#TherapyBuzzwords - Searching for a Diagnosis

Laurel Sims-Stewart, Stephanie Batts, & Rozlyn Newman
Laurel: Okay y’all, so, we are here to talk *therapy buzzwords* this month! I feel like there are so many terms that we used to only hear in clinical settings, like gaslighting, narcissism, dissociating, etc. that now we are hearing about all the time. Especially on social media! And I don’t think it’s all bad, but it’s also not all good either, right?

Rozlyn: Absolutely- on one hand it’s really great that these terms, and just talk around mental health in general, are becoming more known and accepted. But I think the way in which many people are associating these terms with themselves isn’t always the most helpful or productive- both for that person and for others who live these experiences.
Stephanie: Yes I often hear clients verbalize frustration when people “joke” about having OCD or ADHD when they have only a few tendencies. 

Laurel: Right! So it’s this tension between wanting to have a way to explain something about ourselves, a wider cultural acceptance of mental health, and also not generalizing it so much that it minimizes the experiences of people that do have these diagnos

I think it’s an opportunity to explore why so many people lean into these terms - validation? Identity? Support and community?

Rozlyn: I feel like a large part of it is that it’s one more way people can use to “figure out” life, or themselves. There has always been that “soul seeking” theme in people, where we’re always trying new things- experiences, jobs, relationships, appearances, etc.- to figure out who we are to some degree. We can look back at books and movies and music throughout the years and see that theme, but we can also see it really clearly in our social media now. I think the medium of social media makes it much more concentrated since social media is so instant and widespread- you’re just kind of steeping in this mixture of wildly different experiences and people but you feel so connected to them that it can be easy to draw similarities between their diagnoses and your own tendencies or personality.

Laurel: Oh that’s a really interesting point. Do you think maybe also part of it is that with social media, nuance can sometimes evaporate? What I mean by that is, oftentimes with social media accounts the person behind the account sort of gets distilled down to a few defining characteristics rather than being a whole, complex human - so we might end up reaching for something in our own lives that feels like a formula, or a simple explanation, for our humanity? Or am I just rambling here? Haha!

Rozlyn: No, I think that makes complete sense! I find myself doing that- referring to someone on social media not as their name (I might not even know or remember their name) but as “the person with that cool dagger tattoo” or “that lady with the Chicago loft”, things along those lines that I associate with who they are but really is just one piece of who they are. It can make it so easy to pick up on a couple things that you relate to, but if those things are very specific- like diagnosed OCD- then attaching yourself to that and focusing so much on your own tendencies that feel similar could maybe help you feel like a part of that community. But similar to what Stephanie said earlier, those living with these diagnoses are maybe pushed to the side a bit by the influx of people putting themselves into these communities in a way that might seem “trendy

Stephanie: Yes Roz, I think that’s a great point and it leads to another important aspect that Laurel mentioned above, community, through identifying with and feeling a part of something.  It’s human nature to want to belong and so feeling close to others through similar experiences makes us feel connected.  It seems most of us need more connection these days and just like reading a poem that feels like it was plucked out of your brain, or hearing a song that you feel to your bones, seeing a list of symptoms/behaviors that resonate makes us feel seen and understood.

Another thing the diagnosis can provide, is a way to help other people understand us better. It can feel like a way to help explain behaviors, or give understanding of reactions/interactio

Laurel: YES. So true, Stephanie. I think it can help us to be less judgmental of our own “stuff” when we can find a way to categorize it, or explain it like you said. We can say “well it makes sense that I do this, or that this is hard for me, because I have this diagnosis.” It might even open up some room for us to be more compassionate with ourselv

Rozlyn: Self-compassion and connection are definitely huge factors behind seeking a diagnosis often I think, even if people don’t consciously realize that that’s the reason. Finding something that gives you a reason to go easier on yourself, to accept certain characteristics or patterns that you've struggled to accept and/or change, an encoded way to connect with others, or a reason that maybe affects others in trying to understand you better. These things aren’t intrinsically linked to a diagnosis or mental health status- people deserve self-compassion and understanding regardless of a diagnosis- but it can often be really hard to grant yourself that space.

Stephanie: I completely agree, and it occurs to me that self-compassion and understanding can lead to allowing yourself to feel hopeful about making wanted changes.  Many people seem to feel helpless and hopeless when they find themselves in patterns of distressful behaviors, emotions and reactions.  Having a diagnosis, or even just recognizing that you have some tendencies of a mental health disorder can help guide you toward helpful strategies and coping skills.  For example if you have issues with focus, but don’t meet all of the criteria for ADHD, it still can be beneficial to try some proven strategies used by people with ADHD to improve focus.
Laurel: That makes so much sense, like we often have a mental block around “allowing” ourselves to use certain tools or strategies unless we have a “good enough” reason (I realize I’m using a lot of quotes here hah). If we don’t, then it’s just something we need to have more willpower about, be stronger about, etc. When in actuality, maybe we could try giving ourselves permission to need what we need without a label to open the door?

Rozlyn: Absolutely- if you feel as if a tool or strategy could help ease some of the
difficulties you’re experiencing, allow yourself to help yourself and give it a try. I see it as kind of empowering in a way- to change that mindset from “if I could get that label then I could get help” to “you know, regardless of any label or outside perspective I am going to support myself in whatever way I need”- and that can feel really powerful and rewarding. And that isn’t to discount the importance of labels in our society and in certain situations and the weight that they often hold, but there is no reason to put your wellbeing to the side in absence of a label. How do we go about doing that though- what kinds of actions can we take to support ourselves in lieu of a label?

Laurel: That’s a good question. I think partly it goes back to this idea of community care. We think we need a label or diagnosis to be validated by ourselves, but also others around us. If we can seek out and identify communities and connections, I think it not only normalizes our human experience even more but it also provides us with other humans who know us, who know our stories, and can say “does that work for you? Great, then do it!” or, “This is what works for me, maybe you could try it.” I think this part also speaks to our innate need for purpose and belonging, and when we start to feel the truth of those things we might have less of a need for one catch-all label to encompass our human-ness.

Stephanie: Yes, that sense of belonging is a strong motivator.  I’ve noticed in working with couples, that often one partner searches for a label for the other partner.  This can be an attempt to gain better understanding, or it can be an attempt to justify behaviors.  It seems that sometimes we are looking for a reason to get out of a relationship and sometimes we are looking for a reason to stay in a relationship. Like if you have a “good reason” for treating me poorly, then I can stay in

Laurel: So far we’ve got self-discovery or understanding, understanding others’ behaviors, feeling connection or belonging, permission to be “different,” increased capacity for self-compassion…anything else? Also, how do we approach this as professionals? I’m very person-centered in my approach and often find myself feeling caught in the middle between “the client is the expert” and what I do know as a clinician about a specific diagnosis. I think ultimately it has to be a collaborative discussion, right?

Rozlyn: Yea I’m curious what something like this looks like in session for you all- as mental health professionals you want to support your client and validate how they feel, especially in situations where they maybe don’t get any support or are treated poorly, but you’re still working within a scientific subject that does have guidelines. How do you navigate empowering your client while also providing appropriate care and resources- whether that does end up being a diagnosis, or grounding tools, coping strategies, etc.?

Laurel: When I think back on times I’ve had this come up in sessions, I do think it’s about collaborating on the client’s why and their how. So I definitely validate their experience and the things that resonate with them, and also try to help them untangle what is the root need? Ultimately, for all of the reasons we’ve said, I’d want to be curious about what will help them to flourish in their lives - sometimes that means identifying a diagnosis to use as a framework for change, but it absolutely doesn’t have to.

Rozlyn: That makes a lot of sense- at the end of the day it’s a conversation with your client, regardless of what path the framework for care takes. Whether a diagnosis is given or not, I could see that the conversations themselves surrounding the why and how being one of the most supportive and helpful things for a client.