Pet Peeve Corner: Playing Doctor

It happens a lot on message boards; sometimes it comes up in real-life conversations. Someone is describing a person they have a hard time getting along with. They describe a few irritating or hurtful behaviors. And every time, the speculation eventually begins: What is medically wrong  with this person to make them so annoying, rude, callous?

At that moment, the group is suddenly elevated from gossiping co-workers, friends, or online strangers to a medical team considering their patient. Could this problem person have bipolar disorder? Asperger’s? One of the dreaded personality disorders?

This is where I always get quiet, or turn off the computer. If I were a braver person, I would ask, “Is this necessary?” I would ask, “Do any of you even know what you’re talking about?” I could even say, “This is really uncomfortable to listen to, because I’m one of those people. I have a personality disorder.”

The psychologist game is painful to hear. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, a tightness in my chest. It took me some time to even figure out where this reaction comes from. Here are a few things I’ve worked out:

1. It’s often not helpful. If a person is causing you problems, you need to examine how their behavior is affecting you and what you want to do about it. I don’t see how labeling them with a fake diagnosis helps this problem. In cases where knowing a person’s diagnosis may actually help — for example, if you are struggling with a close family member — then this is a conversation you need to be having with a doctor.

2. It treats mental diagnoses as synonyms for “person I don’t like.” Not every difficult person has a diagnosable condition. Not every person with a diagnosable condition is difficult. Assuming someone has some condition because you dislike them contributes to the stigma against the mentally ill and other non-typical people, which is strong enough as it is.

3. If an acquaintance or co-worker does have a diagnosable condition, it’s really none of your business anyway. Speculating about someone’s personal health problems is just rude, all other issues aside.

I understand the allure of spotting patterns in people’s behavior and trying to name them, I do. It’s satisfying in a way, and it can make you feel like you understand this person better. But I don’t think it actually does; it just hides the real person behind an amateur and useless “diagnosis.”

Please, just leave the diagnosing to the professionals.

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