When I shared with family and friends that I have bipolar disorder, I think that they were surprised, if not shocked. After all, I hid my symptoms from everyone in my life for many years. I have been very surprised at the outpouring of support and affirmation I’ve received from others, something that I never expected. A wonderfully supportive husband, sisters, mother and friends have all greeted me with acceptance and love. I can not imagine being more blessed. I assumed that I had to keep my authentic self hidden. I felt alone but this was a self inflicted wound. After all, if I never gave them to opportunity to truly know me, how could I expect them to understand and walk in my shoes?
Some months back, I was working on a project with a colleague. One day, we were discussing how to proceed with a particular issue and I made a suggestion that he quickly dismissed. I experienced him as unnecessarily controlling and unreasonable in his perfectionistic expectations. He was a difficult person to work with, I concluded. That is to say, I judged him harshly. A few weeks later, we spoke on the phone and he apologized for being so dismissive of my ideas. He began to share his story with me, one that originated in his childhood.
He grew up in a home where expectations were unreasonably high. No matter how well he performed or how well he behaved, it was never good enough. So he arrived into adulthood with perfectionistic voices in his head that were harsh and condemning. He lived in an inner world of self flagellation. He then shared that his son was psychiatrically unwell and he felt that he had failed as a parent. This tortured him. How unkind I was to judge him. How unfair of me since I had no awareness of his life’s journey. How unbearable it must have been over the years to live with himself. I caught a glimpse of what it must be like to walk in his shoes.
Everyone Has a Story
This reminded me of a truism that I learned over the years as a psychiatrist but occasionally still forget when I feel wounded. A truism that we forget when we judge and condemn without first attempting to understand. A truism that becomes clear when we get to know each other. A truism that wise others have noted: Everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Everyone we meet is making their way as they know best. Everyone we meet has a history of pain and joy that makes them love and live a little differently than we do: So, let’s be open and teachable. Let’s ask first, then listen. Let’s be kind. Everyone has an untold story.