Double Stigma Double Shame

Too often people who live with chronic physical illnesses are ashamed to share their diagnoses with others. This shame may interfere with peoples' comfort with asking for help, taking medication, requesting accommodations, and seeking out interpersonal supports. Where does this shame come from? Is there any logical reason for people with illnesses to feel ashamed? After all most people do not want to live with disease or disorder, and do not want to suffer because of it. Some of the shame may be idiosyncratic and just part of a person's personality or history; however, oftentimes shame follows from stigma.

Think about how many times people lower their voice to a whisper when talking about illness. "Oh did you hear Sally has breast cancer." Illnesses are spoken of as if they are dangerous to everyone around the person with the diagnosis, even when the illness is not contagious. Most of the time people become nervous when encountering topics they do not understand, which can follow with a feeling of uncontrollability and fear. It may not necessarily be that people are afraid of the person living with the diagnosis, but rather the concept that humanity means mortality. Despite the motive of this behavior, imagine how it can make the person living with the illness feel. Open expression and sharing of what it is like to have a particular illness or even revealing that one has an illness may not necessarily feel safe. This is especially true with certain diagnoses that can come with unfair assumptions about a person's character, such as HIV or AIDS.

Having to deal with experiences like stigma, shame, and many other feelings that can come with living with a chronic physical illness may make it necessary to seek out professional support. This is where double stigma can come into the picture. Societal stigma associated with seeking out the help of a mental health professional can be even greater than the stigma surrounding medical illness. There are many unhealthy ideas about psychotherapy such as needing therapy means someone is "crazy." The word "crazy" itself is meaningless, and needing to speak with a professional when adjusting to adaptively coping to living with a medical diagnosis is the epitome of normality. Stigma around psychotherapy is a very common reason that people avoid getting help that they may greatly benefit from. This stigma also contributes to feelings of shame. People may have irrational thoughts such as needing help means they are weak, crazy, or abnormal, when in reality being able to stand up to stigma regardless of intense feelings of shame is a huge testament to one's strength.

Not everybody who is reading this may have had the experiences being discussed above. However, if this resonates with you then search inside for a new piece of courage to face stigma and shame head on. Maybe some will not be able to understand why you see a psychologist, and that's something that you do not need to share with anyone if you do not want to anyway. In fact, psychotherapy may help you learn how to better deal with people's assumptions about your medical diagnosis and stigma in general. People may still want to whisper when talking about how you have advanced type II diabetes but it may not bother you as much anymore. Remember, the stigma comes from society's and others' insecurities and not from anything being inherently wrong with or bad about you. While double stigma can typically bring double shame, you can learn to make it bring double strength, courage, understanding, and even intimacy with others. Good luck on your journey.