Where’s the Line Between Normal and Abnormal?

Perhaps you read the trending news of the man with the world’s longest fingernails who recently cut them off after sixty-six years. Yes, that’s right. Shridhar Chillal, 82, let his nails grow for more than six decades. Apparently, at age 14 he accidentally broke his teacher’s nail, and was scolded for it. The teacher said that Mr. Chillal would never understand the importance of breaking his teacher’s nail because Mr. Chillal had never committed to anything. He took this as a challenge to himself and let his nails grow six ½ feet long. They are now on display in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in New York City. Mr. Chillal is described as making an “unusual choice” but it didn’t stop him from leading a “normal” life. He married, had two children and worked professionally as a photographer. Now that his fingernails have been clipped, he is left with a permanent disability. He cannot open his left hand from a closed position or flex his fingers.

Mr. Chillal is also listed in the Guiness Book of World Records. Once the application is approved, his feat will be immortalized in the book. I had to ask why on earth would anyone want to do that? What does this get him? There is no financial gain and it is dubious that this feat will garner respectful fame.

Ian Robertson, professor of psychology in Dublin, states that the thing that motivates a person to win a race or an athletic performance is a mix of motivations. He cites the “three needs” theory which breaks down motivation in needs for achievement, power, and belonging. If you can’t achieve in more conventional means, a bizarre feat will do. That feat will be officially recognized as something that is measurable, superlative, breakable, and interesting. It is a human desire to stand out of the crowd. We want to be unique and to be a winner.

Having the longest fingernails will enliven any conversation. But is it normal behavior? It is difficult to determine where normal behavior leaves off and abnormal behavior begins. However, four “D”s can help conceptualize abnormality.

Deviance identifies the degree of deviation from the norm. A behavior is abnormal if it occurs infrequently among the members of a society or culture.

Dysfunction identifies that which is significant enough to interfere with the individual’s life in some major way such as in a person’s occupational and social life. It is an inability to perform daily functioning or everyday activities.

Distress is identified as the extent to which the behavior distresses the individual, not the observer. A person can experience a great deal of dysfunction and very little distress or vice versa. Distress may appear as anxiety, insomnia, various pains and aches or emotional upset.

Danger consists of danger to self and/or danger to others.

Some researchers add a fifth D, Duration. Chronic, problematic behaviors that are of longer duration are more typical of abnormality.

Mr. Chillal’s long fingernails fits several criteria of abnormality. It is safe to say that a refusal to trim one’s nails deviates greatly from the norm. His nails created dysfunction in that he needed assistance to perform daily tasks such as dressing himself, as seen in videos of him. It is unknown if he was distressed by his nails, but it likely caused stress or embarrassment to his family who had to care for him. The length of his nails presented a danger to himself in that he knowingly and willfully caused himself a permanent disability. Sixty-six years is the duration of his adult life. He deprived himself of freedom of movement until the age of 82.

Do you have behaviors or habits that are abnormal? Use the four D’s to check yourself.

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