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Is it the Bipolar or is it me? Confusion and self-doubt

Posted Feb 26 2013 5:00am

The struggles to find yourself when you have Bipolar Disorder or another mental illness

Self confusion

People who grow up with a mental illness have a difficult time finding out who they are separate from their disorder. The younger you are when the symptoms start the more difficult it is to find out who you are during those times the symptoms are at a severe point. People with other mental illnesses may experience this same confusion but it is easiest to illustrate by discussing the effects of Bipolar Disorder on self-doubt.  

Youth with Bipolar disorder have a second set of tasks to navigate over and above those all teen’s experience. Finding you who you are is a necessary task of adolescence. Much of that sense of self is developed as a result of the experiences you have. For the person with Bipolar disorder the person who has those experiences changes depending on the severity of symptoms. 

In the early stages of the disorder the disease goes largely undiagnosed. The person who will someday get that bipolar diagnosis may spend 20 years or more struggling with out of control emotions before they come to discover that those unpredictable mood swings are a result of their disease not some defect in who they are.

When you have symptoms, try to control them, but find you are out of control more than in, it is easy to begin to doubt yourself and to begin to hate yourself. Before receiving their diagnosis many youth with Bipolar Disorders have been led to believe they are “bad kids” and that they should be able to do things they find far outside their abilities.

The person with Bipolar Disorder will experience a large discrepancy between who they are supposed to be and who they are. Despite their best efforts, who they feel they are, will change depending on whether they are in a manic, hypo-manic depressive or mixed phase.

The peak onset for Bipolar is between fifteen and nineteen years of age, precisely those late teen years when you need to establish who you are as a separate person from your caregivers and friends.

The earlier the onset of Bipolar Disorder the more difficult it becomes to define what is the disorder and what part of these feeling and behaviors are you.

Often the person with Bipolar will report that they don’t know how they feel. A given situation will make them feel happy one day and sad or angry the next. This creates extreme self-doubt.

Having a mind or body that betrays you can lead to self-hate. In the early stages of Bipolar Disorder, before the diagnosis, there is a high risk that you will come to hate yourself for having uncontrollable and unpredictable moods.  

Clients sometimes report during a severe episode “This is not who I am.” They have the feeling that there are three or more of them, the depressed person, the manic person and sometimes there is that person that is them without the symptoms.  

Someone with Bipolar Disorder may find that they shift between being an introvert and being an extrovert depending on the state of their illness. They can easily become confused as to which is the real them.

After a particularly manic episode or a really low depressive episode the person with Bipolar Disorder may find themselves saying “That is not me, I don’t want to be like that.”

The result of all these conflicts in their self-image can leave a person in the early phase of Bipolar Disorder with negative self-beliefs. These beliefs are likely to persist into adulthood and change slowly if at all. The person that they find themselves to be on medication or after therapy is a whole different person to the previous untreated person.   

One risk for the undiagnosed person is the tendency to become a chameleon. Not knowing who they really are deep down they try to blend in and assume the roles of others around them. This results in an unstable self that is one way today and another tomorrow.

A common refrain is “I don’t like myself.” Or “I can’t do anything right.” Shaking these beliefs and sorting out who you are separate from your disorder is a difficult but necessary process.

Because of the mood swings between depression and mania the person with bipolar disorder faces unique challenges in finding who they really are separate from their diagnosis.

People with other mental and emotional problems will expertise these conflicts in varying ways. The key task is to learn that you are not your diagnosis and that your condition does not define who and what you will become.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com


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