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PBS' 'This Emotional Life': Your Diagnosis Does Not Define You

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If you had a broken leg how would you tell someone? Would it be "I am broken leg" or "I have a broken leg"? Unless you are a caveman it would likely be the latter. We recognize that a broken leg is not a representation of who we are. It just happens to be a broken leg. We don't label ourselves as being defined by our orthopedic status, right?

Frequently, clients will come into my office, sit down and say "I am bipolar" as their introduction. I am not saying that diagnoses are necessarily a bad thing. Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be freeing, as it explains what has been, for many years, unexplainable. We realize "wow, I am not the only one!" We use diagnoses in our field to give us a common language and help guide treatment decisions based on what has been known to work.

"I am bipolar" can carry with it many associations. For some of my more creative clients, they see their bipolar disorder as just a part of being an artist, a necessary condition for creating. No matter how painful our symptoms, it can be more difficult for us to let them go if we believe they are necessary for our identity or that somehow, they are who we are. (For more information on bipolar disorder go to http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/bipolar)

A lot of times I see clients feeling ambivalent as they get better. "Wow, I feel so much happier" and yet "this feels so weird and uncomfortable...am I still me?" This ambivalence, which is quite normal, can lead people to stop treatment and relapse back into their symptoms. If, however, an individual can see that they happen to have a condition that isn't who they are, it can be easier to become free from it.

In some ways this reminds me of potty-training children. Some kids struggle with letting go of what looks to us as waste, but to them is a part of themselves. They can get very distressed when the toilet flushes. I have heard kids say "bye, bye poop" as they become more comfortable with the idea of letting go. We begin early in life struggling to let go of our poop and as we age, we struggle to let go of our emotional crap. (As I type this I am being told by someone sitting next to me that I shouldn't use the word crap. It is a good thing I am able to flush that comment down the drain!)

So, I'm wondering: How do you define yourself? What labels do you use? Are your labels freeing or imprisoning? Are you ready to flush them goodbye? I'd love to hear from you!

For more information, visit www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.

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