Follow these steps to break free from limiting ideas about life with mental illness
When thinking about the stigma associated with mental health problems, your first thoughts are likely to be negative public perceptions, inaccurate stereotyping in the media, or disparaging attitudes at work. However, there is another kind of stigma that is equally painful, but less talked about: self-stigma.
Self-stigma happens when public prejudice and stigmatising discourses are internalised by an individual. In other words, self-stigma is when a person with mental health problems encounters stigma, and then believes this to be true for themselves and their own life.
In these situations, self-stigma can lead to behaviours such as isolation from loved ones, turning down opportunities, or relinquishing goals. In a world where negative attitudes towards mental health problems still circulate, it’s easy to understand why we might internalise some aspects of stigma. So, let’s take a look now at how to identify and, crucially, reduce it.
1. Recognise self-stigma
The first step to reducing self-stigma is to notice it, and put a name to it. To do this, gently observe your thoughts about different areas of your life – such as relationships, family, work, and leisure – by using mindfulness techniques. Notice whether you experience any thoughts of being unworthy, shameful, incapable, weak, or unlikable in relation to having mental health problems. Examples might be, ‘I can’t have a relationship because my schizophrenia makes me unlovable,’ or ‘I have depression so nobody will want to hang out with me.’ Label such beliefs as self-stigma, and tell yourself that these thoughts require further investigation into their validity before fully accepting them as truth. Just because you think something, even if you have clung to a belief for years, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
2. Gain knowledge from well-researched sources
Take time to really learn about mental health problems or conditions from carefully-researched, sensitively-written sources. It’s vital to be discerning when selecting books, videos, articles, or podcasts – as not all will be high quality or have an empathetic standpoint. Useful questions to ask can include:
- Who authored this content?
- What is their point of view and intention?
- How well-researched is it?
If something you’re reading or watching makes moral or character judgements about people with mental health problems, puts limits on their potential, or makes you feel inept, unlovable, or hopeless, these are red flags. Unfollow social media accounts that share or reinforce stigmatising messages, so you are not bombarded with hurtful messages as you scroll.
3. Grow an empowering support network
Self-stigma may exacerbate social isolation as a result of thoughts about being undeserving of friendships, being too incompetent to engage with a local community, or too difficult to love. Therapist Kimberly Tomlinson explains that self-stigma is “painful because the fear or assumption of pending rejection causes the person to reject and remove themselves”.
However, developing connections with empathetic people who want to raise you up instead of knock you down can be both liberating and healing.
Furthermore, research published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal shows that a feeling of belonging creates a ‘buffer’ for self-stigma. Peer support can be a rich avenue to explore too, as connecting with others with similar experiences may provide comfort, validation, or give ideas for new ways of being.
4. Express yourself in ways that feel comfortable
A person experiencing self-stigma may believe that their experiences are not worth talking about, or are too shameful to discuss. If silence feels claustrophobic, then self-expression can offer a release. There are limitless outlets, such as blogging, painting, poetry, or photography. And what you express – how much and to whom – is up to you. Choose the audience that feels right for you, whether that’s online or offline, or just for yourself.
5. Work on building self-confidence and self-esteem
Long-term, self-stigma chips away at self-confidence and diminishes self-esteem. As Kimberly Tomlinson describes: “Being different equals feeling lesser than, and the person assimilates what they are told they are instead of being who they are.”
When self-confidence takes a dive, start with small tasks, initially just one step out of your comfort zone, and build up. Take time to reflect on your thoughts before a challenge (‘I felt like I couldn’t do it’) and after (‘I managed it!’). Keep a journal of personal qualities, small successes, and positive feedback to re-read, and see if affirmations of self-worth (‘I deserve care, I deserve joy’) could strengthen a positive sense of self.