In our last blog post, I opened up about my experience with self-stigma and the concept of “normal” – for years, I felt like I could not be “normal” or participate in society in the same ways that others did. For me, this feeling came from my deeply internalized self-stigma.
While writing my last blog, I felt frustrated by the lack of actionable practices that exist to help one overcome self-stigma. I found myself confronted by a lot of recommendations to eat healthier, start exercising, and meditate; but for those of us with deeply internalized self-stigma, can starting with the body really be the answer? What about those of us that already do these things, and still experience self-stigma?
What is Self-Stigma?
Self-stigma is more than just a lie that we tell ourselves: it’s an internalized, deeply embedded lie that the world around us has reinforced. When we tell ourselves something over and over again, we eventually begin to believe it. When the world tells us something over and over, we believe it even more. Self-stigma, like everything else, doesn’t happen in a vacuum – rather, it exists because of external stigma. It is the process of external stigma becoming internal: we turn inwards and begin to stigmatize ourselves and our experiences.
We pick up messages about mental and behavioral health conditions that stick with us and eventually become internalized beliefs. Self-stigma can feel a lot like gaslighting: telling ourselves that we should be able to function “normally,” that living with our mental and behavioral health conditions makes us unlovable, and that people will never be able to take us seriously. We create these false narratives for ourselves rather than approach our conditions with understanding, curiosity, and kindness.
Ultimately, self-stigma is a very common symptom of living with a behavioral health condition. We end up feeling like we’re at war with ourselves. It’s always easier to tell a loved one or a friend that there’s nothing wrong or inherently bad about dealing with these conditions: when it comes to ourselves, we rarely offer the same level of acceptance and grace.
Signs of Self-Stigma
Self-stigma can make you feel alienated from your loved ones. Feelings of shame, inferiority, disappointment, embarrassment, and self-blame are all common symptoms of internalized self-stigma. You might feel like no one understands you; you might feel like your condition is your fault, even though we often have no control over what sets us off.
Self-stigma may lead you to believe stereotypical narratives about mental and behavioral health conditions. You may not believe these stereotypes when it comes to other people, but you might easily believe them when it comes to yourself. You may adopt a “why bother” attitude about work, relationships, and self-care, choosing instead to believe that your goals are out of your reach because of your condition. You might believe that you will never be able to hold down a job, find a loving partner, or live a fulfilling life. These are all signs of self-stigma.
Discrimination is a very real aspect of living with a behavioral health condition. Over time, you might internalize that discrimination and begin to discriminate against yourself, believing that people can’t and won’t take you seriously. It may feel like you are protecting yourself from external discrimination by anticipating it, but this often leads us to stigmatize ourselves even more.
Self-stigma can cause us to socially withdraw from our friends and loved ones. By distancing ourselves from other people, we often think we can protect ourselves from pain. However, this plays into the false narrative that people with behavioral health conditions are hard to love and are a burden to their loved ones. This is not true and is a sign of self-stigmatizing behavior.
How to De-stigmatize the Self:
Recognize that we are not our conditions:
Mental and behavioral health conditions are one piece of a much larger puzzle. We are so much more than our symptoms and conditions. One of the main ways that I have dealt with self-stigma in my own life has been to recognize the difference between my mental health condition and my self. I am not my thoughts, I am not my symptoms, and I am not defined by my experiences with my condition. I do not have to see myself through the lens of “mentally ill” – in fact, I am so much more than that. It can be helpful to begin defining yourself by the things and people that you love, rather than the symptoms and experiences that you’ve had with your behavioral health condition. Separate yourself from your behavioral health condition: that is not who you are.
Think about your internalized beliefs – are they helpful?
Does self-stigma help you feel more confident, more in control, or healthier? If the answer is no, then it might be useful to consider how self-stigma is affecting you. If it’s not supporting you on your journey to recovery, if it’s not helpful for you to feel that way, then it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that. Which beliefs are supporting you? Which ones are holding you back? The simple process of recognizing patterns and identifying their usefulness can help you organize your thoughts and approach your self-stigma from a utilitarian perspective: we want our beliefs to be helpful, supportive, and effective in getting us where we want to go.
Reframing your thoughts:
It might be useful to introduce new frameworks to view your thoughts through: for example, instead of feeling frustrated and angry with yourself for experiencing self-stigma and behavioral health conditions, try approaching these feelings with curiosity and without judgment. Our thoughts and feelings are fleeting, and they do not define us nor do they have to dictate reality. Using a new framework to observe your thoughts can help you recognize that you don’t have to listen to those negative thoughts or let them ruin your day.
Introducing replacement thoughts:
When you start to have self-stigmatizing thoughts, try introducing positive, affirming replacement thoughts. For example: when you think “I can’t do this,” or “I will never be normal,” try replacing the thought with something that makes you feel good, safe, and supported. The replacement thought can be anything that distracts you or gives you strength. One of my favorite replacement thoughts is: “Otters have a pocket for their favorite rock.” It’s a fun fact, it easily distracts me from my negative thought patterns, and it makes me feel good to think about!
Finding solace in sharing your story:
Being open and vulnerable with your story can be extremely healing and helpful. The act of simply sharing the truth can make you see your experiences in a new light. One of the best aspects of sharing your story with someone you trust is that they are an impartial third party: they will likely see your experiences in a new way, often in a way you haven’t considered before. Sharing your experiences will also help you to feel less alone. Writing these blogs has been an incredible opportunity for me to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings, and has given me a way to connect with others who have similar experiences.
Go back to the source:
Who told you these things? Where did these beliefs originate? For example, my own belief that I could not be normal and could never have a normal life came from certain experiences I had when I was very young. When I would have meltdowns, my friends and peers would express concern, confusion, and even aversion to my outbursts: this led me to believe that there was something fundamentally different about how I experienced distress in comparison to others. Discovering where these patterns came from helped me to see that I didn’t always have self-stigma, and that I could return to a place where self-stigma doesn’t affect me as deeply.
Be nonjudgmental of your self-stigma:
There is always a reason that we feel the way we do. You are not at fault for feeling the effects of self-stigma. Blaming yourself will only make these experiences more difficult. It may be easy to antagonize ourselves when self-stigma gets in the way, but it’s important to remember that you are not the enemy. You are doing your best, all the time. Try to remain nonjudgmental of your experiences, and stay curious as much as possible. It is a normal and treatable part of having a mental and behavioral health condition.
Find concrete facts that reflect your strength
Make a list of all the facts that disprove your self-stigma: loving relationships, major milestones, personal achievements, and activities that bring you joy are all great resources to prove to yourself that you are more than your behavioral health condition. Find the evidence that supports feeling positive, helpful feelings about yourself. What do you like about yourself? What are your incontrovertible strengths? Focus on these positive facts rather than any negative narratives that you might usually gravitate towards.
Make a plan:
When those feelings of self-stigmatization arise, make sure that you have a plan to cope. This can look like anything: from distraction tactics to introspection, whatever makes you feel safe and helps you recognize that you don’t have to listen to or obey negative thoughts about yourself. Practice your coping mechanisms ahead of time, when you feel calm and at ease. This way, you will be ready to use your plan when those feelings of self-stigmatization bubble up. My plan includes nostalgic music, a soft blanket, and deep breathing techniques.
Incorporate different perspectives:
Try seeing yourself not as an enemy, but as a friend. Speak to yourself like you would speak to a close friend going through something similar. Recognize that you are your own biggest supporter; you will always be there for yourself. See yourself for what you are: an incredible resource, not an enemy. No one understands you like you do. No one knows what you’ve been through better than you! If you can learn to see yourself as a companion, a resource, you can start to detach yourself from your self-stigma.
Above all, the most important tactic to reduce self-stigma is patience. It takes time to unravel the years of self-discrimination that we have experienced. Be patient with yourself as you journey into the unknown, loving and admiring every part of you, including your behavioral health condition. You do belong, you are deeply loved, and you matter!