We live in a world where information is available to us at any time and almost any place. If we’re not feeling well we can search online for the potential source of our issue or we can ask others on our social media pages what it could be. We have access to much more in the 21st century than ever before and, unfortunately, this can work against us.

Based on a quick Internet search, some may assume they have a deadly illness or a severe mental disturbance. It’s even become commonplace to hear “Oh that’s my OCD” or “I have ADHD because I can’t sit still.” Yet, it takes much more than reading information on a webpage to determine if someone has a medical or mental illness. It also takes more than not being able to sit still to arrive at a diagnosis of ADHD.

I remember when I was in graduate school and first opened the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the book we use to determine if an individual has a mental diagnosis). I started reading through this three-inch thick book and would comment to myself, “Oh my goodness…I have that!” Then I’d get to the next thing and assume I had that too. Eventually I realized that any one of us could open this book and find symptoms that fit us. Why? Because “normal” is somewhat subjective and we all have things that we like, don’t like, do, don’t do, etc. and those things may not always be understood by others. But just because we may find that we fit some of the criteria for a specific disorder or disorders doesn’t mean that we’re diagnosed.

I explain to clients that essentially what brings them into my office is that the issues they’re facing have begun to cause distress in their lives. They’ve recognized that, while they may not have an actual disorder, something is not working for them. For some, they’ve been previously diagnosed and are fully aware of the scope of that diagnosis. They come to see me for help managing or eliminating their symptoms.

Regardless, in recent years human behavior has become categorized by those who aren’t trained to categorize it. We hear statements that people are “antisocial,” “narcissistic,” “crazy,” “bipolar,” “anorexic,” and the list goes on. Sure, maybe these people do in fact have a disorder, but to make these words a part of everyday conversation and to use them so casually has caused us to view ourselves in terms of what’s wrong and we can be very quick to judge someone based on what makes them unique as a person. We categorize ourselves based on the issues we face and when we do this, we may only see ourselves or others as a disorder (Example: “She’s bipolar”).

I encourage you to seek help if you believe that what you’re experiencing could be more than just every day ups and downs or more severe than general restlessness. In fact, I’d never discourage that for any of you. What I do discourage, however, is assuming a disorder is present just because you behave in a way that others don’t understand, because you don’t agree with how someone else is behaving, or because you read something online that indicated you did.

When you self-diagnosis, it can be very dangerous. Not only could it cause you to not seek an appropriate evaluation and treatment (after all, you already know what’s wrong, right?), but it can lead to thinking and behavior patterns that then suggest you really do have that issue/disorder. You may begin to live your life according to the criteria and be unnecessarily convinced that you are in fact ill. Likewise, you may begin to treat others differently based on what you assume is wrong with them. You might find yourself labeling or judging someone in a way that is unjustified.

So, if you have genuine reason to believe you or someone you know may have a physical or mental illness, I urge you to err on the side of caution and seek an appropriate evaluation. The Internet is a great resource, but it doesn’t replace the need for doctors or therapists.