“I’m So OCD”: How Internalizing Diagnoses & Misusing Labels Hurts Everyone

“I’m So OCD”: How Internalizing Diagnoses & Misusing Labels Hurts Everyone

We’ve all heard this one before. Maybe we’ve even said it ourselves (I won’t judge, I promise): “I’m so OCD. Everything in my kitchen has to be organized or I go crazy!” Or maybe it’s “The weather is so bipolar today! First it rained, and now it’s sunny. What the hell?” How about “Ugh, I’m so ADD. I can’t focus on anyth- Look, a squirrel!”

These examples may seem like harmless jokes, but they have real-life repercussions for people struggling with these very real, very serious mental health issues. Here’s why.

First of all, a lesson in grammar. But let’s back up first: The terms OCD, bipolar, and ADD are all shorthand for their longer, more formal names. OCD stands for obsessive compulsive disorder; bipolar is short for bipolar disorder; and ADD stands for attention deficit disorder, which is technically now known as ADHD or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As someone who minored in English as an undergrad, I can confidently assert that these terms are all nouns. However, in everyday parlance, they have become popularly and incorrectly used as adjectives.

Why does this matter? Well, first of all, it’s bad grammar, and as you may be able to tell by now, I’m a stickler about that. Nouns are nouns and shouldn’t be used as adjectives.

Why else does this matter? Glad you asked. This popular practice of internalizing a mental health diagnosis, as is what happens when you refer to yourself or someone else as the diagnosis itself (“I’m so OCD”), in effect takes away a great deal of your agency as a human being. You are admitting that you are your disorder.

When we factor in the additional layer to this problem in that these statements are overwhelmingly made by people who have not even been diagnosed with said disorder in the first place, things get even more complicated. The only possible “bright side” that I can see about this is that it spurs conversation about mental health issues and diagnoses; however, this is a false “bright side”, as it does nothing to erode the stigma surrounding these issues, because these diagnoses are being misused for comedic effect and are seriously undermined because of that.

Can the weather actually be “bipolar”? No, it can’t. And the millions of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder probably aren’t laughing at that joke, because they know that dealing with bipolar disorder can be incredibly challenging and is no joke at all. Similar sentiments go out to all the people who struggle with OCD or ADHD; these jokes make light of very painful conditions.

On top of all of this, internalizing a diagnosis is disempowering. It makes it easy for you to believe that the diagnosis has power over you. When you think that something has power over you, you may experience a loss of hope, agency, and self-esteem.

There’s a type of therapy that actually strives to do the opposite. It’s called narrative therapy, and it makes a point of externalizing problems or challenges such as a diagnosis in order to empower people struggling with these very issues. The language used in narrative therapy conveys an understanding that you are separate from the issues you are experiencing; it sets up a perspective in which you are not the enemy, but the issues you’re struggling with are. Having a mental health diagnosis isn’t a character flaw; it isn’t a reflection or representation of yourself. Plain and simple: you are not your diagnosis.

In order to break down these barriers and chip away at the immense amount of stigma surrounding mental health issues and diagnoses, we all need to take a step back and reflect on the inherent power in the words we use and the way those words shape our perceptions, our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons – Benjamin Watson

– Kristen Martinez, M.Ed., Ed.S., LMHCA, NCC Therapist in Seattle

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