You Are Not Your DiagnosisFar too often in society, people use their diagnosis to define them. Or other well-meaning people or professionals describe someone as “Oh, that person is bipolar” or “She’s just borderline.” I’ve even seen leading mental health advocates refer to themselves as a “depressive” or “schizophrenic.”

I think this kind of shorthand, self-labeling is a bad thing. Here’s why.

People love labels — there’s no denying it. There are so many personality tests online, I’ve lost count. One of the most popular is some form of Jung typology or Myers-Briggs, which categorizes 4 personality traits into one of 32 possible combinations. (In some ways, this is one step up from astrology.)

Labels help us take a valuable cognitive shortcut, which further helps identify and relate to other people or things in our environment. For instance, we all agree on botany terms so scientists from different cultures and backgrounds can talk about the same plant with the same understanding as to its categorization, origins, relatedness, genetics, and even needs.

Not All Labels Are Equal

So labels are both necessary and beneficial to society. But not all labels are equally beneficial or helpful.

For instance, the term “survivor” is a powerful label, one adopted by many who’ve experienced cancer, trauma or abuse. It instantly communicates that the person has survived and overcome one of life’s most difficult battles. It signals to others that this person is a fighter, and one who will not go gentle into that good night.

There are no negatives — such as stigma, prejudice or discrimination — attached to the term “survivor.” But there are a lot of negatives attached to other labels — mostly the labels used in mental health.

Labels Help Describe, Not Define

I like to think of a label as a short-hand way of helping describe a general concern or condition — but it is not the end-all, be-all of that condition. Because each disease or disorder manifests itself in different ways in different people. To say that one person’s bipolar disorder looks exactly like another person’s is to make a leap of faith that would be wildly contradicted by both.

That’s why it’s frustrating to see many patients take up a diagnostic label as a new definition of self. It’s so one-dimensional. And while it may feel like your whole life is wrapped up in the disorder or disease, it usually reduces the complexity of your experience to something that really isn’t you. Or does much justice to the real you.

So sure — use a label to help describe your experience. After all, we all have said, “I have the flu today, so I can’t come into work.” But few of us have ever considered saying, “I am the flu.”

You are not your diagnosis. So please stop referring to yourself as nothing more than a diagnostic label. It gives short shrift to and doesn’t honor your complexity and uniqueness as a person. You deserve better.