Bipolar Disorder Can Make Choices Feel Black or White

Scott Ninneman @ Speaking Bipolar

How I got off track and what helped me find my balance again.
Man destroying his computer.Angelo Esslinger/Pixabay

Things were going well. I was publishing my newsletter almost every week. I was posting original stories on my blog and other sites several times a week. Every day, I posted fresh content on social media. Everything seemed to be okay.

Then it all stopped.

I can’t say exactly what happened. Like being hit in the back of the head with a silver candlestick, one day, I couldn’t do it anymore.

About this time I read an article about simplifying your life. I wish I'd saved a link so I could share it with you now. It was an excellent article. Or, at least, what I remember was powerful.

The post talked about how even good things can cause unnecessary anxiety. While exercising is a good thing, trying to force ourselves to exercise two hours every day can become unduly stressful. While eating healthy is beneficial, obsessing over everything we put into our mouths is not.

The article recommended cutting out of your life things that were needlessly causing you stress.

There’s not a lot in my life these days, but at that moment, I felt like my blog was causing me too much stress. So, in true bipolar fashion, I shut it down. In the course of an hour, I deleted all of my social media accounts.

If my readers ever doubted whether I really have bipolar disorder, this was undeniable proof.

Not the Results I Was Hoping For

Ah, sweet relief. It felt like I was Atlas and finally set the world down.

For a couple of weeks, I deceived myself into believing everything was better because all my stress was gone. However, I was wrong. Incredibly, painfully wrong.

Sometimes I feel stressed about publishing a newsletter or posting new content, but overall, my blog brings me joy and happiness.

Writing about my experiences helps me to cope with them and process my emotions. It helps me see areas in my life where I need to make changes and reminds me of my progress so far.

When I hear from readers how my words touch them, it’s a source of overwhelming pride. By walking away from my writing, I hurt myself and ultimatley increased my stress.

I knew I couldn’t go back to posting stories every day and wondered if I could successfully publish a newsletter every week. I felt trapped. To me, my online presence had to be all or nothing.

This type of all-or-nothing thinking is common with bipolar disorder. A lot of times it goes hand-in-hand with manic or depressive episodes, but it’s also a general rule of life that we live by.

It’s even common in our relationships. Either we want to be with you every second of every day, or we want nothing to do with you. It’s a constant struggle to find middle ground. It’s just one part of what makes having a bipolar relationship complicated.

Since I didn’t feel like I could give the blog the time and attention it deserved, I felt the best thing was to do nothing.

This kind of all-or-nothing thinking is dangerous. Not only can it hurt relationships or end careers (I've done both), but it can also deprive you of good things in life.

For me, those good things included the positives I was getting from writing a blog. Still, sometimes we feel compelled to act.

But I Have To Do It

A friend and I were talking the other night about some of her recent terrible decisions. She told me, “I knew it was wrong when I did it, but I couldn’t stop myself.”

As she explained her feelings to me, she said, “Sometimes I feel this overpowering need to do something. It’s as if I don’t do it, the world will end. Even if I know it’s wrong, I can’t seem to stop myself. I have to do it.”

She then asked if I could understand.

Oh, honey, do I understand. Way more than you can imagine.

Overpowering emotions and desires are part of bipolar disorder. Too many times I’ve done awful things that I knew were wrong in the moment, but yet felt like I couldn’t stop myself. It feels like an outside force is pushing you forward, and you are helpless to sit and watch. It’s a train wreck in slow motion and you have a front-row seat.

That’s what happened with my blog. I knew how much happiness it added to my life, but for one moment, I felt like I had to destroy it. My internal chorus demanded I close all of my social media accounts and walk away.

Fortunately, I recovered most of my social media accounts. Sadly, my 10,000+ followers on Twitter disappeared forever. But that’s okay. It’s another lesson learned.
Shadow of a man in front of a virtual brain.Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

The Good News About Handling All-or-Nothing Thinking

There are a few ways to decrease the risk of all-or-nothing thinking. Here are three of them:

1. Step back

When you're facing an all-or-nothing decision, the first thing you want to do is take a step back. There’s a lot of truth in the expression, “Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Perspective has a lot to do with what you see in the world. Taking a step back gives you a fresh perspective.

Had I taken a step back, I would have been able to see what was causing me stress. In reality, it wasn’t the blog; it was my mistaken belief that I had to follow a set schedule of posting and producing content. A better perspective would have stopped me from trying to destroy everything.

2. Take a minute

The second way to combat all-or-nothing thinking is to allow yourself some time to decide. What feels right in this instant might not feel right in five minutes or five days from now.

Bipolar emotions are overpowering. Their intensity can push you to make drastic decisions. Those decisions aren’t always the best ones.

Allow yourself the time you need to make a wise decision. Whether it takes a few days or even a few weeks, try not to make important decisions too fast. If your internal push is exceptionally strong, that’s usually a warning sign you need to take more time. You may feel completely different a few days from now.

3. Evaluate

The third way to combat all-or-nothing thinking with bipolar disorder is to test what you’re thinking about doing. For me, I love pro-con lists. My inner nerd gets giddy when he can clearly see tangible proof pointing to the better option. If the pros are longer, then that’s what you should do. If the cons are longer, then you should walk away. Simple enough.

Yet, as much as I love pro-con lists, I didn’t take the time to do one. I knew in that second that the best thing I could do was to get rid of everything related to the blog. So, I made a decision, and ran with it. It was only in the weeks that followed where I could see just how the blog helped me and others.

You Will Make Mistakes

Even the best of us, whether you’re coping with a mental illness or not, make mistakes. You can burn all your energy trying to do everything right, but there are still times you’re going to make the wrong choice. That’s okay. As they say, failure is (usually) not fatal. It’s okay to be a disaster now and then.

When you make a poor decision, like I did with my blog, then take some time to look back and see where you went wrong. Examine how things could have gone differently had you made better choices. Remember those lessons the next time you have to make a decision.

You don’t fail until you stop trying to be better. So keep trying and never stop.

All-or-nothing thinking is a daily reality when you have bipolar disorder. It’s probably impossible to remove the urge fully, but with time and effort, you can minimize its consequences.

Until next time, keep fighting.

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Scott is a passionate advocate for mental health. He shares his own struggles of fighting bipolar disorder on his Speaking Bipolar blog while promoting positivity and understanding. Scott also publishes on Medium and Vocal.

Dunlap, TN

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