Revisiting Stigma: The Game of Appearances
A Sociological Perspective
Doesn’t the term stigma harken us back to Sociology 101? Those were the days when Irving Goffman was in the spotlight. Goffman got famous from his work on stigma and the social forces that shape our identity. What made him special was his ability to capture human experience, which made him a psychologist/sociologist of sorts. Despite its far-reaching implications and relevance, the phenomenon of stigma seems to have dropped off of the map of required knowledge for those in the helping professions. Becoming conscious of and understanding our relationship with society, and how this relationship effects how we feel about ourselves and how we act in our relationships, can have transformative potential. It can empower us to made decisions and behave is a way that is consistent with our purpose.
A stigma is a visible or known attribute that relegates a person to a sub-standard or less desirable category of people. When a person is stigmatized, our perceptions and treatment towards that person are affected. The person gets labeled as “defective,” and subsequently branded as an outcast, an example of what not to be. The person’s status – how s/he is seen in the eyes of others, and how s/he will ultimately feel about him/herself, are all under arbitrary and brutal assault. Whether aware or not, the tendency is to react with avoidance, indifference and disdain.
The kind of deep silent pain that a stigmatized person suffers when one knows that what s/he is at his/her core is unwanted, unworthy and not belonging can break a person. Stigma causes shame and alienation to pervade one’s sense of self and relationships.
This week's episode features Daniel Linder, LMFT who will be discussing his practice and an area of specialty, The Effects of Stigma and the Internalization of Social Conditioning on Mental Health.
Stigmatization is a process of societal and familial conditioning. By the time we’re adults, the negative reactions and judgments associated to any stigmatized condition are deeply ingrained in our consciousness. Those who carry a stigma know that they will be discredited the moment their stigma becomes known. One can expect a desperate effort to escape rejection by keeping any potential stigma hidden. When the condition is visible, there is no way to hide it; one must learn to live with the stigma.
The difference in perception between a visible stigmatized condition, such as obesity, and an invisible one such as an addiction or being gay, is extremely significant. When the condition is invisible, appearance and deception come into play to keep it invisible.
“A solution for the individual who can’t maintain an identity norm is to alienate him/herself from the community, which upholds the norm, or refrain from developing an attachment to the community.” (Goffman)
The phenomenon of stigmatization is born out of the political and social power structure that sets the standard for acceptability, worthiness and normalcy. The contingencies determining what is considered desirable are decided and transmitted by those in power. In any society, there are those who do the discrediting and those who are discredited. Stigma is the weapon used to restore the norm for the entire social system, enforcing conformity by arbitrarily punishing those who deviate from those standards, regardless of how unrealistic those standards may be.
The powers that be in the socio-political hierarchy get to define desirability and undesirability, which is everything you want and don’t want to be. Desirability is the reward for those who appear “together,” in control, invulnerable and exude pleasantness all of the time. The rewards of fame, adoration, wealth, prestige, and power are certainly tantalizing inducements. Undesirability is the punishment for not being able to appear “together”. It is also the punishment for those who are seen as having problems, expressing pain and who need help.
Regardless of the reasons or circumstances, a person unable to conform to the standards society deems normal gets stigmatized. The person is disgraced, treated as weak, evil, immoral, incapable and unworthy. S/he is reduced from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one. “The standards s/he has incorporated from the wider society cause him/her to agree that s/he does indeed fall short of what s/he ought to be. Shame becomes a central possibility, arising from the individual’s perception of one’s own attributes as defiling to possess.” (Goffman)
A person unable to conform is considered to be different and will be stigmatized for being different. Not only are we conditioned to have our acts together, when encountering someone or something that taps our awareness of the condition to the fore, our defense system adapts accordingly. Denial keeps the shame, fear and helplessness from our conscious minds.
Being “nice” can lead to pity…
When considering that being “nice” is akin to conforming; that is, there is a stigma associated with not being ‘nice,’ we can begin to appreciate how incredibly subtle and layered the effects of stigma are. Given that contempt, rejection or simply seeing someone in a less favorable light may not fit with a ‘nice’ persona, we’ll act in a way that is more consistent with being nice. Rather than acknowledging our contempt, we might instead act as if we care, for caring is the “right” thing to do, but which will ultimately come across as pity. Pity only further degrades the stigmatized person, and perpetuates the game of appearances.
While pity may sound and look like caring, it is not real caring, and has different affects. When pity is expressed, the interaction is filtered through an artificial screen, unacknowledged emotional distance is maintained. The non-verbal, and sometimes verbal messages are, “Too bad this had to happen.” “Too bad you’re an addict.” Implied in these messages is that, “We’re different. I am well and you are sick. I’m okay, and you’re not. You have worse problems than I do.”
We are just touching upon the enormity to stigma’s rippling effect. Not only are we conditioned to make things appear better than they actually are, we are also conditioned to deceive others and ourselves.
The rippling effects of stigma go as far as distorting our notion of willpower and what is means to be human. We’ll tend to not realize the limitations of our willpower until we are forced to, i.e. as in the case of later stage addiction, when one is “bottoming out.” Surrendering to these realizations, i.e. not being able to control an addiction, solve the problem, make the pain go away, can become bitterly disillusioning, shame-inducing experiences.
The same process plays out in our relationships. What often happens is that we get stuck on how we want to see each other, as opposed to seeing each other more objectively or realistically. We prefer to see each other in a more desirable or idealized light than is actually the case. We’re anti objectivity, anti reality, ego-driven. We’ll inflate positive qualities while deflating negative ones; limitations, flaws, problems, issues, even mistakes, to always maintain a favorable picture, the one we wish to paint. If effect, we’re blinding ourselves in the service of our egos.
Seeing each other in real, as opposed to ideal, terms becomes a highly risky situation, especially when considering that there is a stigma attached to seeing each other realistically, when it means falling short of an ideal or of what one wants to believe. This obviously poses an obstacle in achieving and sustaining intimacy. Getting to know and understand each other, let alone, deeply, become impossible when the name of the game is one of appearances; when we’re conditioned to present and see preferred versions of ourselves, rather than “warts and all” versions. Collusion is involved, a conspiracy against seeing the truth about who we are as human beings.