Hands up how many times you’ve heard someone tell you that your mental illness doesn’t have to define you? It doesn’t have to define us, but anyone with more than half a brain cell knows it’s not that black and white. Have you ever noticed it’s always the people who tell us we shouldn’t let it define us who are the first ones to assign labels? This can have a significant negative impact on our sense of identities and self-worth.
When you have anxiety, people tend to see you only as the person who is afraid of everything. They say things like: ‘She won’t do that because she’s too scared‘. Or call you a wimp, a scaredy-cat, pathetic, and a snowflake. It can be extremely tough to not let this worm its way into your head.
Every mental illness comes with its own stigmatising labels. Crazy and psychotic have been used as labels for individuals with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Manipulative and evil for those with borderline personality disorder. In reality, these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. These labels can have a profound impact on your sense of self. How are you supposed to forge an identity for yourself that’s entirely separate from your mental illness when other people are quick to place stereotypical and stigmatising labels on you?
When you live with a mental illness, how do you simply not allow yourself to be defined by it when the whole world is quick to label you? Is it even possible when it’s so ingrained in your identity almost as much as your eye colour and height? How are you supposed to know who you are?
YOU’RE A PERSON WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS, NOT A PERSON WHO IS ONLY THEIR MENTAL ILLNESS
The bitter truth is that people will label you – and these labels will not always be pleasant. Humans have a negative confirmation bias and so our brains are hardwired for the negative. When someone assigns a stigmatising label to you it can cause you to internalise it and shatter your already fragile self-worth. I’m guilty of this. I let it fester until it consumes me. Most of the time it’s from people who have no significance in my life yet I allow their opinion to define me. Thank you, negative confirmation bias! The problem with this is it forces me to see my mental illness as a weakness and a burden. I see myself as nothing more than a product of my mental illness.
While I would gladly wish for a life without my mental illness, I do believe my lived experience has made me much more compassionate and thoughtful, which are traits I actually like about myself. When it contributes to who I am today, even the traits I don’t like about myself, how can it not be a defining part of my identity? It’s okay if your mental illness is a defining part of who you are. However, it’s important to recognise there is more to you than just your illness.
Thanks to decades worth of stigma, society as a whole is deeply uneducated and ignorant about mental illness and mental health. For one thing, they are not one in the same. You can suffer with your mental health and not have a mental illness. While I wish we lived in a world where being diagnosed with a mental illness will elicit a response without stigma, we unfortunately do not live in a world like that… yet.
WHAT MAKES YOU THE PERSON YOU ARE?
It’s at times like that when you need to remind yourself that there’s more to you than just your illness. Your illness forms only part of your identity in the same way your eyes only form part of your face. There are many other elements that make you.
I’m an amateur baker, avid reader, aspiring author (and clinical psychologist), and a proficient dad-joke teller. I’m intelligent, empathetic, generous, short, and I have one leg longer than the other. Together they form a picture of me. Separately they’re just parts to the equation. My mental illness is the same.
Many mental illnesses can never be cured, only managed. Personality and mood disorders among them. Medication, therapy, and a reduction in stigma can support this. There have been cases where individuals have recovered from anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Personally, I firmly believe my anxiety and disordered eating will never fully go away but can only be managed. For a lot of us, who will have these forever, our illnesses are defining aspects of our identity – and that’s perfectly okay.