What to Do When Normal Isn’t Healthy

What To Do When Normal Isn’t Healthy

Larry Senn’s personal purpose is to help an ever-widening number of people live life at their best mentally, emotionally, physically, and purposefully. One tool he created to make that a reality for tens of thousands of people is the Mood Elevator, an operating manual to keep you out of the emotional basement. Here, he shares how to use it as a “dashboard” for reading our emotional energy levels.

There is a myth about the story of the Boiled Frog. It says that, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately to save itself. However, if you put a frog in a pot of water and then begin to turn the temperature up slowly it won’t jump out — and will end up as a boiled frog.

While this myth has been debunked by scientists, it still serves as a powerful metaphor of what can happen to us when we get stuck in an unhealthy normal. It occurs when any lower-floor mood state — like impatient, bothered, blaming, self-righteous, etc. — becomes so familiar that you don’t notice it anymore.

People often adjust to unhealthy environmental conditions in a way that resembles the frog. For example, for a few weeks after we moved my company headquarters into a new building adjacent to an extremely busy freeway in Huntington Beach, California, I was bothered by the constant sound of traffic. Today when guests ask how I manage to work with the noise, my response is, “What noise?”

We all run the risk of becoming boiled frogs when it comes to habitual emotional states.

Think about a time when you were continuously bothered or irritated by a situation in your life. This could be a tumultuous relationship with a coworker, a romantic relationship, or a situation that wasn’t playing out to your liking. You may have noticed it up to a certain point, but it may have also reached a state of happening so often that you didn’t even realize it anymore. It may have taken a vacation, or a loved one saying something like “what’s eating you? You’ve been in a bad mood for months” to snap you out of it.

If a state of unhealthy normal persists for too long, it can have some serious consequences.

Being in a constant state of a lower mood floor can have impacts on your relationships. When you’re bothered, it’s very difficult to communicate. It can also impact your work life — most people don’t enjoy collaborating or working with a coworker who appears to be angry all the time.

Unhealthy normal can also have an impact at an organizational level.

A great example of this is Enron, the energy and commodities trading firm in the 1990’s. I was asked to meet with Enron’s top executives at that time, and I quickly noticed that their culture was driven entirely by an excessive focus on self-interest — that was their unhealthy normal. We pointed this out and warned the company’s leaders that, in the long run, this approach to business carried significant dangers and was ultimately unsustainable. We turned down the engagement and a few years later, the company collapsed. This is an extreme example of the negative consequences that come with an unhealthy normal.

How do we prevent ourselves or our businesses from getting caught in the trap of unhealthy normal?

Mood Elevator - Larry SennThe key to preventing and escaping from unhealthy normal is simply being aware. The Mood Elevator can serve as your human dashboard, similar to the dashboard on a car. Just as a red light on your car’s dashboard starts blinking when the engine is overheating, rising anger offers a warning when your emotions start heating up. And just as your car’s gauge warns you when you are low on fuel, the feelings of depression let you know when your emotional energy is low.

This Human Dashboard functionality is one of the most practical applications of the Mood Elevator. If you can start to learn how to notice your feelings as they change — particularly when you start moving to the lower floors — you can allow these feelings to trigger corrective actions.

Here are some “symptoms” that you may be slipping into an unhealthy normal:

  • Impatience
  • Pessimism
  • Irritation
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Excessive intensity
  • A judgmental attitude
  • Insecurity
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • Neediness
  • The need to be right
  • Argumentativeness
  • Self-righteousness
  • Disconnection
  • Blaming or excuses
  • An unwillingness to admit mistakes

Start keeping an eye out for these feelings. It’s also important to listen to those closest to you if they point out that they’re noticing you in one of these moods. Our first instinct may be to get defensive after hearing constructive criticism, but don’t dismiss them; they are trying to tell you that your human dashboard is flashing warning signs that you might be overlooking.


Dr. Larry Senn pioneered the field of corporate culture and founded Senn Delaney, the culture shaping unit of Heidrick & Struggles, in 1978. A sought-after speaker, Senn has authored or co-authored several books, including two best-sellers. His newest is The Mood Elevator (August 2017), the follow up to his 2012 book, Up the Mood Elevator. You can learn more about Larry and his work at his website, www.themoodelevator.com.



Image credit: free-photos


Enter A Comment

camille   |   17 August 2017   |   Reply

Susan, another great article. i’m going to use it, with attributions to you and Larry with my clients. really well done.

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2017   |   Reply

Thanks Camille!

Bill McLin   |   18 August 2017   |   Reply

your article was very insightful and spot on! I’m glad to see something that is not a ploy to get people to look at something they want the public to buy.

Susan Mazza   |   31 August 2017   |   Reply

Thank you Bill!