Quirks, Issues, or Serious Mental Illness?

Not knowing the difference can be costly.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

My childhood buddy and neighbor walked with a pronounced limp. He had a condition that caused one leg to be several inches longer than the other. 

We didn't care.

We ran, jumped, and wobbled our way through childhood. There were no infomercials or advertisements to inform him he was disabled. He instinctively knew the difference between something he needed to work around, an issue that required special attention, and a serious debilitating illness.

Understanding the difference freed him to live an extraordinary life. 

Over 70 percent of the clients I work with come to therapy to address a self-diagnosed problem: anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder—you name it.

Self-diagnosing is not the problem. Rather, it is the paralyzing personal narratives we build around these self-diagnosed illnesses that can break us down emotionally and psychologically. A large part of dealing with a mental health issue is determining if you have one. Whether real or imagined, the stories we tell ourselves about our problems determine whether they become elevator music that fades into the background of our lives or the sound of nails on a chalkboard that push us over the edge.

Quirks or emotional issues that require some attention are often mistakenly categorized as serious mental illness. The overachievers among us are eager to live up to any label deemed true and worthy—no matter how damaging.

One of my clients was repeatedly chastised as a child for his preference to relax and sleep naked on his floor. He became an adult who had so many hangups around this activity that it drove him to seek therapy for what he called “deviant behavior.”

By simply reframing his behavior as a preference and not a problem, our work together set him on a new course toward emotional freedom. I said to him, “Sounds like you were a little boy enjoying the skin you were born in, confident, and more comfortable on the floor instead of a bed. Under different circumstances, your behavior would have been celebrated as quirky—even cute.”

I honor the quirky among us. Absent the heavy hand of judgment or ridicule from others, the curators of fantastic oddities make life interesting and worth living. 

It’s no wonder that so many people doubt their mental health. After years and months of neglect, what begins as an emotional molehill easily morphs into what feels like an insurmountable mountain to climb. Anything you want to run smoothly requires maintenance—including your mental health.

In the great words of Shakespeare, “to thine own self be true.” The compulsive lies we tell ourselves—like a child trying to avoid getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar—can keep us trapped on the dance floor with our dysfunction for far too long.

Estranged from all of her adult children, living in isolation after three divorces, a woman sat in my office insisting, “The problem is the people in my life can’t handle an outspoken woman! I’m different. I always have been.” As it turned out, intensive therapy revealed that she had been suffering from extreme reactive attachment and borderline personality disorders, combined with alcoholism and physical self-harming behaviors, which she hid for years. She found healing and the proper care she needed with a referral for intensive outpatient treatment. If she had continued to tell herself, “I’m just quirky and outspoken,” she would still be living in pain today, battling serious mental illness.

In general, a serious mental illness impairs the healthy functioning of multiple areas of life, such as relationships, sleep, career, and thought processes. An emotional issue that requires some attention likely creates fleeting discomfort in some parts of your life, while other aspects of life are experienced positively. A quirk is a behavior or dimension of your personality that you or others may find unusual or interesting yet does not impair your emotional functioning or negatively affect others in any way. In fact, it may accentuate your life.

Empower yourself by asking critical questions that can help you gauge your levels of well-being and walk in balance. The more you know yourself, the better you can support your mental health. 

  1. Does my behavior and emotional management style impact my life positively or negatively?
  2. Do the emotional issues I deal with show up in a predictable pattern? 
  3. Do I have a routine mental health maintenance plan for dealing with emotional distress?

By recognizing the Grand Canyon of distinction between quirks, emotional issues, and serious mental illness, you can save time and money.

A funny and busy mother of two young children scheduled an initial therapy session to address what she described as a debilitating mental illness. “My thoughts race throughout the day,” she told me. “I don’t enjoy my kids because I’m constantly on edge when they’re around, and I’ve been in and out of therapy for the last 14 years. I’m hanging on by a thread here!”

Her stress levels were already bad enough, yet they’d been pushed over the top by her painful personal narrative: “I’m mentally sick.” In a few sessions, she was shown key techniques for turning on her parasympathetic nervous system, retraining her breathing patterns, and shifting focus. She then quickly moved into healing. She was not mentally sick; she had an issue that required attention. Understanding the difference set her free.

Let’s face it. Making it in this world is hard enough without the burden of carrying mismatched mental health labels on our shoulders. Getting a clear definition of your struggles may very well be the greatest gift you ever give yourself. 

Copyright. Sheila Robinson-Kiss, Msw, Lcsw.

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