Mental Illness vs. Character Flaws

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

How do I determine the difference between the mental illnesses my daughter lives with and character defects? It is difficult for me to know the difference. Can you offer some guidelines that will help discern the differences, to help me in knowing how to respond?
My daughter struggles with bipolar, bulemia, and possibly BPD.
Thank You!

A: I’m so, so sorry that your daughter is struggling with so much. I’m equally sorry that you are having difficulty with her behavior. At close to 60, this isn’t what you imagined you’d be dealing with at this point in your life.

The brief answer to your question is that you are having trouble sorting out illness from temper tantrums because it’s difficult to sort out — particularly with someone who has BPD. Unstable relationships are the key characteristic of that diagnosis. I imagine you have already done some reading about it.

I very much hope that your daughter has a therapist, preferably one trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, to help her learn to manage her feelings. I also hope that she allows you to attend sessions now and then to learn ways you can support her and yet have an appropriately separate life. With or without a mental illness, your daughter is an adult and needs to be managing her own life as much as possible.

You might find it helpful to find a chapter of NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many chapters have parent education and support groups to help people like yourself know how to best support family members who have mental illness.

What you can do that no one else can do is love your daughter as only a mother can. That doesn’t mean that you need to be a victim of her mood shifts and any unreasonable demands. A support group can give you other people who understand, information about how to stay centered when your daughter is being difficult and people to call when you need to remind yourself how to do it.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 May 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Mental Illness vs. Character Flaws. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/05/24/mental-illness-vs-character-flaws/