There are countless discussions, arguments, and opinions out there in the psychology world about whether or not mental illness diagnoses are helpful or detrimental to the individual. I’m torn and I think that my official opinion is… It depends. One thing that I’ve come across in my work as a counsellor is clients who have told me about mental illness labels or diagnosis they have been given by said psychiatrist, psychologist etc. and the diagnosis itself has become a significant source of distress, and reason for therapy… especially if they believe the diagnosis is downright wrong.
Let’s say you went to see a psychiatrist, spent an hour or so answering a series of questions the doctor asks, and at the end of the session he or she tells you that you have narcissistic personality disorder. So you must, right? They’re the expert, right? But let’s say that as far as you understand yourself you have always seen yourself as giving, self-sacrificing, loving, caring, and relatively humble… and narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by things like a grandiose sense of self-importance, being interpersonally exploitive, having a lack of empathy for others, and being totally arrogant… it seems a little inconsistent… I’m not sure what transpires in the therapy room when things like this happen, and I know that psychiatrists would never say or do something to intentionally damage someone… but there seems to be something amiss.
I’m not sure if mis-diagnosis or symptom/behaviour mis-interpretation happens often … at least I hope not, but I have worked with clients who have received “expert” diagnosis that they truly do not understand, identify with, or feel they meet the criteria for, but can’t seem to shake the idea that it must be true, and they really don’t know themselves at all… and perhaps never have. After all, it was an expert who gave the diagnosis.
Labelling or diagnosing is very serious business and something we, as mental health practitioners, need to be very sensitive to, and approach with extreme caution… if we believe there is any benefit in approaching it at all.
In his national bestselling book TheTipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell dedicates a few pages to writing about types of people called “senders.” These types of people, he writes, “are those who are very good at expressing emotions and feelings, which means that [they] are far more emotionally contagious than the rest of us.” These are the types of people who, after spending some time in their presence, we can’t help but be greatly influenced by whatever energy they are sending out. I find I often notice it most when I am feeling blah, have an encounter with one of these senders exuding all kinds of positive emotion and energy, and then find myself walking away with a spring in my step and a joy in my spirit.
Reading this made me think of a woman I met with a short while ago who had come to me for some career counselling. This woman had recently become a victim of the struggling BC economy, had been laid off by a downsizing company, and was now trying to figure out what to do next with her career. Although she was terribly frustrated, discouraged, and somewhat stressed out about her work situation she still seemed to have a sort of positive underlying energy or attitude… I can’t quite describe it, but I found myself picking up the message that amidst her difficult circumstance, she knew what she had to do and was ready and willing to do it con mucho gusto! (With much gusto). As our session wrapped up I couldn’t help saying to her “I know you are going to be successful and that whoever you end up working for will be absolutely thrilled at there good luck for nabbing you up first.” She was just one of those senders who’s positive and optimistic energy and emotion, even in the midst of turmoil, was absolutely contagious and I found myself feeling really good in her presence… so good that I became tremendously excited about her impending success.
This also goes back to my last post about creating how others treat us. I’m baffled by how this woman, although faced with a really difficult situation, was able to create such optimism and exuberance in me which then directly translated into how I responded to her. Fascinating.
There’s an idea out there in the psychology world that we create, to a large extent, how people treat us, and recently I’ve been finding myself thinking and philosophizing about this idea more than usual. Now obviously if we are rude and mean to someone most likely they will respond to us with anger or resentment… nothing profound there. And, sometimes friends, loved ones, and even complete strangers will be overtly rude to us for no apparent reason… I’m not saying we necessarily caused them to treat us in this way… sometimes people are just having bad days and they decide to take it out on the next innocent person who unknowingly crosses their path.
I’m talking here about something a little more subtle and below the surface where there is always so much more going on. I’m talking about things like being talked down to by our partners; like feeling as though we’re always the one taking responsibility for coming up with ‘the plan’ when with friends; like we don’t get included in social get togethers very often; Like our parents don’t trust us to make good decisions… I could go on but I think you get the point. It’s kind of a hard and painful concept to really look at and reflect on. Could it really be true that I’m largely responsible for setting up how others treat me? Perhaps, and often most likely unintentionally, but the truth is that we play a pretty major role in shaping how others approach us… especially those with whom we have closer relationships.
Think about this: Are there certain friends who you would never cancel plans on, but would on others? Are there certain people who you would call the day of to make plans and others you only plan with a week or two in advance? Are there some family members who you feel you can be straightforward and honest with and others you often skirt around or avoid the issue with? Are there some friends you trust with your most personal secrets and others you would never go to in confidence? What have they done to influence how you approach them?
This idea can be really challenging, or even upsetting for some – especially if we often find ourselves being treated poorly in our relationships and instead of the blaming others for their wrong doings and pointing the finger 100% outwards. We might have to take some pretty major responsibility and look inward, or at least partly inward and share some of that responsibility. The good, if not GREAT news is that we are NOT helpless victims. If we have the ability to play a major role in how others treat us for worse, then we can recast those roles and create opportunities for others to treat us how we actually want to be treated!
I’m not saying it’s easy, or that we will always be successful, but it’s a start: An empowering start.
Today I have an extra opportunity to think about and reflect on why I am grateful to be Canadian. I am grateful to live in a country with an incredible health care system that takes care of me when I’m sick. I am grateful that when I enter any hospital from coast to coast , and when I need it most, I don’t have to worry about whether or not my insurance will cover me. I am grateful to live in a country with a police force that protects my safety and keeps the peace. I am grateful to go to sleep at night to the sounds of the wind and rain and not gunshots and exploding bombs. I am grateful to live in a country that celebrates diversity and allows me freedom of speech, tradition, and religion. I am grateful to live in a country where I can access incredible education – and my government will often pay for most, if not all of it. I am grateful to live in a country free from fear and persecution. I am grateful to live in a country that is full of abundant and diverse natural beauty. I am grateful to live in a country that offers me clean drinking water with the turn of a knob.
Today, and everyday, I am grateful to live in the true north, strong, and free.