Resilience Tip — Disabling Stigma: Don’t Let Others Write Your Life Story

By Shelley Hourston

I’ve always been intrigued with the “quirkiness” of life… you know, those things that are common yet completely nonsensical. Stigma is one of those things. Sometimes from birth, and sometimes later in life, people find themselves a member of a group without ever signing up. Examples include poverty, racial/ethnic heritage, LGBT, age and disability/chronic illness. Other people who believe themselves spared from membership in one or more of these groups create (or accept) elaborate fictional stories about a specific group’s members without even meeting them! Stigma is a negative life story assigned to you and created by an unauthorized person (e.g. not you). Internalized stigma occurs when members of stigmatized groups believe these negative, unauthorized stories. The shame and fear evoked by someone else’s fiction about your life can make you forget that you are responsible for creating your life story. In fact, stigma can completely derail your life story if you let it. By harvesting our life experiences and strengthening our own story we can combat internalized stigma. If and when we feel strong and/or safe enough to share our stories with the world, we can also help others see stigma for what it is.

Maximizing the benefits of our life stories requires a bit of effort. Too often we let the strengths and wisdom within our life stories evaporate with time. We’ve all experienced adversity and successes but unless we are an avid “scrapbooker” or journal writer, we tend to forget that we are resilient. Collecting and reviewing personal life stories is empowering. Familiarity with your stories reinforces your wisdom, values and resources with evidence gathered in real life. Standing up to stigmatizing fictional stories is easier when your authentic life stories are easily accessible.

Getting started on your life stories
Your public library can direct you to autobiographical writing resources and possibly writing groups too. Or you can contact Shelley (see contact info below) for a Life Story Resource List.

For people living with HIV and/or Hepatitis C, BCCPD is running a pilot five-week course beginning in January 2014. Stories of Adversity & Resilience (SOAR) is free and will meet for five weeks by teleconference. Each week participants write a short story (two pages or less) about a life theme and prompted by a list of questions intended to stimulate memories. Stories are read at the next class and participants share their observations of strengths and resilience illustrated by the stories. Feedback is based on the Guided Autobiography method and the principles of Appreciative Inquiry. Space is limited. For information or to register, contact Shelley (certified Guided Autobiography instructor) by calling toll-free 1-877-232-7400 to leave a message or email Exact start date (after January 13, 2014) and time will be determined with participants.