Select Page

A lot of us have “been diagnosed” with specific personality or mental conditions. I don’t formally have such a diagnosis (I’ve not yet seen anyone qualified to do it for me); but I’m sure there are several people around who’d be glad to offer suggestions!

The thing I worry about is the effects I have seen such diagnoses have on people – the self-defining, self-shaping label it provides.

It does affect one’s self-perception, expectations of what they can probably do, or not do, and how they are likely to behave. It really does, in my experience. So it narrows a person’s view of themselves and their world – and thus clearly restricts their potential.

It also affects the perceptions of those close to them who know of the diagnosis. And it affects those nearby people in similar ways – perception of the person and expectations as to what they can, cannot or are likely or unlikely to do.

That can all be pretty serious.

Edwin Friedman, who was a pastor in Washington D.C., has some strong things to say along these lines. He did a lot of counseling work with parishioners as well as with other pastors and their families, and is regarded by many as a profound writer and teacher about that work. He says (I added the underlines):

The diagnosis of individual family members . . . makes it more difficult for the diagnosed member to change.

It decreases, in the diagnosed member, a sense of control over the situation, increases his or her dependency, and thus lowers their pain thresholds.

It seems often to negatively affect one’s ability to manage in this world.

And it affects self-image significantly.

Eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity.

That is, you start to become your diagnosis. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. And it’s not healthy.

In fact, your diagnosis is not your identity. It’s a label attached to a pattern of symptoms a given practitioner (or amateur critic) thinks they see in you. Lots of the pattern may be there – some of the time – but you were there first; it’s not actually you. It’s a description provided from a certain distance by someone else not living in your skin.

That brings up another problem with diagnosis.

Analyzing another person’s being is a very slippery affair. It’s not that the traditional interpretations are wrong; it is that, at any given moment, it is almost impossible to know . . .

So he thinks it’s a lot more difficult to make accurate diagnosis of a person than is commonly assumed – a LOT more difficult.

And there is yet another problem, especially when the diagnosing is done amatuerly by people involved in the situation – as family members are often tempted to do.

Worse, individuals are most likely to resort to diagnosis of others when their own anxiety has gone up. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that if you catch yourself diagnosing someone else, there is probably something in you that you are trying to hide.

Hey! Is he allowed to say that! Tell him to mind his own business!

But to make clear that he’s now talking about what often goes on in families, he says this:

No psychiatrist would ever take his or her own spouse into therapy; yet every day husbands and wives are doing just that in the kitchen.

Please, I do not say psychological diagnosis is of no help. Diagnosis and supervised treatment can be extremely helpful. But I do say, be careful with it; it really is only partly true at best. It’s NOT really YOU! though it may give some helpful ideas about how to proceed.

But it’s not possible for other humans to perfectly analyze you to provide a perfectly adequate diagnosis.

I say, let the Lord do that.

That, of course, requires listening to and cooperating with good teaching about how the Lord actually works with (broken) humans in this (broken) world, and choosing to be in sustained relationships with people who are working on the project themselves with some success.

But there is real hope there. There really is.


Quotations are from pages 56 and 57 of Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, Guilford Press, 1985.