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Stigma refers to the disgust, disgrace, or disapproval of a quality or group of people. Stigma is often formed by our biases. 

Biases are unconscious beliefs or attitudes about people or things. They are shaped by society, culture, upbringing, experiences, and relationships.

Stigma can include harmful beliefs about people based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, nationality, appearance, age, abilities, and many other identities.

What Is Internalized Stigma?

Internalized stigma refers to negative beliefs or biases towards our identities. 

Examples of internalized stigma include: 

  • Feelings of shame around specific identities 
  • Beliefs about superiority for presenting or behaving like others from your cultural group 
  • Feelings of inadequacy due to illness or disability 
  • Favoring people, media, or ideals of the dominant culture.

Why Do We Experience Internalized Stigma?

There are many reasons we might hold beliefs that are internally stigmatizing, and for some, there can be more than one factor. Here are some examples: 

  • Having negative views about specific identities instilled in you 
  • Wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture 
  • Being taught that your identity is wrong, dangerous, or inadequate 
  • Seeking acceptance from members of the dominant culture or members of our immediate community 
  • Feeling fear about embracing your stigmatized identity

How Does Internalized Stigma Affect Us?

Holding internalized stigma towards our identities can be harmful to ourselves and our loved ones. 

When we hold negative attitudes towards ourselves, we can alienate ourselves from the people and communities we love the most. 

Additionally, we can become depressed due to hiding, resenting, or feeling shame about some of the most important parts of ourselves. 

We may also feel lonely due to feeling living inauthentically.

How Can I Challenge My Internalized Stigma?

Internalized stigma or shame can be difficult to live with. Fortunately, these beliefs are malleable, meaning they can change (even if they have been around for a long time!). 

Challenging these beliefs is the process of 1) unlearning much of the harmful information instilled in you and 2) learning to love the things about yourself that make you who you are.

Reflection Exercise

If you are working to unlearn some of your biases, this reflection exercise: 

  • What are some biases you are aware of? 
  • Are there any blind spots (or deeper biases that might not be so front of mind)? 
  • Where did these biases come from? 
  • How do these thoughts benefit you? 
  • How do they not benefit you? 
  • What do you need to let go of? 
  • What do you need to learn? 
  • How different would your life be if you did not have these beliefs?

Additional Exercises

In addition to reflecting on your biases and internalized stigma, you can challenge these beliefs in many other ways. Some examples include: 

  • Creating a safe space to discuss your beliefs (like therapy) 
  • Immersing yourself in the culture or community, you hold these beliefs about 
  • Consuming diverse forms of media for these cultures, identities, or communities 
  • Becoming an ally or advocate for these cultures, identities, or communities.

Takeaways

We all have biases (even about our own communities, culture, or identities). Having biases is not a bigger problem. It’s how we handle our biases that matter. 

When we do not challenge our internalized stigma, we can experience depression, shame, poor relationships, and loneliness. 

When we are able to challenge our stigma, we can live authentically and learn to love the parts of ourselves we were taught to hide.


While our physical offices are located in South Loop and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois for in-person sessions, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more.  

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.


While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.