The word disorder is defined as a confused state: a lack of order or organization. If we take the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) literally, anyone who meets the criteria for grief, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, or hundreds of other syndromes is considered to be lacking psychological organization. But this isn’t accurate.
The psyche of most anyone experiencing a mental health issue is not a disordered collection of meaningless actions or responses. In fact, nearly every psychological syndrome, other than ones that have a physiological component, is an orderly and purposeful response to suffering – a subconscious reaction. In other words, mental health issues are not disordered; they are ordered and normal responses that exist for the purpose of preventing the individual from being hurt again even if that hurt is perceived.
Let’s take an example—let’s call him Jason—who’s been diagnosed with having a borderline personality by his mental health provider. Jason tends to “split” people in a way that those with a borderline response often do. Splitting is the process of shifting between states of idealizing and devaluing others and oneself.
The part of Jason which devalues, views others as “all bad” or “the problem.” So if Jason’s girlfriend does something that triggers his vulnerability—perhaps by choosing to spend time with someone else or perhaps by criticizing him—Jason, in an effort to protect him from feeling rejected, worthless, and unlovable, acts out and manifests as hatred toward his girlfriend.
Jason is so angry and hateful toward his girlfriend at times because the power and intensity of a person’s protection is equal to the power and intensity of his or her vulnerability. The act of viewing his girlfriend as the cause of all his problems (embodying rage, feeling contempt, and lashing out) acts as a shield from the feeling of worthlessness, which is the real source of his suffering.
The thing is, many of us do this, not just those with borderline systems.
This one symptom of the borderline spectrum known as “splitting”, demonstrates that there is an organized and orderly response to suffering and that the term disorder is inadequate. The same goes for nearly any other emotionally based syndrome.
Depression, for example, in its protective form prevents an individual from feeling the pain or fear of failure or inadequacy or lack of control. It does this by shutting a person down. In depression’s vulnerable form, it overwhelms a person with sadness and feelings of worthlessness. The same is true for anxiety, addictions, anger, self-criticism, guilt, grief, and many other issues, which all serve a function to protect a perceived threat.
The point is that the term disorder, when used to describe the majority of mental health issues, is inadequate because it fails to capture the brain’s automatic and positive intention to protect itself.
People Are All Fundamentally Flawed
It would be easy to dislike Jason. Imagine being his girlfriend. One day she’s practically worshiped by Jason; the next day she’s hated and vilified. Many of us can relate to Jason’s girlfriend. We all have people in our lives who have problems for which they blame others. Often some of these protective strategies cause harm to the individual as well as the blamed others. If the behavior continues, we reject them.
Most people don’t take the time to be curious about someone who’s being self-destructive; we just want them to change or go away. What often happens is a judgment is made that the person is crazy. Seeing past this kind of thinking requires a gigantic paradigm shift. This paradigm shift has been encouraged by many innovators within the field of mental health, especially visionaries from the humanistic, psychodynamic, and depth traditions. The shift consists of two ideas that form the basic tenets of the Internal Family Systems approach to psychotherapy, one of the fastest-growing contemporary models of psychotherapy. They are as follows:
- Everyone is doing the best they can to survive based on their experiences and their physiology. We are all flawed to some extent and every experience from childhood forward forms a part of our psyche that influences our behavior and our actions toward those around us.
- Every part of a person (defense mechanism, issue, ego state, or aspect) has some positive intention, even when it’s destructive to self or others, whether it’s depression, addiction, anxiety, anger, self-criticism, or anything else.
Because all of our parts are doing the best they can to help us survive, they are fundamentally self-protective, even if what they do can cause damage. When we see that goodness, that positive intention, it’s easier to have compassion.
Depending on a number of factors, including temperament, personality, and how exactly a person has suffered, everyone develops, most often unconsciously, particular and specific strategies to survive, to cope, to self-soothe, to numb pain, to escape, and to never be hurt again. Those who have experienced significant trauma have to work harder psychologically than those fortunate enough to have not suffered as much. Regardless of the kind of strategy, be it addiction, self-criticism, guilt, grief, anger, depression, anxiety, avoidance, or something else, it is just a survival strategy, not who the person is.
Why the Term and Concept of ‘Disorder’ Is Harmful
Labeling a person with symptoms resulting largely from life experience as disordered is not only inadequate, it can be harmful to the person’s self-concept and his or her access to hope. Why would one try to heal themselves, reclaim their Self, face their worst fears and the skeletons in the closet if they are labeled with some sort of disorder? Enabling their belief just prolongs or prevents the healing.