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Leadership in the Workplace With Bipolar Disorder

Being a leader is a badge I wear with pride. No matter the setting, I will always have the innate ability to take control and lead others. This was seen in my childhood, in my job, and in my college career. There was no pressure. In fact, it was something that I enjoyed thoroughly, even as a child.

I struggle with this as a follower, because in my head I see a path that seems obvious to everyone and yet they cannot see? The best portion of being a follower is that my mental illness rests at a slower pace because of handing over the control to someone else. This has been only in the last three years that having that badge of a leader felt burdensome when I was severely ill. Yet, it was sewn into my heart that in order to accomplish great things I needed to be at the forefront.

I want to do great things. I want to inspire and connect. I love how people view me as someone who has struggled and overcome. But is that selfish for those around me? Because perhaps there was someone who could have done a better job.

That’s one of the issues being mentally ill. It gives you this feeling of incompetency, invalidation, and being too insecure to take up the reins that you felt safe in being a leader. It includes constantly checking yourself. Coaching was the worst portion of this because you are constantly asking yourself: is this an emotional response or a moment to create growth? Am I reacting as a mentally ill person or someone who needs to encourage our values?

Those three years were hard on everyone around me because of my pride. I held myself too high because of my own need to be in control. But this meant that I was constantly searching for goals to outdo, a simple “good job” when my brain was firing all these chemicals to create a dangerous concoction.

Being bipolar can give you an inflated self-esteem; mine could become so severe that I would feel like a god for how well I did that morning. I also felt the lowest of lows during my highest of highs. The symptoms of how my version of bipolar manifests becomes mixed state, where I struggle with both extremes. I could feel like a queen for the whole day, but as soon as I walked out the door of my company… depression. I would sit outside for hours crying, because I’d constantly question myself as a leader and a peer for what I did that day. Did I make the right calls? Could we have done better?

I wish there was a softer version of myself during those moments. The proud leader I am now that can hold onto those moments of victory and can handle those moments where improvement could be made. To be a great leader, you need to take away the good and the bad.

Leadership with a mental illness meant that I made far too many mistakes and yet I was treating that pre-mentally ill version of myself who still peeked through the shroud of mania or depression. There was always this hope that when I would leave for months that the pre-diagnosed would resurface.

When people talk to me about the old version of myself, which I still adore and love, I do tell them that she’s “dead” and I had to learn to grieve during these moments of being mentally unstable. My friends, family, and husband also had to grieve for the young woman that was stable. That young woman who took on the mantle of leadership is not the same that stands before you. I am wiser, stronger, and more capable of leading people with understanding and maintaining the expectations for goals.

I am and always will be a leader because my mental illness does not define that portion of myself that I love. I love myself more than I ever did pre-diagnosis because I have struggled in the workplace for a better version of myself thanks to my team. Was it hard? Absolutely. But six months being semi-stable means that looking back at the child-like version of myself, and I can see where I could have had more strength, yet still be a leader. The version of myself during diagnosis, bobbing my head over the water to keep breathing is a delicate, but strong leader. I could unravel easily, but I was also patching the underbelly of a boat about to be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I was healing.

What about this version of myself now?

I am not totally healed, but now I live through the lens of dignity, understanding of myself and other people’s struggles. I am proud of myself. I have great self-esteem, but also the awareness that there is room for improvement. I’m not even in a leadership position. I am leading those that see me as a role model for taking the time to heal from the mental illness that was my gatekeeper. You can always be a leader, but sometimes it may look differently in the workplace.

Workplace leadership is something that kept me from unraveling. It was the expectations, the goals, and the focus of doing better, being better. I’ve learned so much about leadership in the workplace, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you must have that title as supervisor or manager. I am a leader no matter where I am in life.

I want to inspire others to be better leaders through life circumstances, because those people are truly the ones who create space in the workplace to grow. They are the creatives, the underdog, those that challenge the status quo, and forge a new path. I am proud of all the leaders that have touched my life, just as I am proud of myself.

Getty image by hobo_018

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