Together at the Poles

Do I Need a "Real Me"?: Accepting Bipolar Personality Traits

One of the more common debates among people with bipolar disorder is whether or not we should consider bipolar disorder something external to us, like a disease that we have, or whether we should consider bipolar disorder internal to ourselves, as something we are. I don’t think anyone would say that it is something we are as a whole, except in some sense of political identity, but that is a concept that hasn’t really caught on among people with mental illnesses (for the better, I think).

Parmigianino - Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

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This tends to manifest itself in terms of the language people use. If we consider bipolar disorder to be something we have, we might say “I have bipolar disorder,” like one might say. “I have diabetes.” If we consider bipolar disorder to be something we are, we might say “I am bipolar,” like one might say, “I am diabetic.” One rarely hears the phrase, “I am a bipolar”, which sort of implies that it describes that person as a whole (though compare “I am a diabetic”, which does not).

All of this goes back to whether or not bipolar disorder is something that we should consider to be something outside of the “real me”. On the externalist view, “I” am what I would have been had I never had bipolar disorder. The more that my bipolar disorder is controlled, the more I am really “myself”, and the more that my bipolar disorder controls my actions, the more that I am not really “myself”.

On the internalist view, “I” am myself whenever I act or feel, whether I am having an episode or not. So, if I am having a manic episode, “I” am really manic, and if I am having a depressive episode, “I” am really depressed. Anything that springs from bipolar disorder springs from me, because my bipolar disorder is a part of me.

I am very much of the “whatever works” school when it comes to conceptualizing one’s mental illness. For some people, thinking of the disorder as being external helps them to conceive of themselves as being stable in the midst of the whirlwind of emotions around them. For other people, thinking of the disorder as being internal helps them take ownership of their emotional states. Both conceptions are potentially therapeutic, and if either conception is a part of a person’s recovery, I have no wish to say that the conception is incorrect. Each person’s story of recovery is that person’s own, and should be listened to, not criticized.

da Vinci Vitruvian Man

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What I do want to propose is a third possible way of conceptualizing what is happening, which might provide some people with another conceptual framework that might be itself therapeutic. I’d like to suggest the possibility of simply jettisoning the concept of the “real me” entirely.

First, I’d like to do a very quick, simplistic and largely inaccurate history of modern philosophy of mind. Before modern philosophy, we were animals. We were rational ones, to be sure, and with a soul, but we were animals and organisms. By separating the soul and body the way Descartes did with his cogito, we ultimately became something else by the time we reach John Locke: persons. Persons are mental beings that coexist with or supervene on our bodies.

Personhood, however, is problematic. For one thing, if we’re persons and not organisms, it’s not especially clear what makes us the same persons over time. What makes me the same organism over time is relatively straightforward; what makes me the same person is not. This is the problem of “personal identity”. For example, Locke argued that when someone loses his or her memory, he or she becomes a new person, since it is memory that ties it together. Freaky Friday taught us that persons can switch bodies entirely.

One thing that gives us a sense of unity of ourselves over time is our “personalities”, a set of character traits that persist over time (note: I am not using the term in the technical, psychological sense of “personality”, but in the philosophical and common language one; I am not implying bipolar disorder is a personality disorder in the technical sense). With the shift in thought from conceiving of ourselves not as persons, not as organisms, having a consistent personality became increasingly important to one’s sense of identity.

It is here that people with bipolar disorder start to have a problem. We don’t exactly have a single personality, defined as a set of consistent character traits. Some character traits persist over time, but other character traits change based on where we are in our cycles. I at one point joked with my therapist that I had at least five personalities: the manic one, the stable one, the depressed one, the anxious one and the irritable one. People without mental illnesses can have mood swings, but we have personality swings.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

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So, at this point, I’m stuck. I either be an externalist and pick one of these personalities to be the real me, and most people choose the stable one (though some will choose the manic one), or I can be an internalist and think of myself as being a leaf on the wind, with something I call my “personality” but is anything but. Since my mental states are so unstable, if I think of myself as a “person”, that is, if I think of myself as a collection of mental states, I am forced to choose between only parts of my experiences being really me or identifying myself as an inherently unstable being.

It is at this point that I’d like to just jettison the entire idea of personhood. If I think that my personality is somehow the “real me”, whether I identify with a part of it or the whole of it, then I am stuck. Because my mental states are pathological there is no way to conceive of myself as a mental being without dissociating part of my mental experience or conceiving of myself as inherently flawed.

Instead, I like to conceptualize myself as a human organism: this human being here named Daniel. I am not a person. I am not any part of my mental states and I am not my personality. Rather, my personality is simply a part of me like my reason or my spleen. Like any other part of me, it can be diseased. In my case, because I have bipolar disorder, my personality, specifically my moods, are disordered.

However, because I don’t think of myself as being a person, these disordered moods are no threat to my self-esteem. I can’t be a bad person or a disordered person because I am not a person. As a result, I don’t need to either hive off a part of my personhood that I consider my good part (the externalist position), nor do I need to embrace my disorder in order to embrace myself (the internalist position). Instead, part of my personality is just disordered, and that’s okay, because I’m not a person anyway.

I have found thinking of myself as human organism very helpful in avoiding some of the issues around self-esteem that come from having a mental illness, so I thought I would share it with other people. It has been an important part of my own recovery from bipolar disorder. I hope that others may find this perspective helpful as well.

10 Responses to Do I Need a "Real Me"?: Accepting Bipolar Personality Traits

  • Great post as usual, though I am reading a bit late…I really like the idea of being a human organism and works into my way of ‘negating’ the real me concept that I struggled with the first few years after being diagnosed. I take a kind of Jungian psychology approach and take all of my moods and traits and acknowledge them as a whole, whether it be good or bad. Maybe now it can be a whole human organism.

    • That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, and I think it would be another good way of not dividing ourselves up when thinking about our illness.

  • I can’t accept a divided self personally. I am firm in that there is a “real me” . Its a more simplistic attitude and one that works. This real me is what I strive to be. Its my goal and my motivation to be as well as I can be. This actually worked really well into a general searching for a “self” at a crucial point in my life. Having had a chaotic life where I was torn apart emotionally it was important for me to discover a self. This self is important and hard fought for. Its also clear to my family that there is a “real me” in there and my children can discern what is me and what is bipolar almost as well as I can. Bipolar and it symptoms are there to be controlled respected but not really integrated. To me that would be a form of surrender .

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Bernadette. I’m encouraged to see that you have found a way to conceptualize the disorder that has been so helpful.

  • I subscribe to C.S. Lewis’ statement that I am a soul who has a temporary body. Bipolar is a function of my body (in this case, my brain chemistry). My moods filter the expression of my soul, and while I am still encased in this body, I will continue to be subject to its whims, but that does not prevent me (the “real” me, the soul) from attempting to attain mastery over the functions of my body.

    • That’s a really interesting way to look at it, Gilda. Plato did something very similar, in seeing our emotions as being a part of our body. I really like the idea of bipolar disorder “filtering” us. It’s real food for thought.

  • I have spent 3 years arguing with my therapist that I am not bipolar. I was already diagnosed with PTSD and ADHD and just couldn’t take on a new disorder. I have finally begun taking medication for the bipolar and they seem to help some. I am still unable to look into a mirror. I have not looked directly into a mirror in more than 20 years because what I see looking back is not human. I have never felt worthy of anything or anyone and have spent my entire 44 years self destructing. Three weeks ago I was also diagnosed with DID. I feel like I will never get to be a real person. So the thought of “separation” seems like a good place for me to start. Thank you

  • Perhaps this is cheating, but I like to think it as a hybrid – is there a “real me” aside from my bipolar disorder? Yes. Or – is the bipolar disorder “me”? Yes. My personal belief is that I do have a spirit which is just here on earth for a short while, and that spirit does not have bipolar disorder. So in that sense, there is a “real me”. Even for those who do not believe the soul is eternal I feel there are still “hybrid ways” of looking at the two in question. First of all, I didn’t really start showing symptoms until I was 18 (I’m 25 now), although the more I’m learning about behavior tendencies of people with bipolar disorder, I realized I had them for quite some time before that, even though I had never had an episode before. Not all of these traits are necessarily bad – some good, even. So I do feel there was a “before” me. Add the BP into the mix – holy cow! Not medicated, in full blown episodes I was quite a bit whacked out, and for people who knew me before it became “what the heck?”, and I am NOT the person that wants to kill herself or waste away into an oblivion of nothingness that wishes they were never born. Now that I’m medicated, I still have the traits of a bipolar person, not as stable with the moods as other people might be, but I’m much more grounded than without the meds. Now I feel like being bipolar “enhances” my personality. I’m intelligent – I always have been, but hypomania gives that a new “flavor” (but so does depression!). I have always been empathetic – my bipolar disorder helps me feels things even more deeply – my own emotions (related to life – not the moods of bipolar disorder) and the emotions of others, which makes me a better friend. I appreciate so much more beauty in the world than the average person, and I wouldn’t give up any of that for the world. So sure – accuse me of wanting to only accept the good, and say that all of the “bad” is not “me”. But you know what? Everyone has “bad” about them – not just bipolar people. I don’t feel it’s fair to stigmatize ourselves in that way (or allow others to) that somehow we’re the broken ones while the rest of humanity has achieved perfection. Take the good and run with it – even if it “is” your illness, because I know that I have a lot to offer people, and the things I learn when I am hypo-manic can still benefit me when I’m stable. My friends and those close to me do have to deal with something a little “different” with me than with others, but at the end of the day, they still love me, I love them, and part of what makes my relationships so great is because of my illness. (However, they do understand that when I lash out at them – which thankfully isn’t often – that it is nothing personal. But then again, bipolar people aren’t the only irritable people in the world, either.) My friends have told me “I love it when you’re hypo-manic” because I’m so much fun, but they are also a shoulder to cry on when I become depressed. (Kind of like how in the TV show Frasier, Daphne claims to be “psychic” and Frasier said when explaining it to his brother says “She’s psychic. We’ve decided to find it charming.” – fill in “bipolar” for “psychic” and you’ve got me!) Again – cheating, but you are not “not great” when you become hypo-manic, but you’re also not “bad” when you become depressed. Take the good and run, and try to make the best of the depression and make yourself better, even if you have to wait until you’re stable or hypo-manic to do so. Back to my personal beliefs about the human soul, and how I will continue to exist without my illness after I die, I almost see my bipolar disorder as a way for me to become “ultra refined” “ultra fast”. Oh the things I discover, the beauty I see and the people I love – which carry into periods of normalcy – which would be no where near as great without my bipolar disorder. (sorry, that was long. lol)

    • Thanks, Julie :). That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, and I think you’re right to point out that there are hybrid answers.

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Counselling from Daniel
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.