I’ve been posting on some of the more well known but often misunderstood and misused psychological terms and concepts (See also: Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Pt 1, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition, Misunderstood Psychology Terms – Pt 2: Personality and Character, Misused Terms Pt 3: Defensive, Dissociation, Dependence, Denial, Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Pt 4, and Addiction, Codependence, PTSD, Anxiety, and Self-Esteem). In this week’s article, I’ll be exploring further the concept of self-esteem, which I’ve written about several times before on the blog and in all three of my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, and also addressing some misconceptions about Depression and Bipolar Illness (i.e. Bipolar Disorder).
As I explain in my books and in several other articles (See, for example: Getting It Right About Self-Esteem), self-esteem is not the same thing as self-respect. And self-respect is not the same thing as healthy self-regard and care. Moreover, affording someone respect they’r due is not the same as behaving toward them in a civil or humane manner. The word respect literally means to look again or look back. It has to do with a retrospective appraisal of one’s actions and, especially, one’s character. Because we live in the age of entitlement, many think of respect as a fundamental right as opposed to something that rightfully need be earned. Folks with an entitlement mentality often demand respect, even when they’ve habitually conducted themselves in a manner that doesn’t merit it (You can read more about the concept of merit in my books Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome).
Crafting a life you can be legitimately proud of (i.e. not being vainly or falsely prideful) and being the kind of person who is truly worthy of respect is what character is all about. Unfortunately, these days, too many of us are not mindful enough about making the efforts that eventually merit respect. We also don’t adequately afford recognition to the value of those efforts (Our culture neither adequately recognizes and applauds meritorious conduct nor does it groom us to recognize and applaud it in ourselves). As creatures of free will, it’s not always easy for us to exercise our wills in the right direction. So when we do make the more noble choice, we need to not only ensure that we afford ourselves proper recognition but also insist that those in relationships with us demonstrate the respect we have merited. Now let me be clear, we all have a right to civil and humane treatment. But we have to earn respect. And we should be wary of those who fail to afford it when we rightfully deserve it.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about depression these days. But before I delve into what depression truly is, let me say a few things about what it is not: Depression is not appropriate and understandable unhappiness about an unfortunate circumstance. Nor is it the same thing as normal grieving over a loss. When things happen that hurt us, disappoint us, etc., we’re not suppose to feel elated – that would be an illness of its own. Besides, unhappy feelings about bad things that have come our way – whether invited by our own actions or totally uninvited as the result of misfortune – can be a really constructive personal growth experience. Too many times these days, doctors are willing to prescribe mood pick-me-ups to folks who really need to pay more attention to the things they’re doing (or permitting) that prompt their negative feelings, which only enables and perpetuates their psychological ill-health. Depression is far more than any of the things mentioned above. It’s a clinical illness with distinct symptoms and while it sometimes occurs after exposure to (and in response to) a significant psychological stressor (or series of stressors), it can indeed manifest itself completely “out of the blue,” as the result of an unprompted biochemical imbalance. The biochemical imbalances associated with depression can also occur as the result of physical illnesses and trauma. The most important thing to remember about depression is, however, that it’s a negative change in mood, ideation, and behavior far in excess of what might be expected as a “normal” degree of despondency over an unhappy turn of events.
Depression can also arise as the insidious consequence of a particular kind of behavior that individuals who’ve been in dysfunctional relationships with impaired characters frequently display. Victims of abusive, manipulative, exploitative relationships get used to focusing a lot of time and energy externally, constantly wondering what the disturbed character in their lives might do next, what might set him/her off, what mess he/she might create, etc. And in the face of this trauma victims often experience the anger, frustration, and eventual depression that accompanies feelings of helplessness and powerlessness to make things different (More on this phenomenon can be found in all three of my books and in the article: Empowerment Tools: Invest Your Energy Where You Have Power). While restoring better biochemical balances can be helpful, the real key to breaking the grip of depression and securing personal empowerment and joy is re-learning where to focus your attention (i.e. internally as opposed to externally) and mastering the strategies of investing time, energy and personal resources where you have real power: yourself and the actions you’re willing to take on your own behalf.
Perhaps there’s no psychological label as misunderstood or misapplied these days than “bipolar.” Bipolar Disorder is a genuine clinical illness. It was initially conceptualized as a psychotic level of cyclical mood disturbance (i.e. severe depression or elation), but its definition has changed over time. Critics argue that it’s also become perhaps one of the most over-diagnosed conditions, for a variety of reasons. In recent years, we’ve come to distinguish between two primary types of the condition: Type 1, where the person has had a true manic episode (Mania is a hard not-to-recognize state of hyper-elation and persons in such a state display very telltale signs such as rapid, pressured speech, rapid racing thoughts and ideas, grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, impulsive, reckless, high-risk behavior, etc.) and Type II, where the person may have had depressed periods as well as somewhat abnormally elated periods (called “hypomania) but hasn’t had a full-blown manic episode.
Bipolar Disorder should not be confused with the habitual reckless, impulsive, self-serving and destructive, yet preferred behavior pattern of certain disturbed characters. Folks suffering from Bipolar Disorder and who don’t also have character disturbances would behave much differently if they could, but can’t because of the severe biochemical imbalance in their brains. Now the jury is still out about how much certain habitual behavioral styles (i.e. personality predispositions) contribute to both the development and exacerbation of the illness or how much the illness itself, present at lower and harder to detect levels throughout a person’s growth contributes to the development of certain personality disturbances. But having the disease is not the same as being character disturbed (although it’s perfectly possible to be character disturbed and be prone to or have the illness). And if you give mood stabilizing medications to someone deficient in self-regulation (i.e. displays impaired impulse control, poor anger and temper management, reckless behavior, etc.), it can indeed make them less volatile, which is why many disturbed characters end up getting labeled as bipolar when their difficulties are not so much a matter of their biochemistry but rather their character.
I’ll have more to say about these matters and about other commonly misunderstood and misused terms and concepts (especially the many misconceptions surrounding the use of the term “disorder”) in next week’s post. And although there’s a possibility this Sunday’s Character Matters program may be a prerecorded show (I will be recuperating from surgery but hope to be well enough for a live program), I hope to continue the discussion then and welcome any comments or questions from the listeners.