Each of us has our own unique identity made up of a combination of personality traits, personal and family history, and other attributes. But what happens inside when an identity is not celebrated by a person’s community?
In Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963), author Erving Goffman uses the term “spoiled identity” to refer to an identity that causes a person to experience stigma. For Goffman, “stigma” describes the experience of moving through life with an attribute that is deeply discrediting. This attribute 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, and visible and invisible disabilities.
From Outside to Inside
As a therapist, what becomes worrisome about people living with an identity that others have labeled wrong is that they often start to believe it themselves. This process is sometimes called “internalization.” The stigmatized attribute becomes internalized and the negative belief becomes a part of who that person is. For example, if a young girl is told every day, indirectly and directly, that she should be thin and that not being thin reduces her value as a human being, she is likely to believe it. Not only that, but the belief that she is unlovable can even become a core part of her identity.
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 dismissively about their bodies. Body negative banter is almost an essential part of being a woman in the United States – if you don’t join in you might even feel left out. And yet these are harmful messages about weight, gender, and beauty that have been internalized until they are unrecognizable as cultural messages and often mistaken as essential truths.
Making the Messages Visible
These messages that we repeat to ourselves in our heads every day can have an alarmingly negative impact on self-esteem, self-perception, and mood. They can drag you down, increase anxiety, and create a spiral of negative thoughts that can be challenging to break. One way to break this cycle is recognizing these messages for what they are. This prevents them from sneaking into your head when you’re not paying attention and wreaking havoc on your self-esteem. You can even keep a tally for a couple of days; every time you notice that you said something negative about yourself, make a mark.
Are you surprised about how many marks there are? What did you notice while you were keeping track? What were you surprised about? How many of these negative beliefs are connected to your identity?
This step can make those messages visible so you can see that they’re not who you are, but instead ideas that have come from other people. If this negative message is an idea, and not an essential part of who you are, then you have the power to change it.
Making New Messages
It’s not enough to simply get rid of old negative messages; you also need to replace them with new and more positive messages. One way to do this is to get involved in activism. Activism is really just another word for working with other people to make changes. If therapy is about changing things inside you and in your life so that things feel better, activism is like zooming out one click – it’s about making changes in your community, work environment, church, or neighborhood that make your life feel better.
What changes would you like to help make in your community? Are there people already working on those changes that you could join? What’s scary about that idea? And what’s exciting about it?
By working with gay and lesbian teenagers I’ve learned how individually powerful involvement in something a person cares deeply about can be. Participating in activism in their communities, for example telling others about their experiences as part of educational outreach, helped them to make changes within themselves. The youth I worked with found people that they could relate to, people who also had identities that were labeled unacceptable. Through this work these youth felt less alone and began to internalize new messages about their strength, perseverance, and generosity.
These are just two of many ways that you can begin to shift your thoughts and feelings about yourself. Consider the ways that you feel stigmatized and how you can relearn negative messages. You are the expert of your own life, use the pieces of these suggestions that work for you and explore your own creative ways to redefine yourself.
© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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