I experienced the power of my own language within the concept of ‘stigma.’ I compared stigma with the English language children’s rhyme to teach the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical fights and to remain calm and good-natured. “Sticks and stones will break my bones. But words will never harm me.”
Upon learning about the ‘power of words’ I wasn’t convinced being told ‘names’ can affect one’s identify and reduce an individual to that word or characteristic without their consent. I have a friend, “Carl,” and tested this stigma theory for myself. “Carl” grew up golfing with his family, went to college to study golf enterprise management and works as a golf director in Wisconsin. Is “Carl” more than golf? Absolutely. “Carl” is an intelligent, caring friend who has many hobbies and interests including golf. Is golf who he is?
For the next couple months, whenever I introduced “Carl” to meet new people, I introduced him as “Carl” the golfer. I paired “Carl” and “golf” whenever I said “Carl.” Surprisingly, every one I introduced “Carl” to only viewed him as “the golfer.” I had successfully reduced “Carl” and his identity to golfing. People would say to me “Oh, Carl? You mean the golfer.” Does “Carl” only view himself within a golf concept? No. Did everyone who recently met “Carl” only view him within a golf concept? Yes. I was now convinced of the power of words and started to think how I can apply this new knowledge to my career as a counselor.
During the time of my experiment with “Carl” I was working with a woman, “Julie,” who has been living with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder for nearly 30 years. Her life had transformed into her illness. Every ‘activity’ in her life was her mental illness due to the stigmatizing belief she is bipolar. “Julie” was told throughout her life that she “can’t” or she is “sick” or that she is “crazy.” “Julie” couldn’t see her identity without mental illness. Taking mental illness away from her would to take her identity away. She had limited hobbies, interests, families and social activities. Nearly 30 years of stigma has limited her ability to attain a life beyond her illness.
Calling a person with a substance dependency an “addict” or an “alcoholic” is reducing that person to one criteria of their life. These people who are told “just stop” or “you’re an addict” or “you’re an alcoholic” will lose the single greatest source of power to overcome the addiction — hope. Recovery is a personal process that is challenging as is — adding stigma the recovery process is comparable to adding a 20-pound vest to someone drowning.
Be mindful of how, beneath the surface, your words and your language affect the people they are directed to.
Frank Simac, MS, LPC-IT, SAC, works with Community Consultants
Tagged: Mental Health