The antidote to self-stigma and shame
by Marie Duffy, See Change Ambassador
I told myself every minute of every day that I was worthless. I was a failure. I was weak. It bred an inner critic that was so vicious that I turned to self-harm.
Mental health stigma did this to me. But I wasn’t being judged by others. Instead, I was the one judging myself. All because I struggled with my mental health, took medication, and used mental health services. This combined with the symptoms of mental illness made my life unbearable.
I’ve since learned that this is called self-stigma. You may not even have heard of self-stigma; I know I was unaware of it until a few years ago. But now that I know more about it, I can’t believe that it isn’t talked about more.
So, what is self-stigma? For me it was the overwhelming shame I felt about myself for experiencing mental health difficulties. The stigma I turned inwards towards myself was far worse than the stigma anyone else could have ever shown me. This shame built a wall of self-hatred that grew inside me.
Learning about self-stigma and its negative impact on recovery, was a game-changer for me. I didn’t even know there was such a thing! I’ve used mental health services for 20 years and no one had ever mentioned it to me, and if they had it would have made a huge difference. After researching it, I realised it was a major reason why I could never maintain good mental health for more than a few months. Now I know about it, it’s no surprise I was unable to maintain my mental health when I was essentially bullying myself constantly.
According to shame researcher Brene Brown, (I highly recommend her TED talk) shame requires three things to survive: Secrecy, Silence, and Judgment. For me, self-stigma needs the same. For me shame manifested in the following ways:
- Secrecy: I felt the need to keep the extent of my mental health difficulties a secret from my friends and family.
- Silence: I didn’t reach out to them even when I wanted nothing more than to tell them how much I was struggling.
- Judgement: For me, the judgement wasn’t so much from others, but from myself and how I thought about myself for struggling. As a result of this judgement, I developed an inner critic so cruel that everything I did was wrong.
The ways I deal with my self-stigma
Thankfully, after years of practice, I have managed to reduce the level of my self-stigma. It never goes away but it’s not as bad as it once was. So how did I go from someone whose life was incapacitated by mental illness, to someone who can confidently say they are in mental health recovery?
1.I try to show more self-compassion
I learned the importance of showing myself compassion. I hated myself so much that even the thought of this made my skin crawl. If I had been able to show myself compassion sooner, I might not have inflicted so much emotional and physical pain on myself. I may not have felt the need to condemn myself every time I experienced another ‘dip’ in my mood.
I believe that compassion is an antidote to stigma, and I have learned the huge importance of treating myself with compassion and kindness. This is NOT easy, and I struggle with it every single day. Most days I fail completely because it’s so alien to me. I find it helps to treat myself like a friend. I wouldn’t criticise them if they were struggling. I know this will be a lifelong battle that I may never win, but I’ll keep trying.
2.Try to challenge my inner critic
It wasn’t until I started writing down every one of my self-critical thoughts, that I realised how many I had, and how cruel they were. I wouldn’t accept persistent bullying from someone else, so why did I accept it from myself? I’ve had a vicious inner critic my whole life and I didn’t realise that not everyone speaks to themselves this way.
I’ve always accepted what my inner critic told me. But now I’m trying to challenge it. It’s not an easy task but life is so much easier when you don’t have a bully inside you.
3.Being around people who ‘get it’
I’ve been involved in setting up wellness cafes in Donegal and this has been vital in my recovery. The wellness cafes are a place for people to get out of the house and have a chat and a cup of tea with others. Many who attend struggle with their mental health and the cafes are a safe space to remove the ‘mask’ and be around people who ‘get it’. I find it helpful to be around people who understand. We don’t ever talk about mental health; we don’t need to. Sometimes there’s great power in the words that are not said.
How can we make people aware of the impact of self-stigma?
There’s no doubt that further research on self-stigma is necessary. A lack of research means there isn’t much awareness among professionals on its very real impact on recovery. If I had known about self-stigma earlier, I may not have spent so long battling myself.
Living with mental illness is exhausting and I still have days where I struggle, a lot. But learning about self-stigma has been a game-changer for me and I hope learning more about it will be a game-changer for you too.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following