Graphic by Lex Valtenbergs

My mental illness makes me a better leader

It can make you a better leader too

You sleep too much or too little and neglect your personal hygiene. You’re a ticking time bomb that can’t be defused. You oscillate between extremes like a pendulum. Your own thoughts wage war against you and, in some circumstances, the people around you.

Being mentally ill is a constant struggle, and that is only the surface of it.

In my case, I have undiagnosed traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD), specifically a subset of the disorder called quiet BPD, as well as comorbid anxiety and depression.

To be clear, I am not diagnosed due to being assigned female at birth (AFAB) in a rural county, one with a disproportionately high rate of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and inaccessible or understaffed mental healthcare facilities.

Seeking and getting a diagnosis from a psychiatrist is also protracted and difficult, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

It must also be said that being branded borderline in our society is not ideal, especially as someone who was is perceived as female. There is a lot of stigma around the four Cluster B personality disorders: narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and antisocial personality disorder.

I stigmatized narcissism in particular, before I became self-aware and realized that narcissism is merely the inverse of codependency. Both stem from traumatic formative experiences with maladaptive object constancy and abandonment, but they manifest differently. For me, narcissism was a mirror into my own dark traits that I wasn’t able or willing to peer into.

Most borderlines are stuck in an incredibly alienating and painful catch-22. The people who understand us aren’t necessarily healthy for us, and the people who don’t understand us are usually stabilizing for us. Couple that with the chronic emptiness that borderlines endure daily and you quickly rack up a series of short, toxic relationships that end in violent staccato.

The Western culture of individualism makes things worse for mentally ill people. In our society, we have a tendency to overlook our ability to affect other peoples’ lives. We also have the tendency to sell ourselves short. We would rather shrink than dare to take up space. The latter is contingent upon us being vulnerable, which includes the risk of failure.

Because my judgment is skewed by my mental illness, I make a lot of mistakes. I assume the worst of people who don’t deserve it. I misread peoples’ intentions before giving them the benefit of the doubt, or idealize people who haven’t yet earned my trust or respect. These behaviors open me up to exploitation and abuse. I can also be abrasive, intense and even callous, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have compassion or remorse.

If anything, I feel too much, more strongly and longer than the average person does. I constantly emotionally regulate myself, to grapple with my volatile moods and intense emotions. Most of these emotions go inward towards myself rather than radiate outward.

Believe it or not, my mental illness makes me a better leader. Because I am mentally ill, I have put myself in situations where I needed to be held accountable for the sake of myself and people around me.

I couldn’t play the victim. I had to own up to my behavior, even though it stemmed from something out of my control. At the end of the day, I am fully responsible for my choices and the consequences.

Owning up to your dark side every time it creeps up and wreaks havoc enables you to build healthy, strong relationships. Relationships are hard work.

Good leaders have good relationships. Good relationships are contingent on accountability, boundaries, trust and clear communication.

The first step of realizing your ability to lead others and trying it is hard no matter what, but mentally ill people just have more barriers to overcome.

I have had to learn how to use the dark side of my mental illness to harness my light and use it to influence others around me. The skills that I’ve developed to cope with my borderline traits, anxiety and depression allow me a self-insight which is extremely useful.

Every day, we have the choice to be a positive or negative influence in the lives of people we know. Try to go against the grain of your darkest tendencies of your humanity and use your light as a guide.

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