What to Do When Stigma Strikes: Five Essential Tips for Stigma Management

In my previous post "The Stigma Games: A Lose-Lose Proposition," I highlighted the noticeable rise of stigma in current events. But what I didn't discuss was how to effectively respond if you or someone you love is suddenly the target of stigmatization.

Anyone Can Be Stigmatized

Perhaps you're thinking, "I'm not Ryan Lochte or Anthony Weiner. I'm not an embarrassed Olympic athlete or a disgraced politician. I wouldn't lie to the police about a robbery at gun point or repeatedly sext intimate pictures of myself to strangers while in a committed relationship."

But how many ordinary people will get a DUI or seek some type of addiction counseling--and then afterwards do everything in their power to keep it private, purely out of fear and anticipation of stigma?


Clearly, you don't have to be famous to be stigmatized. Nor do you have to "do something wrong." It can happen to anyone who for some reason doesn't match the perception of what the majority considers "normal" or who displays behavior that's considered "unacceptable."

People are stigmatized because of mental illness, disability, weight, age, race, poverty, illiteracy, HIV, cancer, unemployment, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, criminal record, body image, abuse, addiction, STIs, and much more. Some of these characteristics are in the individual's control, but the majority are not. Something that once wasn't a problem can become a stigma due to changes in society. Just think of the rise in Islamophobia since 9/11.

To make things worse, the Internet and social media ensure that stigmatizing information can be communicated at lightening speeds. Plus, once it's out there, it's almost impossible to erase.

Of course, stigmatization doesn't always occur. Sometimes people manage to "pass;" in other words, they hide the potential stigma from their environment. However, the fear of being found out can be crippling. In other situations, an individual's community accepts him or her--sometimes because they share the same stigma; other times simply because they don't regard the characteristic or behavior as unacceptable.

Unfortunately, however, when the individual's stigma is revealed for all the world to see, the consequences are often devastating.

Stigma Hurts

In its original use, the word "stigma" refers to a mark seared or cut into someone's skin, often on the face. In ancient Greece, it was an excruciating--and permanent--punishment for criminals and traitors. Fortunately, we don't physically mark people in this way anymore. But stigma still hurts, and digital stigma can be just as permanent. It can wreak havoc on your life and take everything from you; your relationships, family, friendships, and community. It can cost you your job, your career, and your home. It can break down your identity, your sense of self--especially when the stigma is reinforced over and over again by your environment. You can even start to believe you're nothing more than your stigma. In the worst-case scenario, stigma can drive people to commit suicide.

To gain some insights into what it's like to be stigmatized, answer the following questions:

  • How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow morning and suddenly the whole world knew some discrediting information about you that you'd rather have kept to yourself? (Mental illness, cancer, poverty, criminal record, HIV, STI, or any other stigma.)
  • How would it affect your perception of yourself if suddenly, you were only judged based on that information?
  • Who would you turn to for support if you suddenly weren't welcome or safe in your profession, community, family, and/or home due to your stigma?

Scary just to think about, right?

Now imagine how frightening it is for the individual who suddenly experiences stigmatization in real life. And then consider how challenging and limiting it is for those society stigmatizes from birth.

Stigma Management Is Critical

The more time you spend trying to resist a stigmatizing label or, in contrast, the more you start to believe your stigma is who you are, the more likely you are to become exhausted, isolated, and vulnerable. It's like struggling in quicksand--and it can be just as deadly if you don't get the right help in time.

That's where stigma management can be a true life-saver. Stigma management is the practice of containing the damage stigma causes to your life. And while the form it takes varies from case to case, there are five tips that apply to almost every situation:

  1. Remember that you're more than your stigma. Your identity is worth a comprehensive healing process. Remind yourself every day of who you really are; your passions, interests, accomplishments... and even your dreams.
  2. Focus on healing, not hiding. Regardless of whether you're outed or passing, the key to healing lies in knowing and accepting yourself and the situation. You can only transform your life if you can see what you want or need to change.
  3. No matter how low you feel, practice extreme self-care. Stigma causes great stress, which eventually depletes your adrenals and makes you feel exhausted and depressed. However, you should try to eat healthfully, exercise, and get enough sleep, because you'll need your strength and energy in the time ahead.
  4. Don't try to travel this road alone. Find support. Work with a personal coach, counselor, or therapist, or join a support group. And make sure to work with professionals such as lawyers, financial advisors, and medical professionals if necessary.
  5. Embrace the future. It's only natural to want to return to a situation before you were stigmatized (if applicable). However, trying to do so is futile. Even when you've rebuilt your life, you will be forever changed by the experience. Make it part of who you are going forward.

Stigma can be life-threatening. But by consistently implementing stigma management, you can limit its devastating effects, enhance your resilience, and establish a safe space from where you can begin to heal.