Some time ago a friend of mine was happy to tell me that she had finally been diagnosed – she was suffering from dyscalculia, which explains why she was always struggling with math, or remembering important dates.
And last Summer, I listened to the radio while driving a car. The host of that radio station was excited to tell about this new diagnosis called dysmorphophobia, or body dysmorphic disorder – a mental disorder where a person believes one or several of his or her body parts are severely flawed which hinders the person from living a normal life.
In one way, my feelings towards these diagnoses were neutral. It’s a good thing to find explanations to one’s behavior and know that I’m not alone with these thoughts and feelings. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder: is it really necessary for us humans to diagnose every flaw, weakness and imperfection in human nature? Are we coming up all these names and diagnoses just because we have the need to have an explanation for everything we do, instead of just accepting that these traits are a part of who we are as people?
Instead of being called shy, we prefer the word introvert.
Instead of saying that you don’t like your nose, you say you suffer from dysmophophobia.
Instead of saying that you prefer quiet evenings in the company of a few, you describe yourself as a highly sensitive person.
Don’t take this the wrong way: I myself use these diagnoses to describe and understand myself (as you will see later in this post). But I’m critical to how much we should rely on and adapt to these diagnoses.
Should we take them as granted and make them an integrated part of our personality – or should we critically observe them and take in the knowledge without becoming the diagnosis itself?
An Intertwined Mix
During the past year, I’ve learned some things about myself. For instance, I’m a people-pleaser, which means I tend to put other people’s needs before my own. I’m also a highly sensitive person, a HSP, which is difficult to describe in a sentence but basically it means that I’m more sensitive to people and social events than many others are. Recently, I’ve also concluded that I’m an introvert.
And some weeks ago, my partner came across a book about who we fall in love with and why. It describes four different personality types according to what hormone your body releases the most, and there is a test anyone can do that will show you what two personality types dominate your body and mind. I did the test and got some more definitions to add to my ’personality diagnosis closet’. Now I’m also a builder and a negotiator.
So, let me introduce myself: My name is H.E.R. and I am a People-Pleaser, an Introvert, a Highly Sensitive Person, a Builder and a Negotiator. My horoscope sign is Cancer and my Chinese Zodiac Sign is Dog.
According to these definitions I’m clever and courageous but emotional and stubborn (definition of Dog), attentive and thoughtful (HSP), tend to prioritize other people’s needs before my own (people-pleaser), enjoy spending time alone and in that way recharge my batteries (introvert), and am imaginative, sensitive (negotiator), loyal and good at making lists (builder).
This. Is. Me.
Or is it?
Does It Really Matter?
As the science of biology and psychology develop further, the scientists come to understand us humans better and better. Today, our behavior can be explained through not only psychology, but also biology.
For instance, according to the Four Personalities Test, a Negotiator releases more estrogen than the other four personality types, while a Builder releases more serotonin than others. Highly sensitive people aren’t necessary people who are shy but because they have a more sensitive central nervous system than many others, it may seem like they are. And science shows that introverts react to dopamine in a different way than extroverts do.
The more we know, the better we get at giving biological explanations to why we are the way we are. In the olden days, our behavior was explained by words such as shyness, courage or being in love. But today, we have a biological explanation for these things. We can name these characteristics anew and call them diagnoses, explanations for why and who you are.
For scientists, this is a good thing because it helps them move on to the next human-related challenge and de-mystify many mysteries about us humans. But for us others who don’t do scientific research – does knowing about hormone balances really change a thing? Knowing what hormones we release or how our bodies receive those hormones – how much of it do we really understand? Just because affection is actually your body releasing oxytocin, does it change how we see it in real life?
Just because we have a different, more scientific description of something, changing the way we see and think about things takes a lot more time. So, why are we putting down all this effort to self-diagnose ourselves?
(In addition, isn’t it nicer to talk about our affection for someone rather than saying ”by the way, last night my body was releasing oxytocin like crazy, if you know what I’m saying?”)
Living Up To Expectations
In the age of self-diagnosis, these biological / psychological explanations of human behavior may give you reassurance and validation – but it isn’t said that they’re one hundred percent true.
Understanding yourself, how your body and mind functions, can be extremely helpful because you 1) get to know your strengths and weaknesses, 2) understand why you behave in a certain way in certain situations, and 3) have a better understanding of what you need and want in order to live a balanced life.
For instance, learning about my high-sensitivity helped me realize why I didn’t enjoy working as a local news journalist and why I often seemed to react more strongly to conflicts than other members of my family did. The definitions of introversion helped me realized that I need time alone – not because I’m weird and anti-social but because that’s one of the few ways to find the time and space to focus only on myself and my needs for a while.
Sometimes we need to see things from another point of view to understand who we are and what we want. These tests and descriptions can help open one’s eyes, help to see one’s personality traits from a different perspective.
Another reason for self-diagnosing is also the fact that life, in general, is pretty messy and complicated. There are so many challenges to face, problems to solve, complex things to understand. So, if we can make our own personality easier to understand by making tests about it (instead of asking ourselves those questions and seeking answers to them), why not do it? It’s like a weather app: instead of learning to read the clouds, the winds and the color of the morning sky, you can take a look at the app and it will tell you how many layers of clothes you need that day.
It might sound like an easy way out. You do a test and read what it says about your strengths and weaknesses. You take the information to your heart and start living your life according to those strengths and weaknesses.
But there’s a catch here: we humans have a tendency to ”live up to expectations”, whether we want to or not, and that can have dire consequences.
Read about how highly sensitive people easily get exhausted, overwhelmed and burned out, and you find yourself noticing those traits especially often, either in yourself or in people around you. Suddenly, the descriptions become self-fulfilling prophecies because we are quite likely to buy in everything the descriptions say about us or others. We see those traits around us because we want to believe that they actually exist.
We take these instructions in because we want to fit in, find our place in the society.
But in that case, can we still say that we are being true to ourselves, true to who we are?
Diagnosis as a Tool
For me, reading and doing these tests has been a way to help me understand myself. I’d say they have been extremely useful. But I’d also like to point out this: when doing these tests and processing all the information, it’s essential to remember that these tests don’t tell you who you are – they tell you some aspects that can be true with you. Just because something says this is a part of you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are.
So, instead of taking these theories into your heart and making them a grounded part of your identity, you’ll benefit more if you see them as tools that help you 1) clarify to yourself why you react or behave in a certain way, and 2) understand how you can deal with these reactions in relation to yourself and other people.
Don’t see the test results as a set script for you to follow. Don’t choose the seemingly easy way out because it isn’t – if you wish to stay true to yourself.
How do you feel about all the tests and books that aim to help us understand ourselves? Has some specific book or website had an impact on how you see yourself? I’d like to continue the conversation in the comments.