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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Psychotherapy: You're Not Defined By Your Diagnosis

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I see many clients who have been in psychotherapy before. People who have a lot of experience with psychotherapy will often start their initial session by saying, "I'm depressed" or "I'm bipolar" or whatever they've been told their diagnosis might be. Whenever I hear this, I often have an internal experience where I feel the weight of this client carrying around this identification and self concept, in some cases, for many years.

Psychotherapy:  You're Not Defined By Your Diagnosis

It's Useful to Know There's a Name for What You Feel
Now don't get me wrong: I'm not completely against diagnoses. If you're a person struggling with depression (or some other diagnosis), it's useful to know that. Knowing that there's a name for what you feel and thousands of other people have similar experiences can be comforting and indicates that you're not alone.

...But Your Diagnosis is Not Your Identity
But taking on a diagnosis as a permanent identity is a different story.  When you say, "I'm depressed" almost like you're saying, "I'm Mary" (if that's your name),it's almost as if you're claiming the symptoms of depression as part of your permanent identity as if it's never going to change. Now, we know that, depression, for instance, can be overcome with treatment, whether it's psychotherapy or the combination of psychotherapy and medication. It's not a permanent part of your identity that can't be changed like, possibly, your ethic background or some other unchangeable part of who you are as a person.

Psychotherapy:  Your Diagnosis Isn't Your Identity

When you strongly identify with and embrace your diagnosis by saying "I'm depressed" as opposed to "I'm a person with depression," you're giving yourself a message that this is who you are and it's not going to change. And the more you say it, the more ingrained it becomes in your mind.

What I'm proposing in this blog post is NOT that people should be in denial about what they're experiencing. Instead, I'm proposing that your relationship to your diagnosis doesn't have to be a permanent one. If the reason you come to therapy is to change, if you're constantly giving yourself the message that you are your diagnosis, it's going to be that much harder to change because you've accepted that this is who you are on the most basic and core level. It's giving yourself the message that you're not going to change.

What I'm discussing, about how people label themselves with diagnoses, is more than semantics. it's a way of thinking and holding onto something that you say you want to change by coming to therapy. So, in a way, the internal message that you're giving yourself contradicts what you're trying to change, so you're at odds with yourself.

It's like the opposite of saying self affirmations. Instead of giving yourself positive messages, you're giving yourself a negative message--over and over, so it becomes part a habitual negative thinking.

This is all aside from the fact that, even though there are diagnostic categories, no two people with depression (or any other diagnosis) are the same. And, of course, you're a whole person who is much more than a diagnosis. So, to limit your self identification to your diagnosis is like putting yourself in a small box. What about all the other wonderful parts of you that aren't related to the diagnosis? It becomes easy to overlook all of those positive aspects when you become overly identified with your diagnosis.

It might take a while to develop this type of awareness about yourself but, in the long run, it's much more affirming to who you are as a complete person, beyond labels.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist with expertise in Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis, EMDR, and psychodynamic psychotherapy.


I work with individual adults and couples.


To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist


To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.




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