Mental Illness Masks Personality

Does anybody else struggling with mental illness feel like they don’t know themselves? Like they know the minds of other people more intimately than their own? With obsessive-compulsive traits, past trauma, severe depression, and anxiety, I am finding it nearly impossible to know myself, although I’ve reached my late 30’s. I attempt to reach way back in time to childhood in order to grasp the essence of myself, before I was changed by my world, by the version of the world that was shown to me, the only world I knew, before it had time to make its mark. Then I realize even as a young child my mental health issues had already started to present, as the daughter of one parent diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder with histrionic traits and another codependent, weak parent and severe depression, as well. I consider the possibility I have never been me, but instead always a character crafted by my circumstances, experiences, and genetics. Does that take away my humanity? Aren’t animals simply results of their instincts and past owners? Am I really shy and introverted? Or is that the anxiety and depression masking a confident, extraverted personality? Am I pensive and contemplative, nerdy and “book smart”, or is that the obsession with my thoughts? Would I be more flaky and carefree? Am I a “born leader” or is that me desperately attempting to control my own life as well as those around me? Am I a committed advocate for social change, a good progressive, or simply addiction to the negativity I have come to know and expect, similar to my current addiction to food which has caused me to blow up to over 300 pounds?

Anyway, just some thoughts.

You’re Not You (and Why This is Freeing)

An important concept to learn, understand, and remember is that you are not you. Knowing this can help you disconnect your self-worth from your thoughts, emotions, and tendencies. Your personality is largely made up of dynamics you don’t control, such as early childhood experiences, family culture, and genetics.

For example, I grew up in a very strict religious family with a diagnosed narcissist for a father. Individualism and critical thinking were not encouraged or tolerated. Religious, mental, and emotional abuse were the hallmarks of my childhood and teenage years. I grew up dreadfully insecure and fearful. As a teenager I developed OCD (never officially diagnosed, as my parents did not seek professional help for me), which included obsessive praying multiple times a day for God to forgive me, obsessive counting, and obsessive hand-washing.

Even at 36, I don’t know to what extent my personality has been shaped by the traumatic experiences of my youth. I very often have identity crises that most people past their teens or early twenties no longer experience. I constantly question what I want and if it’s not actually my trauma talking. I still feel that I don’t know who I am, what I should be doing, what kind of a life I want, or what I believe. It’s even hard to know how I’m feeling sometimes.

In his December 14, 2015 Bustle article entitled 7 Signs You Grew Up With a Toxic Parent and Didn’t Know It, JR Thorpe pulls from Dr. Susan Forward’s book Toxic Parents and says, “Many children of toxic parents find it exceptionally difficult to identify who they are once they grow up. Forward identities three areas in which their self-knowledge falls short: ‘who you are, what you feel, and what you want’…your sense of confusion and distance runs very deep indeed.”

Science tells us that your personality is pretty much set by six years old. It is largely an amalgam of your parents’/early caregivers’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Science also tells us that certain mental disorders have strong genetic links and that trauma can be passed down in the genes of families from generation to generation (epigenetics). But does this mean you can’t change? That you are bound by the mistakes of your parents and the generations before them for your emotions, feelings, reactions, and attachment styles? Thankfully, not. Recent science also emphasizes the neuroplasticity shown by the brain and its capability to create new neural pathways. By consciously making better, more self-caring choices, we can create new pathways in the brain and new defaults for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Eventually, it becomes easier and more natural for us to act and think in ways that benefit us and allow us to take back control of our lives.

I take some comfort in the thought that I am not simply a summation of my personality, interests, and mental issues. My worth does not lie there and cannot be calculated by arbitrary factors such as these. I don’t have to allow these facets of myself to control my decisions, moods, or mindsets. I don’t have to follow my instincts and can instead choose to think and act in ways that are best for me, which will in turn make me feel my best.