I read a book a while back called Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us by John Ratey. It’s a decent enough book, but I wasn’t quite crazy about it overall, which is why I didn’t add it to my recommended reading page. However the premise of the book was interesting to me because I thought it was one that could be expanded to subject areas not originally discussed by the authors.
The premise of the book is that many people out there are walking around with “shadow syndromes” of major mental disorders, meaning that they have mental health issues that are bad enough to limit their lives, productivity, and happiness, yet is still slight enough that people can’t easily tell they are suffering from a mental disorder. Since these shadow syndromes are not strong enough and debilitating enough to be considered to be at clinical level, they can be considered subclinical, meaning below clinical levels of mental illness.
Examples from the book include someone who has a shadow syndrome where they are chronically sad, which actually turns out to be subclinical depression. Someone who is a bit manic, high energy, and always undergoing mood swings, but not to an extremely destructive extent, may have subclinical bipolar disorder. Someone who is prone to tantrums may have subclinical intermittent rage disorder. Ratey also discusses shadow forms such as the subclinical forms of autism, OCD, addiction, and anxiety. Unlike people who have these disorders at clinical levels, it is far easier for people suffering from these issues at subclinical levels to slip through the cracks. They know something feels “off,” or they have personal quirks that make their life feel difficult and slightly dysfunctional, but otherwise they feel normal and don’t even consider seeking therapy or medication. Their friends may find them eccentric or a little intense, but otherwise normal. Even trained menntal health professionals may miss the signs because the shadow forms of major mental issues are easy to overlook.
I think the concept of subclinical mental disorders, or shadow syndromes, is a valuable one, because people often think that mental health is something that is either fully on or fully off, like a traditional light switch that only has two positions, when in actuality it’s much closer to a sliding dimmer light switch that allows for all different types of light levels between fully off and fully on.
Although I wasn’t particularly interested in most of the specific shadow syndromes he was discussing, I came to realize that the same framework could be applied to personality issues, allowing us to take into account subclinical forms of Cluster B disorders, people who aren’t as bad as full-blown narcissists, histrionics, sociopaths, and borderlines, but are still bad enough to lead destructive, dysfunctional lives. The section on the shadow forms of addiction could also apply to Cluster B personality disorders, since I view those to be an addiction to narcissistic supply . We’ll be discussing subclinical emotional issues often this year, including subclinical narcissism, subclinical borderline personality disorder, and subclinical histrionic personality disorder. It is very possible for people to suffer from shadow versions of these disorders without being at full-fledged, clinical, pathological levels, and once we understand the the concept of shadow syndromes we can realize that problem of emotional vampires is far more widespread than much of the professional literature suggests.