Often times when I don’t understand all the complexities of my brain chemistry, I (consciously and subconsciously) find myself blaming myself for everything being terrible, with little logic. Therapists often have pointed their fingers at various possible traumas for the causes, but I really had no big traumas in my life that I can think of, so I felt the responsibility of being sick fell on me. I felt guilty in a strange way, like serving a prison sentence for a crime that I did not want to commit, as I’ve heard someone describe.
I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions regarding why I had such a volatile sense of self in this last post, and got some lovely feeedback from you, which made me rethink what identity actually meant. I’ve studied “identity” from an anthropological perspective in college, but it turned out psychologists care about a different aspect of identity. Things like “schema.” At first I thought my unstable sense of self might have had to do with my history (living in so many cities/countries growing up, and not being close to family) but I didn’t consider my illness as a cause. With some quick Googling, I found a wonderful post by Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD called, “Who Am I? The Effects of Bipolar Disorder on Identity.” Here is an excerpt:
Some scientists think our identity reflects our underlying schemas. Schemas are mental structures that are comprised of thoughts, feelings, sensations, attitudes and memories that are linked together around a common theme.
Some of the schemas we have are related to our sense of self—our personal identity. These schemas are shaped by our life experiences, and they reflect our interpretation of these experiences. We can think of these schemas as our internal representations of our most important values and our deepest fears.
Schemas about our personal identity can be organized around themes of competence, acceptability, lovability, and strength, among other themes. The thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with each theme develop over time. They represent our observations of ourselves in action in the world and in relationships with others.
That’s schema as a general definition. Dr. Brondolo claims schemas have a different effect on us who are bipolar.
But developing bipolar illness can have a significant effect on the schemas we hold about ourselves. Bipolar disorder is a biological illness, but these biological disruptions affect our behavior and our mental processes. In turn, these changes can have a significant effect on our ability to function in the world and to relate to others. As we observe these changes and have new experiences as a result of bipolar disorder, we can develop a new set of schemas. For example:
– If the symptoms of bipolar disorder interfered with our ability to concentrate and plan and disrupted our ability to work or study, we may develop schemas about incompetence.
– If we were rejected by others and lost relationships, we may develop schemas about being unlovable.
There is an example in the rest of her post about a woman in her twenties that almost is identical to my experience, but what I’ve bolded above was so validating for me. As a result of getting the illness, I wasn’t able to perform as I had before because of the symptoms. That made me feel more incompetent thus less worthy; I felt like a failure- even though that isn’t true sans illness. It makes me believe, and hope, if I can get stable again somehow and get back on my feet, I will maybe be able to feel differently about myself again through new experiences.