On symptoms and “typical” experiences

Healing both the extreme and the “within normal limits” of mental health struggles

Chances are, that ex or the in-laws you’re dealing with aren’t diagnosable with narcissistic personality disorder. This is in reference to the many, many posts, articles, social media articles diagnosing and assessing whether someone has NPD traits, or otherwise. Similarly, many self-diagnose themselves with some severe clusters of symptoms (bipolar, OCD, etc) when they may be “within normal limits” for a person, overly neat and tidy compared to their current roommates, or moody sometimes. That isn’t to say these diagnoses don’t exist, they’re just not nearly as prevelant as one may think after browsing the internet for a while.

Here, I briefly explain how “symptoms” exist on a spectrum — everyone gets sad sometimes, anxious, worries about the future, or is a little selfish sometimes. These emotional, cognitive, physical / body behaviors generally become a “symptom” when they are barriers to functioning in one’s life roles, relationship (e.g. work, life, home), and they become disorders when they are collectively severe enough to cause rupture, disruptions (e.g. losing a job, ending relationships, etc) in said life roles.

Does this mean that one must lose their job or house before they get help? Of course not — in therapy, we start with exploring what your body is telling you, what your environment (present and past) is telling you, where’s this anxiety / depression / trauma coming from? Basically, where are you now, and what do you want to be different? For example, what comes up when your therapist suggests that “your anxious part” could cut back on the vigilance and protective planning by about 10%? For some people, there’s a very strong, “I can’t do that! I’d (insert horrible thing).” It’s in that gap of “I want to (feel different) but…” that we start to explore what’s missing — there’s usually some relational, bodily, social, economic safety that’s missing. In therapy, we are building, exploring, developing safety. And then, as we build and experience more safety, we can bring healing to those places (even when it feels like “within normal limits” for a person experiencing the world as it is right now).

Safety is the healing, and healing is the safety. We can move away from “symptoms” and towards curiosity, openness, compassion, trust, respect, all these ingredients of safety (or healing).

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