Success, Confidence, Awareness & Bipolar Disorder

Yesterday I came across an interesting article published in May, 2012, in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy (volume 19 issue 4), pages 352-362. The article is titled “The Double-Edged Sword of Goal Engagement: Consequences of Goal Pursuit in Bipolar Disorder”. Johnson, Fulford and Carver say:

“For people with bipolar disorder, heightened approach motivation appears to be manifested in setting extremely high goals, expending extraordinary resources towards those goals and reacting in more prolonged ways to goal progress or thwarting.”

“For most people, achieving success,  experiencing excitement and joy, and moving towards core life goals are the best moments in life. imagine then, being unable to savour these moments, then move smoothly forward with your life. “

Yes, prolonged reaction to thwarted goals indeed.

I can say from personal experience that yes, I have experienced a lot of pain from having thwarted my own goals. So what kind of insight will this article have for me?

“goal regulation”

I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist at 15, and didn’t believe her; I saw a psychologist after that, who confirmed the diagnosis at age 19. I was introduced to the idea of bipolar before I had ever known what self-confidence felt like.

I didn’t fit in as a kid and I thought of myself as a “failure” at school. These things left profound imprints on my self image. I spent years absolutely convinced that my life and my self would be mediocre and meaningless.

And so, now, having exceeded all the expectations I ever had for myself,  how am I to define the boundary between “self-confidence” and “extreme self-confidence”, a sign of mania?

It all feels pretty “extreme” to me, looking out of these eyes at the shapes & tones of my reflection. A reflection that looks, to me, like profound success.


But is it really as profound as it feels? Maybe not. Bipolar is marked by delusions of grandeur and self-confidence that is “extreme”; what if the joy of my achievement is disproportionate to what the situation realistically warrants? That is definitely a possibility that I should keep in mind.

But what if, logically speaking,  I do deserve to feel “extremely” self-confident? Surely there are moments in everyone’s life when it’s appropriate to be very proud of one’s self. What are the criteria for gauging what is “extreme” and what is “very” and what is destructive and what is constructive and why are my perceptions of these things “broken” and not simply “different”?

What is “normal” self-confidence? I am doubtful that there is “normal” anything, but that’s a train of thought I won’t pursue in this post. Suffice to say, normal is subjective. I recognise that I have control over my perception of what normal is, so I can keep an eye on whether I’m venturing too far towards what might be perceived as “extreme” by coworkers and friends.

I don’t trust anyone else to tell me how confident I should or shouldn’t be. But, if I’m going to be (and stay) in control of my life, the conundrum of objectively defining “extreme self-confidence” is a conundrum that can’t be ignored.

And so, I monitor and analyze and pick apart my emotional responses to my own accomplishments. By doing so, I am trying to prevent myself from accidently slipping into manic moments; much in the same way one tries to be conscious of how much one has been drinking if one wants not to become blackout drunk.

However, in doing this, I don’t get to totally “savour” (as Johnson, Fulford and Carver put it) the joy of reflecting on a moment of success. I try not to beam, or sound too excited on the phone;  I immediately start talking about my next step.

I got my fill of “resting on my laurels” when I thought I was a “failure”. I used up the entire tank full of “I wish I had forever to sit and do nothing.” and now, I don’t have the patience to stagnate. That is my own reason for why it doesn’t feel rewarding to take every possible opportunity to sit back and relax.

If it doesn’t feel rewarding, why would I reward myself at the end of my hard work with acting how I acted during the worst time of my life? I’m trying to stay away from that pit of despair, so shouldn’t my actions always attempt to attain that ambition? Is that a goal that needs regulation? To get as far away from my concept of failure as possible?

This is mental illness apparently. Feels pretty normal by my standards. I wish I could entirely trust my standards of normal,  but alas. I’m often confronted with the idea that I’m too intense.

I have what that article describes as “extremely high goals”.

This is difficult to write about dispassionately. If high goals are an indication of my disability, do I really want to be cured? Especially considering that I can’t conceptualize a “normal” goal to judge against. What is more reasonable, that the height of my ambition should be to be a drone, endlessly commuting in and out of the city every day for the rest of my life?

Do I really want to bring my standards down to an appropriate level of mediocrity? Would you take someone seriously if they told you to stop trying so hard to achieve your goals? To stop caring so much about the things you care about? What is this, middle school? Is there a “not-trying-too-hard” way to fix the garbage in the oceans and the pollution in the air and the broken Antarctic ice?

Does anyone ever tell an athlete that their dedication to their training is an indication that they have a problem with “goal regulation”?

Maybe. Probably. My point is more about the popular perception of bipolar than about calling out athletes, in case you wanted to argue with me on that.

Either way, these thoughts have been plaguing me all day. Hopefully you found them insightful; I enjoyed the process of writing it all out even if it’s completely useless from a reader’s perspective.

Thanks for reading.


~ by A. L. Park on May 21, 2014.

5 Responses to “Success, Confidence, Awareness & Bipolar Disorder”

  1. I enjoyed reading this, and it mirrors my thinking occasionally. Thanks for edifying it in words 🙂

  2. “If high goals are an indication of my disability, do I really want to be cured?” That stopped me in my tracks, I’m still chewing on it and trying to grasp the meaning of living in a time and a culture in which one is faced with these questions. Of course, I can’t speak with a deep and experienced voice, I can only speak with mine, but… I too pick apart my emotions and responses to situations in general, because I have to… But I won’t go into that in detail 🙂 All I’m gonna say is that, this was a beautifully written piece, and I did find it insightful and even comforting on a personal level. Thank YOU for writing it.

    • Oh thank you so much for the feedback! Ive been feeling anxiety about having posted this. Your voice is the deepest and the most experienced at being you 🙂 thanks again!

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