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Am I Being a Jerk, or Is It My Bipolar Disorder's Fault?

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I see a lot of questions of this kind: My neighbor/sister/friend does this [unpleasant behavior]. Is this caused by his/her bipolar disorder?

• What is Bipolar disorder?

There certainly are behaviors of people with bipolar disorder that are unpleasant to those surrounding them. Not taking showers for a week when the person is depressed is one of them. Another, when the person is in the grip of mania, is having sex outside a relationship. Being unable to leave the house is a bipolar-related behavior. So is gambling away your savings. So is standing you up or ghosting you. And blaming themselves for everything. And taking on too many projects and finishing none of them. Talking too fast or too slowly.

Playing their music too loud or parking across your driveway is not a bipolar-related behavior. Neither is littering. Or insisting that you take the garbage out. Or yelling when they are angry. Or becoming huffy when you criticize them.

There are some behaviors that may or may not be bipolar-related — for example, talking about themselves too much. This could be an indication that the person is depressed and brooding (if the talk is about how worthless they are) or manic and aggrandizing (if the talk is about how great they are). Or it may just be that the person has low or high self-esteem that doesn’t rise to the level of pathology. Feeling that everyone is picking on them could go either way. So could taking offense at every little remark. It’s sometimes hard to tell, particularly if you’re not a psychologist.

It’s more than a little weird that people are willing to attribute all kinds of bad behavior to mental illness. But think of all the racist haters and killers that are assumed to be mentally ill. While some may be, it’s an automatic and often unwarranted assumption. It takes away from the attention that ought to be given to real mental disorders and it perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. Or it assumes that racism and hatred are mental illnesses. These are extreme cases, of course.

Sometimes bad behavior is not due to mental illness at all. Sometimes what you’re dealing with is a garden-variety jerk.

There’s not a lot you can do if the behavior you object to is caused by mental illness. You may have to simply understand or let the annoyance go. The person may resent that you assume their behavior is a sign of mental illness, even if it is. And about all you can do in that case is help the person get help if you can.

When you’re dealing with a garden-variety jerk, there are other sorts of remedies you can apply. You can call the police on the neighbor with the loud stereo. You can ask the messy roommate to straighten up or leave. You can set boundaries of what you will and won’t put up with and enforce those boundaries firmly but fairly when they are violated.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the person in question has a mental illness and is also a jerk. If you can figure out what to do in those cases, please let me know.

I’m not saying that mental illness should be an excuse for bad behavior or absolve a person of the consequences of their actions. I am saying that it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior is due to mental illness, just as much as it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior comes from being a jerk, or worse.

In a lot of cases, you simply have to live with it.

Getty image by Maria Ponomariova

Originally published: November 4, 2022
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