Social Stigma

We all have experiences of Social Stigma, the only difference is that some of us have never lived without it. Some of us experience the sting of stigma in large and small daily moments. Some of us, when it surfaces, are surprised by the sting because we have had the privilege of mostly fitting inside social norms. And some have gotten really good at navigating around the one or two places of stigma we face by conforming and adapting ourselves as a means of social survival.

Even for those of us with relative social privilege, social stigma can raise it's ugly head. For you, social stigma is the time you hurt yourself and couldn't work, it's the look the nurse gave you when you were asking for a form from the doctor, the way your partner's gaze shifted as you couldn't grab something for yourself, the way your boss spoke to you when you said you needed to take time off and you weren't sure how long. It's the way the lender suddenly changed how they dealt with you when you couldn't pay. You were, just a few days ago, a dependable worker, provider and contributor in our collective community, now people are seeing you differently. How could this one injury, which could happen to anyone, shift everyone's view of you so rapidly and stir a creeping question up from inside you... are they right about you? Who are you anyway?

You might react in any number of ways to this unexpected social stigmatization, you might become defensive, "HOW DARE YOU TREAT ME LIKE I AM LAZY!" or you might become depressed, "I think they are right about me, I'm lazy.". There are many ways that people react and respond, all understandable. 

On the flip side, we have all had our thoughts slip to stigmatizing ones. The less we know and humanize an individual, the worse our stigma of them can play out. But even amongst our closest friends and loves, those stigmas that have kept our world in place and in line can slip in and cause disconnection and inhibit our ability to empathize and show compassion. If you are the partner to the person who is suddenly injured, you might feel a sense of fear, of judgment, you might start to place your partner in a category that they never held before. They were always someone you could depend on, now will they be someone who has to depend on you? What does that say about them? What does that say about you? You might begin to stigmatize this person you love, even unknowingly, in a way that shows them that they can not count on you when the chips fall, the true test of connection and love.  


Social Stigma is a Spiritual Hemorrhage, it is a Hemorrhage just waiting to burst inside of us, to cause us to bleed out and on and over. Social Stigma leaks out of us in the most inopportune moments, it inhibits our communities from caring for each other, it inhibits us from fully loving and embracing our full selves & each other. We also know, subconsciously, that it can flip on us at any moment and overturn our status in the social order, impacting our relationships & our friend networks, impacting our business partnerships & our communities. We have watched it happen to others and we hope it never happens to us. We keep ourselves in check and in-line, hoping to never be seen in our fullest humanity, which is the truest sense of vulnerability. Here I would like to insert a definition of vulnerability, vulnerability has become a feel good buzz word; but in truth vulnerability is a place where you are at risk. 

Social Stigma keeps us disconnected from each other. 

It tricks us by making us feel as if it is keeping us 'safe' (from the 'boogie man' or the 'other'). 

In reality it is keeping us apart and it is keeping the vulnerable among us at risk. 

Social Stigma is so fervent, and so much apart of our social connections & our built in wiring that if we are not ruthless in rooting it out from ourselves, in our communities & friend groups... it will always be around. The spiritual crisis of social stigma is how it turns on us and turns us on others in the truest moments of vulnerability and loss. It will cause oppressive harm to those misplaced & marginalized. To not mince words, social stigma is violence. 

So what is Social Stigma and how do we rid ourselves of something so engrained into our thinking and social system? 

Social Stigma is a way to maintain a social hierarchy. Most of us wrap our entire identity around why we are different, higher, more sought after, more knowledgeable. We have deeply held beliefs that there are things or sets of things that set us apart from the rest. We also believe these things or sets of things set apart the people we connect with & 'surround ourselves with'. It can feel as if these things are keeping us safe, protected, and cared for. We can believe that we deserve to be doing well in our lives, socially, for these sets of reasons. Social stigma protects us from falling and failing. Right?  

But the truth is Social Stigma does not hold up logically and when it is questioned or, in the case of an unexpected injury, challenged, we can become fragile and shaken, defensive and insecure. It is why those of us with the most 'social status' can be the most insecure & fragile around those very things that we feel set us apart. We attach our social privileges to our identity and let it shape our perceptions of ourselves in a way that can be unhealthy to us, not to mention it is the thing that keeps us from operating out of compassion and connection with those we stigmatize. This is how a whole host of oppressive behavior are not only is acted out, but is also overlooked and ignored in our social networks and communities. 

This fragility is our spiritual hemorrhage leaking out. 

This oppression is our spiritual hemorrhage spilling out onto others. 

Social Stigmas are a product of the ISMs set high in the social structure that define our culture: Racism, Ableism, Sexism, Homophobia, Elitism, Transphobia, etc. They also play out in the definable ways in which we set social norms and maintain them: Patriarchy, Heteronormativity, Gender norms, White supremacy, etc. Social Stigmas play all of this out and overlap and engage in a myriad of socialized shaming: Fat-ism, Shade-ism, Slut shaming, Rape Culture, etc. 

I know the sting of social stigma, because I came out as queer only a few short years ago. I lived much of my previous life trying to fit into the boxes of Social Norms and I was Hemorrhaging from them Spiritually and emotionally, causing harm by spilling out onto others around me. 

Coming out, for me, was like retraining my thinking to see in another color or to speak another language. Retraining my brain to love myself in areas that I had stigmatized was one of the hardest processes I have ever been through. But as I did the work of thinking differently of myself, my ability to hold others with compassion grew as well. My ability to view others with more nuance, to see things in bolder color and less black and white thinking grew just as rapidly as my ability to love myself in those same ways. Now I have been learning the work of retraining & rewiring my thinking around other social stigmas as well. Which means that it is possible. 

In my experience, the first step is always to acknowledge the stigma that is coming up. We have many self protective measures at play in stigma, so this is always really uncomfortable, in fact the more uncomfortable the better stuff you are probably getting to. 

Some examples of the thinking / feeling that might come up, depending on your life and the ways in which you have operated and had to cope or adapt: 

"I am a good person, I don't think badly of others." 

"I should not be thinking like this" 

"Part of my identity is the thing that is setting me apart, this is not stigma (IE: I am a hard worker, or I have had to struggle too)." 

Just listen to those thoughts and feelings, acknowledge them, take note, pay attention. Try not to judge what is coming up.

And then you might talk back to them. Like:  "Be patient here" or "This does not define you".

Next I'll try to deconstruct the stigmatized thought. 

You might think through the logic of the thought or fear. IE: "Anyone could be injured, so when I stigmatize this person, I forget my own humanity and theirs."    Deconstruct the logic holes, in doing this you begin to learn to think your way out of stigma.

Then I'll take steps to open myself up to a different perspective. 

By listening, engaging new stories about experiences I have never had from perspectives different than mine or those I have grown up around.  Asking questions only from a perspective of care and relationship VS voyeurism.  Remembering that someone's story is not for your consumption, unless they have expressed a willingness to share, you should tread lightly. There are plenty of books, films, music, articles, blogs which people have written in order to share their story publicly, explore those. 


In taking these steps, which I have begun to see as part of my own spiritual practice, I have found a path towards  compassion and connection. In following this path I've found myself living a life with vivid beauty and unbelievable complexity & I have become more open and empathetic and less hurtful towards myself and others.  

Kathy McDougallComment