It’s super important, if we’re truly interested in recovery and change, that we don’t fetishize or overidentify with our diagnoses and symptoms.
If you follow my work, you probably don’t struggle with this. I’m probably not speaking directly to anyone who is reading this right now— and I’m not, at all, looking to blame or shame anyone for how they relate to their symptoms. This isn’t an attack.
There is a subset of people out there who make recovering from their depression, anxiety, PTSD, or addictions much harder than it needs to be— as if it’s not already hard enough— by relating their symptoms in an almost romantic, personalized way.
It shows up in the way they communicate about their symptoms, and, eventually, the way they present themselves to the world at large.
We probably all know someone like this— someone for whom mental illness, addiction, or behavioral struggles in their lives have become something other than conditions they are experiencing or trying to overcome.
Their symptoms and struggles, for them, have seemed to become part of their personal identity. Part of their “brand.”
One of the reasons this happens is because the world in general is now more aware than perhaps it’s ever been of the destructive consequences of shaming people who are struggling. For a long time— and much of the time still— negative stigmas existed around mental illness and behavioral struggles.
Only in recent decades has the cultural tide began to shift, such that many people now recognize how harmful and cruel it is to blame and ostracize people who are struggling with their mental health and behavior patterns.
In the process of reversing this harmful cultural tide, however, some people have rushed to the reverse position of shame and stigma— normalizing and celebrating mental illness and behavioral difficulties in such a way that some people can get confused as to whether experiencing symptoms and struggles are problematic at all, or rather just an expression of diversity the should be accepted and celebrated.
Some people go even further than that. They fetishize and romanticize symptoms and struggles, to the point where their personal and public identities are wrapped up in their symptomatology.
I don’t, at all, think mental illness or behavioral difficulties are things to be shamed. I do not believe mental health indicates moral or character failings.
Further, I truly believe that everybody has to decide for themselves how to relate to all aspects of their health— I’m never going to tell someone they’re doing it “wrong” if they do what I’m describing here. You do you.
That said, I do know that when someone has made their diagnosis or symptoms part of their personal “brand,” or interwoven their symptoms into their personality, it makes the process of treatment and recovery much, much harder. Because in asking people to give up their symptoms, I’m now asking them to give up part of who they are and how they relate to the world— not just a series of thought and behavior patterns that makes life difficult for them and obscures who they REALLY are.
I very frequently write about how we are more than our symptoms and struggles. This is one of the reasons why: I want people to know, without a fraction of a doubt, that they are still worthwhile, interesting, entertaining, worthy of help, and worthy of support, even when their identity is not entwined with their diagnosis.
I’ve worked with patients who were terrified to relinquish their symptoms, because they truly didn’t know who they would be without them.
How would they relate to the world? What would they even talk about with people?
I’ve also known patients whose social circle was largely comprised of people who shared similar diagnoses and symptoms. Some of these people have been worried that, to give up the “identity’ of a person with this symptom or diagnosis, they’d literally lose some friends and lose intimacy with other friends.
I get it.
These aren’t easily answerable questions. I’m not saying they are.
What I am saying is this: to become attached to our symptoms, to become attached to our diagnoses, to make them our “calling card” to the world, is to entrench and enshrine those struggles and diagnoses. I’m telling you, as a therapist, it makes the process of finding new, workable ways of being in the world all that much more difficult.
You don’t need your diagnosis or symptoms to be part of your brand, identity, or personality.
You’re more than that.
You have the ability to create a life that is based on more than your struggles.
Which is why it’s so important that you give yourself the OPPORTUNITY to do so.