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Blog Short #170: You’re Not Your Diagnosis: The Perils of Using Labels


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If you’ve ever gone to a therapist or psychiatrist or undergone psychological testing, you’ve been given a mental health diagnosis. It’s written somewhere in someone’s notes, on an insurance form, or in a treatment summary.

You likely know what it is, and although it can be helpful to identify and name issues so you know what to work on, it’s not beneficial to become them.

You cross a fine line when you make the jump from seeing your diagnosis as who you are rather than as a descriptive label of issues you need to deal with.

Most of the time, it’s a subtle and unconscious process, but not always.

Sometimes, people wear their diagnosis as a sort of badge.

It becomes part of your identity – a descriptor you use to think about yourself. If you talk about it enough, your family and friends also use it as a descriptor of who you are.

Think about it: How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m bipolar,” “I’m ADHD,” or “I’m a depressive.”

In all cases, the “I” is equated with the disorder.

But, if you have a medical problem, you don’t usually equate your sense of “I” with it. You say, “I have COVID,” or “I have a heart murmur.” You don’t say, “I am COVID” or “I am a heart murmur.”

It’s a semantic difference, but the underlying belief that goes along with it is not semantic. It’s defining, and that’s a problem – a big one.

Diagnoses are indicators of things that are amiss, but they aren’t and shouldn’t be life sentences. And too often, they are.

Narrowing Yourself Down

When you label yourself as a diagnosis, you narrow your sense of self down to the symptoms and descriptions associated with that particular diagnosis.

What happens from there is that you begin looking for those symptoms in your daily interactions and activities, and when you see one of them, you say, “Aha! Yep, I am bipolar.”

Then maybe you get online and start reading more about it. You talk to your friends, family, or partner about it, and they affirm it. They feed it back to you. They might list the symptoms they’ve seen or use it to describe their worries about you or, worse, affirm why you’re so challenging to deal with or failing at something or other.

A diagnosis can become a brand that’s been tattooed on your identity that everyone can see. When that happens, you shrink. You fit yourself into a nicely defined box that you feel locked into.

I am exaggerating a little. It isn’t always that dramatic, but I’ve seen many cases where it is. I’ve had new clients who begin their sessions by telling me what their diagnosis is and then go on from there to back it up with a description of their symptoms.

You are more than your symptoms and much more than your diagnosis.

You’re struggling with something, and maybe that something is pervasive right now, and maybe your symptoms fit into an established diagnostic category, but that doesn’t mean that’s all of who you are. It’s what you’re dealing with that’s currently affecting your functioning.

Isolation or Join the Club

A second problem with carrying a diagnosis is that it can leave you feeling isolated from other people. You’re different. You have problems other people don’t have.

“Why can’t I just be normal?” you ask.

Matt Haig describes this very well in The Comfort Book. He says about his depression:

The trouble was that I had a very binary view of things. I thought you were either well or ill, sane or insane, and once I was diagnosed with depression, I felt I had been exiled to a new land, like Napoleon, and that there would be no escape back to the world I had known.

One way that people sometimes deal with feeling different because of their “diagnosis” is to seek out others with the same diagnosis.

Talking to another person who’s been diagnosed with ADHD feels helpful. You can commiserate about the issues you both struggle with and what you’ve done to try and deal with them. That’s not a bad thing – you might learn something new you can use. But again, it can be narrowing.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek out others who struggle with similar problems. Group therapy is based on the concept of sharing experiences and ideas to help each other overcome specific struggles, and it is often very helpful. But watch those labels. Make sure that your “diagnostic club” isn’t the only club you belong to.

Should we stop using mental health diagnoses?

Some may say yes, but I think they’re helpful if used correctly.

Let’s start with understanding what a mental health diagnosis is and how it’s meant to help.

A diagnosis describes a set of symptoms found through research to repeatedly appear together to produce specific emotional, cognitive, and behavioral struggles.

That means that people who experience similar emotional states like ongoing depression likely have similar symptoms.

It’s helpful because it gives both therapist and client a starting point to work from and a way to talk about what’s happening. However, no two people are exactly alike. Each person’s experiences, environments, histories, perceptions, and interactions with their emotions are unique.

A good therapist sees the person first and the symptoms second. They don’t hold someone to a singular diagnosis or assume it’s a forever situation. It’s a guide that can be very helpful if used correctly.

Shades and Grades

The other important thing to remember about diagnosing and labeling, in general, is that there are always shades and grades of them.

For example, the diagnosis “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” might include people with mild narcissistic trends as well as those that display extreme behaviors such as lack of conscience, sadism, and profuse lying. There’s a scale like a continuum when talking about any specific diagnosis. So, throwing it around carelessly is damaging.

In fact, one of the reasons the Enneagram is so popular is that it outlines both strengths and weaknesses of nine personality types. Many of the weaknesses listed are identical to symptoms of common mental health diagnoses. However, diagnoses are not used.

When working on mental health issues, you must take note of your strengths – STRONG NOTE – and use them to help overcome your distress.

Give them at least equal time, if not more, because they will help you change the landscape of your personality and ability to resolve problems.

That doesn’t mean that if someone is exhibiting serious symptoms like those that accompany psychosis or mania, we should act like they aren’t there. They are. They’re real and need treatment. However, we should recognize and use every possible strength to aid treatment.

For most people, mental health diagnoses are related to mood disturbances, anxiety, and some personality disorders. But even the term “personality disorder” can make someone feel like they’ve been branded for life, and the brand is permanent.

The Bottom Line

When thinking about mental health issues, the bottom line is to look directly at how well or not you’re functioning in the primary areas of your life – relationships, work, mood, health, stress load, etc., and then decide where work is needed.

Part of that assessment should always include a list of your strengths, successes, and areas of high functioning so you can tap into them to help resolve problems.

If you seek out therapy, which I always think is helpful even if you don’t have burning issues and you just want to increase your self-awareness, make sure your therapist is on the same page with you. Don’t let a diagnosis become the defining label of who you are.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

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