnormal!
One more point. Mental illness is no laughing matter. Although there are a rare few who need medicine, I do believe society and the medical profession are too quick to attach a label to people. That label unfortunately comes with a stigma. What Dr. Archer is really saying is that most of these people are or can be fully functioning and high-performing adults if they embrace the positive aspects of their traits. Let's not be so quick to judge but if we do assign a label let it not come with a stigma.
Dr. Dale Archer has written a book of pop psychology that posits the following premise: Most psychological disorders fall into eight categories of traits that exist on a continuum. When any of these traits become super dominant they can present problems, but there are also positive aspects to the traits. Is your glass half empty or half full? When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And so forth. The eight traits are:
1. Adventurous (ADHD)
2. Perfectionism (OCD)
3. Shyness (Social Anxiety Disorder)
4. Anxious (Generalized Anxiety Disorder)
5. Dramatic (Histrionic Personality)
6, Self-Focused (Narcissistic Personality)
7. High-Energy (Bi-Polar)
8. Magical (Schizophrenia)
Dr. Archer believes that the mental health establishment has a tendency to over medicate, and that while medication is called for in some cases, in other cases it is better to embrace these traits, see their positive aspects, and how they make you the unique individual you are. They could make you better than normal.
There is a chapter devoted to each trait with anecdotes of people who have the trait and how they have dealt with the problems or managed to turn them into advantages. For instance, the anxious person is detail oriented and plans for all contingencies. Like a scout, their motto is "Be Prepared." But all the thinking about what could go wrong often makes it difficult for these individuals to fall asleep. Dramatic personalities make good actors, or trial lawyers making closing arguments. The self-focused, or narcissistic personality, has loads of self confidence and can bounce back from failure to try, try again. One of the anecdotes that illustrate this personality is Charlie Sheen, who described himself as having tiger blood and Adonis DNA. Dr. Archer takes each trait and redefines it in a positive way, without glossing over the pitfalls that pose serious dangers. At the end of the book there is a series of questionnaires that will help the reader evaluate where he or she falls on the continuum for each of the eight traits.
The Bottom Line is that Better Than Normal is better than your normal pop psychology book. It is a pop psychology book, but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but rather, it is written for the lay person, the average person, who needs help but not necessarily medical attention, therapy, or medication. Dr. Dale Archer has really hit the target with his aim to help people better understand themselves and the unique traits and talents they were given.
I ordered this book because I was intrigued by author's contention that our society overdiagnoses and overmedicates people for having traits that could actually be turned into strengths. One of the unfortunate results of this tendency is the squashing down of individual differences that make us unique and human. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and felt that I learned a fair amount about human nature. I did have some concerns about the book, (4.9
stars) none of which detracted from my enjoyment while reading it.
First of all, I found the test questions to be a bit overly general ("are you restless? Have you done things you regret?" Has anybody not?) and the descriptions of the personality types a bit narrow (I know several people who have been officially diagnosed with ADD who are not at all adventurous.)
Furthermore, while it may a good idea to find a job that matches one's talents and traits, it may be equally rewarding to then actively cultivate the opposite side of oneself, in order to broaden one's horizons and grow in versatility and independence.
At the end of the book, the author mentions that some people have three or four or five high-testing traits, while other people may score low in all areas. It would be fascinating to read more about ways in which traits combine.
Again, none of these thoughts detracted from my enjoyment of this book. Instead, I found myself rereading some sections in order to better understand the author's main points.The idea that what seem like symptoms of a disorder can actually be strengths is a very tantalizing one. I love the thought that we can improve our ability to really listen to children, to look into their hearts and minds, and help them build on their strong points rather than slapping a diagnosis and perhaps a drug on them. Similarly, we adults can gain perspective about ourselves, make better use of our potential, and learn to sidestep our difficulties more and more successfully by following some of the author's ideas.
All in all, this is a very useful, enjoyable, and in ways reassuring book, despite these concerns; however, because of them I myself take it all with a half grain of salt. Still, highly recommended, especially for those who work with young people.
Reading Dr. Dale Archer's "Better Than Normal" has made me wonder if the mental health industry is following in the footsteps of the cosmetic industry: the more inadequate they can make people feel about their bodies (and minds), the more sales of their services and products they will make. Recently, Dr. Allen Frances criticized in his blog, DSM5 in Distress, the authors of the fifth edition of "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" who are planning to re-label bereavement into a mental illness. So if one has lost a loved one and has not gotten over his grief over the loss within two weeks, that person may be diagnosed with "Major Depressive Disorder". If certain mental health experts have gone in a frenzy to re-categorize normal behavior into disorders, then we need more efforts such as Dr. Archer's book to bring back some perspective to the public.
In "Better than Normal, " Dr. Archer writes that the current trend of labeling quirks and personal traits as potential disorders has created a blur of what is normal and abnormal behavior in the public's mind while forcing mental health professionals to rely more and more on prescription drugs instead of using traditional therapy. He traces this over reliance on medication to the pharmaceutical and insurance companies, two industries that have gained major control over how psychiatrists should treat their patients.
But it is the public's preoccupation with normal and abnormal behavior that Dr. Archer addresses in this book by identifying eight personality traits and how each exists in a continuum. Only when the trait becomes extreme or "superdominant" (using Dr. Archer's term), then it should be considered an illness or a disorder and be treated by a professional accordingly. When the trait falls in the middle of its continuum, it is instead a source for unique or "ascendant" strengths. For example, somebody who is a 5 in the zero-to-ten scale of the Perfectionist/OCD continuum should embrace his/her drive, thoroughness, focus, neatness and ability to set high standards. For each of the eight traits, Dr. Archer provides advice on how to take advantage of their ascendant strengths at work and in relationships.
"Better than Normal" may be a little short on scholarly research and could do with a little less of Dr. Archer's personal anecdotes, but overall, I applaud his efforts and intention on educating readers so that we are all able to embrace our unique personality traits and differences rather than be medicated out of them.
Note: "Lancet Rejects Grief as a Mental Disorder: Will DMS5 Finally Drop This Terrible Idea?" by Allen Frances, M.D., published February 17, 2012, DSM5 in Distress, Psychology Today Online.
At the age of six I contacted a severe case of Encephalitis while my family was living in Africa. My mother tells me I changed into a different kid, not a bad kid, just different than I had been since birth. I have thought about that all my life. What would I have been if?
So when I see a book like Dr. Archer's, it gets my attention. Am I "Better Than Normal"? Dr. Archer is a psychiatrist who thinks a little outside the box. He himself is a little different, as he explains in his book. He started thinking that his profession overshot its mark. Too many semi-neurotic patients were overly concerned that their personality differences were symptoms of a serious mental disorder. He speaks specifically about our over-reliance on medication, "the over diagnosing and overmedicating of America."
Dr. Archer examines eight different personality traits that in the extreme result in mental disorders. 1. Adventurous (ADHD--Attention Deficit Disorder); 2. Perfectionist (OCD--Obsessive Compulsive Disorder); 3. Shy (Social Anxiety Disorder); 4. Anxious (Generalized Anxiety Disorder); 5. Dramatic (Histrionic); 6. Self-Focused (Narcissism); 7. High Energy (Bipolar); 8. Magical (Schizophrenia). He explains each trait that is considered negative and abnormal disorders in our society. He also describes the core strengths of each trait and how each individual can embrace those core strengths to live an exceptional life. I like that.
If you get the book, do yourself a favor. Follow Dr. Archer's suggestion.....take the Questionnaires in the Appendix first. It really helps. I scored high in the areas I might not have thought I should be in, but because I took the questionnaires it made more sense to me.
Throughout the book, Dr. Archer provides examples of successful people who achieved great things because of their disorders. They learned to understand and control. I like that too.
Dr. Archer's "Better than Normal" was a good read. It was very entertaining and funny in parts. I feel better about myself as Dr. Archer reassured me that different is OK. I highly recommended this book.
on March 13, 2012
Dr. Archer's book gives a professional nod to many of us in the general population who have thought that too many folks were on "head med" these days. It delivers a distinction between psychosis and personality, and quite frankly, makes me feel a little bit better about my intense need to have all my shoes facing the same way in my closet.
The book, although heavy on the stories, has a nice chatty feel with tales that do not seem far fetched at all. I would have liked to read more about patients who scored 10's on these scales and what their lives are like, so the reader could see just how "regular" they really are.
The questionnaires are fun to take, give insight into the reader's personality, and are reminiscent of The Enneagram books by Riso-Hudson (of which I am a great fan). I think this book will be most helpful for folks that struggle with anxiety, and mothers who worry what to do with their "adhd" children.
It would have been great to see a larger cast of characters, as their stories were the most fun to read in the book. Overall, I liked that the book was a reasonably quick read, not too academic (although it's clear that Dr. Archer is capable of that sort of work), and encouraging.
on July 14, 2012
After reading Dr. Dale Archer's Better Than Normal, I learned to see "Disorder" in a new way. His candid report and sensible, take on the many disorders society has labeled so many with gave me insight on how these are being treated, and why most of the treatments do not work. I got the feeling that western medicine is trying to recreate personalities that they find abnormal. Mostly his take on ADHD clearly enabled me to be grateful that I am able to multitask. Speaking strictly for me, I have been able to accomplish more than the average individual while raising 4 children. With the stress factors placed upon women today, it makes sense that the human brain would have a re-facing of the often slightly damaged fight or flight mechanisms we naturally react from. In that case we will suffer "meltdowns" and sporadic onset of the blues.
I agree with his statements that reflect our culture's belief that we need to be treated for this problem and the popular belief that we need to sit face to face with a professional who will diagnose us, give our meltdowns a name so we can have an answer. He mentions the past when anyone who saw a psychiatrist once a week was considered flawed in a shameful way. Today's culture or society might see a person who has never been in counseling as flawed. (I paraphrase here)
Lately everyone we talk to has some sort of prognosis for their emotional discomfort. I see this as a weakening of our way of life. For most it is easier to complain about things we could be changing than to change what we are doing. I think Dr. Archer's book echoes this.
I am one reader who leans toward the probability that science has failed us. And yet, I wonder if we ever needed to approach science and ask it to help us cope with the normal responses to grief, divorce, job loss or financial peril. There is no magic pill for the normal brain function of someone who reacts to any of those life situations. If we numb our emotional pain we cannot possibly evolve, whether we do it with pills, alcohol or any mind altering substance. Not to say there are not people who were born with a pathological disorder, mind you. I am sure some individuals are struggling with biological issues and medication is their only hope.
The problem I have with western psychiatry is, the professionals who see and hear patients go on about their emotional pain are diagnosing them with some label that justifies medication instead of giving them cognitive tools to apply to their problems. The latest popular treatments contain a mixture of different medications ranging from ADHD med, to a list of antidepressants that mess with brain neurons.
After my son died, I became obsessed with distraction and worked longer hours, working more then I slept. The energy that grief is was channeled toward productive activities (I opened,owned and operated my 5Th restaurant) and I cried a lot even in a "hyper alert state." My husband was concerned and suggested I see a professional. I saw a doctor who diagnosed me with ADHD, and Bi Polar disorder. I went home with and took my pills, and weeks later I was in a mental hospital wanting to die. There, I was given more little orange bottles full of antidepressants with new names. One of those medications was prescribed for seizures, which I didn't suffer from, but the claim was, this medication would be a good mix with antidepressants. (I never understood the gamble) While taking the antidepressants I became or at least felt debilitated in comparison to prior behaviors. I slept too much and couldn't obsess or even process my own thoughts. Months later, I stopped taking them. I didn't know what would happen, but I knew I'd die if I didn't. I found out there is no magic pill for grief.
Because I learned a great deal about psychiatry, I wanted to read Dr. Archer's book, BETTER THAN NORMAL. I learned more than I expected to learn about labels, emotional pain, healing and saw through Dr. Dale Archer's scope of the word, normal.
I decided to see if there was any advantage to having one of the 8 traits discussed in the book, or if I'm just hopeless as I've always thought of myself in that regard. According to the author, "It's time for the introduction of a new order of things in the world of mental health." He speaks specifically about our over-reliance on medication, "the overdiagnosing and overmedicating of America." There are questionnaires where we can rate ourselves on just how we fit as being Adventurous (ADHD), Perfectionist (OCD), Shy (Social Anxiety Disorder), Anxious (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), Dramatic (Histrionic), Self-Focused (Narcissistic), High Energy (Bipolar), and/or Magical (Schizophrenia). Then we are able to use this profile as a resource to help us "understand in greater depth" the aspects of our personality that make us unique and the things we can do to embrace our dominant trait(s). This is to be part of an ongoing process of self understanding.
I believe the value of this book to a reader is going to depend on (1) whether he has one of these 8 character traits; (2) how extreme it is; (3) whether it is causing any distress; and maybe (4) whether the reader actually wants any help with it or not.
If the reader self-identifies as having an extreme level of one of these traits and is in distress about it, the book may be helpful to find out how to put that dominant trait to work for him rather than against.
From the description, I wasn't sure what this book would be like, but I am glad I took a chance on it. Dr Archer writes in a very clear style that seems very conversational and personal. If you are looking for a highly technical books with a lot of medical or psycholigcal terminology, this is not it. Throughout the book, I felt like the book was written as a private dialgue that was full of stories about himself, celebrities, and patients that he has worked with. He presents 8 conditions that are often spoken about but very misunderstood: ADHD, OCD, Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Then, taking on one per chapter he frames them as being on a spectrum with both good and bad qualities: Adventurous, Perfectionism, Shyness, Anxious, Dramatic, Self-focused, High Energy, and Magical. For each of these, Archer presents a self-test to see where you might be on the spectrum of these various qualities and disorders. I found it very interesting to think about these qualities in this way so that, for example, high levels of adventurousness can be a positive in the right environment, but when it occurs in the extreme, it can be a debilitating form of ADHD.
Archer is careful in his discuss of medications - appropirate only for those on the very high end of the spectrum - and various forms of therapy. He talks about how these qualities work (or don't work) in various settings, including in jobs and relationships.
My only issue is in Archer's assertions that the person needs to find the job that best matches their place on these various spectrums. I agree with this - it is important to find the environment in which the person will be the most successful. However, for some of his cases it seems overly simplistic. For example, for one person on the high end of the perfectionist spectrum, who has a PhD in literature but was unhappy as an academic (too perfectionistic to be able to write), Archer praises his choice of becoming a clock repairman. There are many stories like this, and all made me wonder how realistic it is. Given the student debt and investment I've had in my doctorate, I wonder if I could really make it as a repairman (personality and tendencies aside). A better idea might be to tweak the job (perhaps go to another company or reframe the focus a bit) to be successful. I am also sensitive to the economic difficulties in which it is not always possible to find the perfect match in a job. This is a very minor issue I have and not a criticism per se, but it struck me as overly simplistic and/or idealistic. Perhaps there will be a follow-up book to explore career options more thoroughly.
All in all Archer presents a compelling case for looking at these qualities as a spectrum in which we all have strengths and weaknesses associated with them. Rather than looking at these qualities as pathologies or something to be fixed, Archer makes an argument of looking where you are and building the right life around that. I think that's a great idea.