For some people, the answer to the question of, “What does prejudice and discrimination have to with mental health?” is clear, and for others it is not. After all, prejudice and discrimination happen to people from the outside and mental health focuses primarily on what is happening for people on the inside, right? However, as a psychotherapist, I think that understanding the impact of these outside forces on mental health is necessary and important to achieving internal balance and peace of mind.
Imagine that this morning you woke up, and the first thing that came into your head was, “I don’t belong here.” You roll over, stretch, and get out of bed anyway. You reach out and turn on the radio. In the news blip the reporter is saying “…and people like you really shouldn’t be allowed to do that…” You flip the station and a song comes on, the lyrics are about beating up someone like you. You turn off the radio, get dressed, and head out of the house. As you walk down the street no one says good morning, no one smiles, the looks you get are glares that clearly state, “You don’t belong here.” Now, imagine doing this every morning.
This might seem dramatic, but it begins to capture what it could feel like to live with, what Erving Goffman calls a “spoiled identity.” For Goffman, a spoiled identity is an identity that causes a person to experience stigma. In Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963), Goffman uses the term “stigma” to describe the experience of moving through life with an attribute that is deeply discrediting. This attributes divides people into those who are “normal” and those who are not, thereby making those who are not less worthy. Spoiled identities include racial minority, ethnic minority, sexual orientation, gender, sex, and religious identities, body size, as well as visible and invisible disabilities. All of this to say – some people experience prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis simply because of whom other people think they are.
What becomes problematic about living with a spoiled identity from a mental health perspective is that people start to believe it themselves. This process is sometimes called “internalization.” The stigma becomes internalized and the negative belief becomes a part of who that person is. That’s why, in our example, the first thought in the morning was, “I don’t belong here.” Before anyone else could send a message of exclusion, it happened internally.
These internal messages might be so common that we don’t even recognize them. For example, it’s not unusual to hear women on a daily basis talk dismissingly about their bodies and about being “too fat.” It’s normal to say this; it’s almost part of being a woman – if you don’t say it you might even feel left out. And yet this is a message of internalized body hatred.
This messages that we repeat to ourselves in our heads every day can have an alarmingly negative impact on self-esteem, self-perception, and mood. It can drag you down, increase anxiety, and create a spiral of negative thoughts that can be challenging to break. So what can you do about it?
The first step to breaking the experience of internalized prejudice and discrimination is to notice when it’s happening. Notice it and name it. You are not a bad person because of who you are or what you look like. That’s not your voice; it’s the voice of media, parents, and society that has taken resident in your head. Externalizing these voices then can allow you to change them. Instead of feeling depressed because “I’m a worthless person” and can begin to see that the depression is a result of other people telling you that message. The message shifts from an essential truth to a malleable belief that you can challenge and change.
© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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