Monday, September 26, 2016

Who Am I: The Problem With Self-Definition

I find myself thinking a lot lately about who I am and what determines how I answer that question.  On the face of things, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a therapist, an American, a human, a female.... None of that seems overly descriptive. I am also a person who has an underactive thyroid and a set of sinuses that appear to have some sort of vendetta. What does that say about me?  I am also a person who struggles with depression and anxiety and the attending issues of self-esteem, motivation, and self-confidence.

Interesting, isn't it, that I find myself the most anxious about the last sentence?  Why is it that, of all the characteristics listed above, my mental health issues are somehow more shameful?  In general, I am pretty open with my clients that I have dealt with these issues, but I think I still fear that I will be judged and seen as less capable, less stable, or less trustworthy.

It seems funny that we are quick to define ourselves by those labels. People will introduce themselves to me and say "I'm bipolar" or "I'm ADHD."  While I understand their meaning, I find it interesting that people never walk up and say, "I'm diabetes" or "I'm intestinal cancer."  We would think it really strange if someone did, but yet we don't think twice when people identify themselves by their mental illness.  People in the therapy world tend to focus on "person-first" language. That is, you are not bipolar; rather, you are a person who is dealing with bipolar disorder.  You are not ADHD. You are a person who struggles with focus, prioritization, and task completion.  It may sound like silly semantics, but it makes a difference.

I think, because mental illness affects thinking, mood, and functioning, it feels like it changes who we are. I believe it does not change who we are, but it may inhibit our access to the parts of ourselves that we prefer. It is, however, something that occurs because of something we are dealing with medically, not just something "in our heads."  Just because I can't find PTSD on an x-ray doesn't mean it is any less valid than a broken leg.  We expect people, however,  just to "get over" their mental health issues. Have you ever told anyone to "get over" their high blood pressure?  Probably not. I try to describe mental health issues as defining what you deal with rather than who you are.  Depression does not care if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Athiest, Hindu, or Agnostic.  Schizophrenia does not care what financial class you represent or how many volunteer hours you put in last quarter.  Addiction does not care what language you speak. These things happen to people of every description all over the world.

So, if I do not define myself by my mental health, how do I define myself? I guess I define myself by what I care about and what I am willing to do about what I care about. I define myself by my interests, my talents, and my quirks.  I define myself by my morals and my values.  I love people, and I enjoy helping them learn to see and appreciate themselves differently.  I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, and swing-dancing. I love words, ideas, metaphor, and philosophy.  I am great at starting projects and not so good about finishing them.  I am remarkably unathletic and out of shape and, unfortunately, very messy at home. I have a dry sense of humor but I hate being made to laugh when I am not in the mood.  I try never to hurt people unnecessarily, I try to be authentic, and I try to leave people and places in a better state than they were when I encountered them.

All of these things are true about me more or less no matter where I am or who I am with.  When I am feeling more depressed and anxious, some of those things are harder to acknowledge or connect with, but they are still me. It is hard not to define myself by others' perceptions and expectations, but if I am to be authentic, I have to be true to myself.

Who might you see yourself to be if you did not evaluate yourself by your situation or your struggles? What can you hold on to about yourself even when things appear bleak or hopeless? We all need support and reassurance, and there is no shame in that. We can all lose our way when times get difficult.  I encourage you, however, to try to take a different view of yourself than just what you are experiencing now.  If you struggle with that, I hope you will come find me.  I'd love to help you reconnect with you.

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