The danger of (emotional) self-diagnosis

It’s true – medical folks tend to hate WebMD and Google.

There’s a really simple reason why.  It’s known to everybody who has taken a class in psychology or medicine:   We tend to diagnose ourselves with things we don’t actually have.

And while the internet does great things for those of us who have weird medical conditions (I’m among the people who had restless legs diagnosed for me, rather than diagnosing it myself), it also means that people routinely present themselves to a medical professional already sure of what they have self-diagnosed.

Pro tip here:  If you’ve gotten your diagnosis from the internet, you’re probably wrong.

Lots of medical conditions share symptoms.  That’s why I’m seeing a neurologist now and getting an EMG next week;  it’s to help differentiate out why I have the RLS that I do… because the treatment is going to be radically different depending on what’s causing it.

And the same thing goes with almost any other condition.

Self-example:  I don’t have Asperger’s.  I’m not on the autism spectrum.  But I seem to experience sensory overload in a way that is similar to those who have Asperger’s.

Sometimes the tips and advice that Aspie folks give can help.  Sometimes it doesn’t – because I don’t actually have Asperger’s.

I think this gets really dangerous when you start diagnosing your relationships yourself via the Internet.

For example, “Five Powerful Ways Abusive Narcissists Get Inside Your Head“.   It’s a great post, and got a lot of traction for a short while.

But really, narcissists only compose approximately 6.2% of the population.

You probably aren’t in (or haven’t been) in a relationship with a narcissist.

But you might have been in a relationship with someone who shared some of those tendencies.

Again, this can be useful.  Again for a self-example, I can see where I’ve behaved similarly to the “lovebombing” technique narcissists use in the idealization phase.   And so I can work on myself so that I don’t unintentionally manipulate people I care about.

But that’s not the same thing as calling me a narcissist.  Because large chunks (like, the rest of the article) don’t apply to me.

And that’s really the point I want to make here. It can be good to get a label on something that you didn’t identify before. I know when I first realized that “codependent” characterized a past relationship, it really helped me get a handle on it. It helped me realize that I’m not crazy. Likewise with the RLS, or even more importantly, the sensory overload. Knowing that something is real can give you the power you need to make the situation better.

There’s a lot of good information out there on how to be a better person, and how to avoid people who are really toxic, or who insist on a drama triangle.   Really.  It’s great information.  And you definitely have to keep and enforce your boundaries.

At the same time, we have to be careful to not quickly diagnose others – especially the people that we care about – into categories that they don’t really belong in. It’s tempting to apply labels to ourselves to deflect blame and responsibility. It’s tempting to apply labels to others to assign blame and responsibility.

I ran into this with my youngest son.  I kept watching for the violent and antisocial behaviors that my older son had exhibited.  I was so vigilant for the same problems that I’d seize upon any evidence as definitive proof. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would see what I was looking for, not what was actually in front of me.

It took a lot of hard work to unlearn that habit.  To treat my younger son as the person he really is instead of the person I was afraid that he was.

I’m not saying this as some kind of holier-than-thou guru.

I’m saying this as someone who has screwed this up.

And whenever I’ve reacted to my fears instead of the person in front of me, it’s never gone well.

And I worry that in the midst of the good work of rooting out the manipulators and the bullshit artists and the players… that we’ll start to overdiagnose the people who really care about us.

And we’ll react to imagined fears we read about instead of reacting to real people in front of us.